Sunday, November 14, 2010
Scars upon my heart
The War was the defining experience of Vera’s life. She lost everyone who really mattered to her. Roland was killed just before Christmas 1915. Vera was in Brighton with her parents, waiting for Roland to come on leave when she received the news that he was dead,
The next morning I had just finished dressing, and was putting the final touches to the pastel-blue crepe –de-Chine blouse, when the expected message came to say I was wanted on the telephone. Believing that I was at last to hear the voice for which I had waited for twenty-four hours, I dashed joyously into the corridor. But the message was not from Roland but from Clare (Roland’s sister); it was not to say that he had arrived home that morning, but to tell me that he had died of wounds at a Casualty Clearing Station on December 23rd.
When Vera was serving in Malta, she received word that Victor had been seriously wounded & she returned home to care for him. She planned to marry him in a spirit of self-sacrifice but fortunately, as she admits in Testament of Youth, she wasn’t called on to make that sacrifice, because Victor died soon after. Vera’s honesty is what makes Testament of Youth such a remarkable book. She is able to look back & realise that her feelings for Victor were a reaction to Roland’s death & a feeling that her life was over so she may as well help someone else as she would never be happy again.
TO MY BROTHER
(In memory of July 1st, 1916)
Your battle-wounds are scars upon my heart,
Received when in that grand and tragic ‘show’
You played your part
Two years ago,
And silver in the summer morning sun
I see the symbol of your courage glow-
That Cross you won
Two years ago.
Though now again you watch the shrapnel fly,
And hear the guns that daily louder grow,
As in July
Two years ago,
May you endure to lead the Last Advance
And with your men pursue the flying foe
As once in France
Two years ago.
At the end of the War, feeling empty & hopeless, Vera went back to Oxford to finish her degree. She was older than the other undergraduates, had lived through four years of grief, misery & hard work, & felt that all her sacrifice had been for nothing. Her experiences were neither respected nor valued, in her eyes, & her mental state was precarious,
Although persistent dreams recurred of Roland and Edward - the one missing and purposely hiding his identity because facially mutilated, the other suffering some odd psychological complex which made him turn against us all and keep silence – I endured none of those nightmare recapitulations of hospital sounds of which other wartime nurses complained... Only the horrible delusion... that my face was changing, persisted until it became a permanent, fixed obsession.
The delusion that she was growing a beard or turning into a witch persisted for some time. It was only the friendship of another student, Winifred Holtby, which saved Vera’s sanity & brought her some happiness. Their friendship is immortalised in Testament of Friendship, Vera’s biography of Winifred. Vera & Winifred moved to London after Oxford, determined to earn their living as writers. They both worked on novels & journalism & were active members of the League of Nations. Vera received a letter from George Catlin, a student at Oxford who admired her first novel, The Dark Tide. Their friendship grew through correspondence & they married in 1925. Roland wrote a beautiful poem to Vera while he was in France, foreseeing just such a situation if he should be killed.
Hedauville, November 1915
The sunshine on the long white road
That ribboned down the hill,
The velvet clematis that clung
Around your window-sill,
Are waiting for you still.
Again the shadowed pool shall break
In dimples round your feet,
And when the thrush sings in your wood,
Unknowing you may meet
Another stranger, Sweet.
And if he is not quite so old
As the boy you used to know,
And less proud, too, and worthier,
You may not let him go –
(And daisies are truer than passion-flowers)
It will be better so.
Testament of Youth was an immediate success when it was published in 1933. The late 1920s & 1930s saw many war memoirs published. Enough time had passed & readers were interested in reading about the War again. Vera’s book is so moving because it is a such an honest account of a woman’s experience of war. Her losses are so terrible – if it was fiction, it would be unbelievable - & yet, she survived. Testament of Youth was reprinted by Virago in the 1970s when the feminist movement led to a resurgent interest in women’s history.