Vera Brittain and the barrier of indescribable experience

Today’s Telegraph reprints a 1968 essay by Vera Brittain reflecting on war and gender. Here’s an extract:

During the periods of waiting, especially when the newspapers reported the imminence of a “great push”, ordinary household sounds became a torment. The striking of a clock, marking off each hour of dread, broke into the immobility of tension with the shattering effect of a thunderclap. Every ring at the bell suggested a telegram, the only method of conveying urgent news before the days of radio and television; every telephone call implied a long-distance message giving bad news.

It is not surprising that many women developed an anxiety neurosis which lasted until the end of their lives. To this constant dread was added, as the end of the fighting moved ever onward into an incalculable future, a new fear that the war would come between the men at the front and the women who loved them. Between 1914 and 1919 the war always did, putting a barrier of indescribable experience between the two sexes, thrusting horror deeper and deeper inward, linking the dread of spiritual death to the apprehension of physical disaster.

When one of two dear friends was blinded at Arras in 1917 and sent to England to die in a London military hospital, I went to his funeral in Sussex, where his family lived. More bitter even than the sorrow of his death was my acute consciousness of England’s uncomprehending remoteness from the tragic, profound freemasonry which united the men and, very rarely, the women who accepted death together overseas. The women who served or only waited in the Second World War, though they experienced fresh horrors, were at least spared this fear of estrangement due to ignorance, for in this second onslaught of fate men and women alike shared the perils that threatened both sexes.

That phrase about “a barrier of indescribable experience” is a very striking one; there is almost an envy here of the men who discover at first hand  terrible truths that women are shielded from. There is sometimes some of the same feeling in Rose Macaulay, and possibly even Virginia Woolf, straining to enter the mind of shell-shocked Septimus Smith in Mrs Dalloway.

It’s maybe not even exclusively a female response. Male non-combatants, too, strained to identify with those who had endured what they had not, and to imagine the indescribable. I think of Kipling’s My Mother’s Son:

I have a dream—a dreadful dream—
A dream that is never done,
I watch a man go out of his mind,
And he is My Mother’s Son.

They pushed him into a Mental Home,
And that is like the grave
For they do not let you sleep upstairs,
And you’re not allowed to shave.

Later generations of writers were affected too. Ted Hughes was obsessed by his father’s experiences at Gallipoli, and re-imaginings of this surface in his poems throughout his career. Pat Barker too has devoted much of her writing life to trying to re-create “indescribable experiences” that she never knew at first hand (and often, I would argue, being led into exaggeration or inaccuracy as she strains for effect.

The Brittain essay is from a new collection Because You Died: Poetry and Prose of the First World War and After.

Andapparently that rather clunkingly unwitty comedian  Jo Brand will be presenting a TV programme abut Vera Brittain quite soon. Well, we’ll see.



  1. Posted November 7, 2008 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this post – I won’t be able to see the documentary, but I will get a copy of this book. I’m still waiting for the BBC filmed version of Testament of Youth to come out on DVD for Canada – have you seen it? And does it honour the book?

  2. Posted November 7, 2008 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    If this is the version first screened in the 1970s, I haven’t seen it since then, but I thought it excellent at the time.

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