Reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Experience (1957) makes me think once again about the complicated relationship between truth and fiction when it comes to writing of the Great War. Many novels contain strongly autobiographical elements, while many memoirs are structured like fiction. Readers and critics add to the confusion. Several novels, such as Sassoon’s Sherston trilogy, are frequently read as though they were transcripts of unmediated experience.
When Robert Graves wrote Goodbye to All That, he used material that he had previously cast in the form of a novel. The case of Vera Brittain is similar. In Testament of Experience, she says something about the complex process that led to Testament of Youth (1933). Immediately after the war she had tried to turn her wartime diaries into a book (probably one like Enid Bagnold’s Diary Without Dates. Publishers were not interested. In the late twenties she began a novel based on the diaries, called The Incidental Adam, but seems to have found major problems in converting the experience into fiction.
Then, early in 1929, she went with Winifred Holtby to see Journey’s End, and at the theatre experienced ‘an electric atmosphere of reminiscent emotion’. She then read war books avidly, both fiction and non-fiction:
Goodbye to All That, Death of a Hero, All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms [and] two publications of the previous year, Undertones of War and Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man.
After reading these (and especially Blunden, Sassoon and Graves) she asked herself:
Why should these young men have the war to themselves? Didn’t women have their war as well? They weren’t, as these men make them, only suffering wives and mothers, or callous parasites, or mercenary prostitutes [….] Who will write the epic of the women who went to the war?
She suddenly realised:
I too must record my memories as an autobiography; nothing else is stark enough, nothing else so direct.
When the book was only part-finished, Winifred Holtby persuaded Vera to show the manuscript to Harold Latham, her own publisher at the American branch of Macmillan. Rather reluctantly she did so, and the book was quickly and enthusiastically accepted.
Later though, she met the President of the Macmillan Company, George P. Brett. When he heard her describe the book to someone else as autobiography he looked sceptical. She wondered why:
Eighteen months later he told me in New York that, after reading my manuscript, he had taken me for a clever if unscrupulous artist who had produced what one American critic subsequently described as ‘a novel masquerading as an autobiography’.
In other words, he thought that Vera Brittain was another Evadne Price, whose Not So Quiet… (which appeared to be the autobiography of Helen Zenna Smith) had appeared in 1930. (Vera Brittain does not record whether or not Price’s book was among the war novels that she had devoured in 1929-30.) If you attempt the thought-experiment of reading the book assuming it to be a novel, can understand why the American publisher might have read the book in this way. It has the narrative sweep of a novel, and the wartime thoughts and emotions of Vera Brittain are conveyed in often intricate detail. This is largely because Brittain had her copious wartime diaries to work from – but there must have been additional reconstruction.
In addition, her writing was influenced by what had happened since the War, and especially the slump, of which she writes: ‘its consequences […] mingled with the war memories’ while she was writing the book. The pain and horrors of the war are emphasised by the hindsight of futility. This is not to cast doubt on the veracity of the book, but to emphasise that, as always, the writing is shaped not only by the events described, but by personal and historical circumstance, and by the conventions of the genre in which it is conceived.
One thing that she does in Testament of Experience is to provide yet more evidence against the idea that war memories had somehow been repressed for a decade, until the war books boom of 1929-30. For Vera Brittain writing about the War was not a rediscovery of repressed memories, but an exorcism of ones that she could not forget:
At last I finished the second third of the Testament, and with this section rid myself of the war and its memories. ‘When I had finished it,’ I wrote to G., ‘I felt empty and curiously oppressed. For eighteen years I have thought about little else but the war and the men I lost in it; now it is all down on paper and I shall never, perhaps, write of it again.’