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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

by Eileen Frost



In this issue:


In an attempt to illuminate the events of September 11, 2001, Eileen Frost reviews three autobiographies, beginning with Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain, a classic memoir of World War I.

Out of Place: a Memoir by Edward W. Said is a fascinating story about what it was like to grow up under a decaying colonialism.

If you could read only one book to find out what makes the nation's capitol tick Washington by the late Meg Greenfield is it.


Many of us are musing over the meaning of the events of September 11. We are wondering about war, about Islam, even about the history of central Asia. How did we get where we are? How to remedy our vast gaps in knowledge and understanding?

I have been reading in an attempt to fill in a few pieces of what for me is a stimulating new puzzle. Besides bringing home from the library a heap of books about the Middle East, I have been reading autobiography. Each of these three autobiographies tells us about fascinating people and sheds light on current perplexities.

Testament of Youth
by Vera Brittain
Penguin Twentieth Century Classics

Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth is considered a classic memoir of a world at war. What did it feel like to be a young woman whose life was turned upside down by a vast catastrophe, the onset of World War I?

Just when Brittain had succeeded in getting her father to agree to let her attend Oxford, just as she became acclimatized to life at college, just as she fell in love with a fellow student, disaster struck. Britain declared war on Germany. Her beloved brother and her fiancé take commissions in the British Army and leave Oxford for the trenches of France.

Unwilling to remain behind, Brittain enlisted as an army nurse, caring for the wounded in London, Malta, and France from 1915 through 1918. Her impressions are immediate, lively and passionate. They are based on her journal, plus letters to and from family and her beloved fiancé as well as her brother in France. Beginning each chapter are a few lines of her fine poetry, written in response to daily events.

Even though we may know the history of this war, we do not know Brittain's personal history, so the book is terrifically suspenseful and at times quite wrenching. Will the ships full of wounded make it across the Channel to England? Will she survive the bombings of London? Will the people she loves come home alive from the Western Front? Brittain models engagement with life. She went on after the war to become a novelist and was active in the peace and feminist movements. Testament of Youth, her best-known book, was first published in 1933.

In 1916, she wrote her mother, "It seems to me that the War will make a big division of 'before' and 'after' in the history of the world, almost if not quite as big as the 'B.C.' and 'A.D.' division."

Reviews of autobiographies by Edward Said and Meg Greenfield>>


© 2001 Eileen Frost for SeniorWomenWeb

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