Nov 11, 2011

Letters from a Lost Generation edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge

Letters from a Lost Generation edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge

Letters from a Lost Generation is a collection of WWI letters between Vera Brittain, her fiancé Roland Leighton, her brother Edward Brittain, and their close friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. The collection opens with letters dating from 1913, which gives readers a glimpse of the carefree Edwardian world the correspondents inhabited. In their early letters, Vera and Roland discuss Olive Schreiner’s feminist novel The Story of an African Farm, a book close to both their hearts, and dream of a future together at Oxford – their greatest worry at the time was whether Vera would do well on her admission exams.

However, the beginning of the war in 1914 changes everything. Roland immediately enlists, and although Vera initially goes to Oxford she quickly decides to postpone her studies to become a V.A.D. nurse for the duration of the war. Letters from a Lost Generation covers the war years in their entirety and ends on a heartbreaking note in 1918 when the last of Vera’s correspondents was killed.

Those who have read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth will already be familiar with the facts these letters cover (though I can’t imagine that making Letters from a Lost Generation any less interesting, since the point is not what happens but how the people involved experience it). However, as this was my introduction to Brittain’s work even the facts themselves took me by surprise – and often gave me quite a shock. The circumstances of Roland’s death, for example, could not have been more cruel for Vera. After many attempts they finally managed to get leave simultaneously, but he died just the day before his leave began. With means of communication being what they were, Vera did not hear until they were due to meet, so when she was called to be told the news she thought she was being called because he had finally arrived.

But returning to the letters themselves: this Virago edition is beautifully edited, and as a result Letters from a Lost Generation reads much like a work of narrative nonfiction. Furthermore, the letters are of both historical and literary interest – all the correspondents were talented writers, particularly Vera and Roland, and the final effect is similar to that of the Brownings’ letters. I expected Letters from a Lost Generation to be a somewhat slow read, but in actuality I could not put it down.

One of the most striking things about these letters is how very young the writers were – only 18 or 19 when the war begins – and how much they change in such a short period of time. Roland goes from saying that war is “very ennobling and very beautiful” to writing, “there is nothing glorious in trench warfare. It is all a waiting and a waiting and taking of petty advantages – and those who can wait longest win. And it is all for nothing – for an empty name, for an ideal perhaps – after all.” Readers can see the sense of futility we now associate with WW1 slowly emerging. And Roland was the first to die, only two years into the conflict. Reading these letters, it’s really no surprise that Vera Brittain went on to become a lifelong pacifist and activist.

The first half of the book is mostly devoted to Vera and Roland’s correspondence, and you can see their relationship developing against the backdrop of the war. The letters thus combine the anxiety of budding romance with the anxiety of war. A week without a letter could mean many things to Vera – that Roland had been killed, yes, but also that their relationship was cooling, or that he had neglected to write with no thought for how very anxious Vera and his family would be. And of course, she had no way of knowing the real reason until the next letter arrived. There was nothing to do but wait. Vera’s letters are full of suppressed feelings bubbling just under the surface – constant worry, of course, but also anger and frustration. You can easily imagine just how much she was holding back. As she writes to Roland,
One cannot be angry with people at the Front – a fact which I sometimes think they take advantage of – and so when I read ‘We go back into the trenches to-morrow’ I literally dare not write you the kind of letter you perhaps deserve, for thinking that the world might end for you on that discontent note…
Add to this the delay of early twentieth-century communications, and the result is a state of continuous anguish that hardly bears imagining. Not only did the correspondents wonder and worry between letters, but they also continued to worry when a letter dated from a week or ten days before arrived – could the writer had been killed in the meantime?

Letters from a Lost Generation includes weeks of silence where you can sense just how Vera must have been feeling, and also letters written after the intended recipient had already been killed. The result is a collection of amazing immediacy, rich in historical detail, and as horrific as it is beautifully written.

Memorable bits:
Yesterday I saw the name of a man among the killed with whom I have done a considerable amount of amateur acting – & there was another the other day with whom I have often played tennis, & met out. I feel as if I shall soon have no acquaintances left, to say nothing of friends. I told you people at college had on the whole very little direct connection with the war, but only to-day a girl I know quite well went home because her brother had just been killed in the Dardanelles. He was also in a Lancashire Regiment… I feel as if I were standing on a lovely & dismal shore, watching the tide gradually surround and cut me off, & I am almost sure that it will not turn before it has reached me.
(Vera to Roland, 1915)

This afternoon is glowing with the languorous warm of the dying Summer; the sun is a shield of burnished gold in a sea of turquoise; the bees are in the clover that overhangs the trench – and my superficial beauty-loving self is condescending to be very conscious of the joy of loving. It is a pity to kill people on a day like this. In a way, I suppose, it is a pity to kill people on any kind of day, but opinions – even my own – differ on this subject. Like Waldo I love to sit in the sun, and like him I have no Lyndall to sit with.
(Roland to Vera, 1915)

Public opinion has made it a high and lofty virtue for us women to countenance the departure of such as these & you to regions where they will probably be slaughtered in a brutally degrading fashion in which we would never allow animals to be slaughtered. This, I suppose, is the ‘something elemental, something beautiful’ that you find in War! To the saner mind it seems more like a reason for shutting up half the nation in a criminal lunatic asylum.
(Vera to Roland, 1915)

All Roland’s things had just been sent back from the front through Cox’s; they had just opened them and they were all lying on the floor. (…) There were His clothes – the clothes in which He came home from the front last time – another set rather less worn, and underclothing and accessories of various descriptions. Everything was damp & worn and simply caked with mud. And I was glad that neither you nor Victor nor anyone else who may some day go to the front was there to see. If you had been you would have been overwhelmed by the horror of war without its glory. For though he had only worn the things when living, the smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards & the Dead. The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud; it had not the usual clean pure smell of earth, but it was though it were saturated with dead bodies – dead that had been dead a long, long time. All the sepulchres and catacombs of Rome could not make me realise mortality and decay and corruption as vividly as did the smell of those clothes.
(Vera to Edward, 1916).

23 comments:

  1. I love collections of letters, and this one sounds particularly good. I'll add it to my list!

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  2. I've got A Testament of Youth but it's sitting on my shelf untouched. I also saw a programme about her last year (I think) so I know enough of her story. But reading the actual letters must add an extra dimension and poignancy to the events.

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  3. Teresa: I love them too, and this was a good reminder of why I should read them more often.

    Sakura: Yes, I don't think knowing the story will make a difference, as these letters bring it to life so well. But to me there was that extra shock. I just felt awful for her, as the circumstances could hardly have been more cruel!

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  4. I think the points you make about the difficulties of corresponding through letters during war were excellent. Often, I'm sure, there was nothing to be done for the anxiety that waiting on a letter caused, and there could be so many reason for that letter failing to reach it's destination on it's expected day. This was a beautiful review and I am now interested in this book. I think it would provide a really interesting snapshot of what it would be like for both sides to have been in a war. Thanks for sharing this with us today.

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  5. Heartbreaking. I am torn between knowing this book would be mesmerizing, and trying to protect my heart from the grief these letters hold.

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  6. Oh, I love to read old letters! Letter writing was an art back then. It's an art I wish would come back.

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  7. Oh, this sounds like something I would like. I am going to add it to my list. :)

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  8. You had me at them discussing Story of an African Farm! I read that earlier this year, and it was just FASCINATING. If you haven't read it, you should! So we can talk about it!

    Also, I'm glad you told us that Roland dies; I didn't know anything about her or her set, so now when I get my hands on the book I'll be prepared. How tragic.

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  9. Zibilee: Yes, it does a great job of making us understand what living through something like this must have been like. I've always known communication was slow then, of course, but I'd never really fully grasped the implications.

    Mumsy: It's an excellent read, but yes, absolutely heartbreaking :\ I wondered if knowing the fates of all the people involved in advance would ease the blow, but it didn't really.

    Kathy: I think these days people exchange e-mails that are as rich and detailed as letters back then were, but something I often wonder about is what will happen to them in the future. Old letters were left around for anyone to read, and in consequence for posterity, but historians in the future won't have all our e-mail passwords to know what we were writing each other about...there's so much potential for everything to be lost and for this age to become a mystery for future generations.

    Kelly: I think you'd really like it, yes!

    Eva: I haven't read it, but now I'm dying to! And I'd love to discuss it with you, of course :) Vera and Roland keep making references to Schreiner, and he identified as a feminist too, which I thought was pretty awesome. As for the deaths, the book has an introductory section that gives some context to the letters and tells us in advance they're going to die. Like I was telling Mumsy I thought that knowing would make it a bit easier, but it actually didn't :\ I kept wondering when it was going to happen and which letter was going to be each person's last. Keep lots of tissues at hand when you read it!

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  10. Oh, you had to go and mention the Browning letters! Up until then I was holding out because I knew this would be terribly, terribly sad, but now I have to find it and read it. You! Are perilous for my TBR pile!

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  11. Wow, sounds like some collection. I love reading first person accounts like this, through letters, you learn so much more than a history book could give you.

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  12. Thanks for bringing this collection to my attention; I'm reading collections of letters this autumn, and posting about them on Fridays, and this would fit beautifully. (You've also reminded me of the Barrett/Browning collection, which I did already have on my list...perhaps thanks also to you earlier on? ... but which I hadn't thought about recently.)

    As much as I do feel a little twinge for reading correspondence that clearly wasn't meant for me, I do love the intimacy of reading in this form.

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  13. There's a wonderful biography of Brittain by Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge whci puts the letters into an interesting context.

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  14. I taught this collection at A level and found it harder to read every year, until I ended up just giving the students extracts. What struck me was how much more touching I found Brittain's honest and personal letters than I did her poetry. Such a wonderful example of how different forms affect our reading, even when often the sentiments are the same.

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  15. I read Testament of Youth many years ago (must be twenty years ago, now)
    Yes, they were all so very young, but then, so were the American soldiers killed in Vietnam (average age: 19)

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  16. I'm halfway through Testament of Youth. Its a big book and its taking me time to finish.

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  17. There's a "end of innocence" that makes WWI much more compelling to me. Thanks for flagging this book, I think I might enjoy it.

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  18. This sounds like a great read to commemorate Remembrance Day. I will definitely have to add this to my tbr list.

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  19. Jenny: Sorry, sorry! It is incredibly sad, but also such an excellent read.

    Joanna: It's certainly an intimate look at history, yes.

    Buried in Print: I do exactly what you mean! I worked as an archivist for a year, and my job was to catalogue a local writer's correspondence. I felt like a voyeur but it was also such a fascinating experience.

    Rona: I added it to my wishlist just after I finished this! I'm really looking forward to reading it.

    Nicky: Gah, I can imagine how heartbreaking would be to revisit this year after year. And I'm with you on the poetry - the excerpts between the sections just didn't grab me like the letters did.

    Tracy: Yes, you're absolutely right that this continues to happen.

    Mystica: It does sound like a book to take slowly, but I really want to read it some day.

    Alex: I know what you mean. And yes, I think you would!

    Jessica: I'd say I hope you enjoy it but that's really the wrong word. I do hope you find it as worthwhile as I did.

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  20. I love the excerpts that you included, especially the one where Brittain makes the comparison to the tide. Beautiful and sad.

    I will definitely add this book to my to-read list.

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  21. Thanks for a wonderful review.
    I'm still compiling next year's readalong titles and this sounds like a wonderful choice.
    In any case I would like to read it.

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  22. Christy: I thought that was a stunning passage - she was so young, but already such a good writer.

    Caroline: This would be a great book to read with others, I think. And I'd love to hear that you think of it.

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  23. In Testament of Youth Brittain spoke ragefully and repetitively about some potential having been permanently broken in herself by the events of the war. Now I am surprised how much these quotations seem to bear out the truth of what sounded like a self-agrandizingly tragic assessment in that book. Maybe her letters give a sense of the writer Brittain could have been instead of the one she turned out to be. -Not that Testament of Youth was terrible, but it had big stylistic problems that undermined its power: tortuous grammatical constructions, didacticism, an increasing dissipation of focus. Most painful for me were the bits of her poems sprinkled through it--I would go one step further than Reckless Librarian and just call them embarrassingly bad! This collection sounds like a winner, though, especially since Testament of Youth left me wanting like I wanted to like Vera a lot more than I did. Thank you for your impressions!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.