Crossing No Man’s Land: Bridging the Gender Gap of World War I Through the Works of Vera Brittain

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Vol: 15, Issue: 1

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Dybbro, Danielle R.
European History; History; Women's History
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Vera Brittain wrote in both her memoir and in a letter to her fiancé that, “women get all the dreariness of war and none of its exhilaration.” She was just beginning her life as a student at Oxford when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in the summer of 1914, and at the time “the war at first seemed” to be “an infuriating personal interruption rather than [the] worldwide catastrophe” that it would eventually become. Brittain soon interrupted her studies at Oxford by becoming a nurse and eventually became a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment for the duration of the war. Although she survived and went on to become a prolific writer, she lost many important people along the way.Throughout her memoir, Testament of Youth, Brittain referenced and utilized excerpts from the letters written between her and four important men in her life; entries from the diary she kept during the war; and poems written by her fiancé as well as poems she published in Verses of a V.A.D.. Thus, it is clear that Brittain herself relied heavily on her own diary and letters during the writing process of her memoir, and used her “naïve quotations” from these sources “in order to give some idea of the effect of the war, with its stark disillusionments, its miseries unmitigated by polite disguise, upon the unsophisticated ingenue who grew up just before it broke out.” The question, however, that comes to the forefront is not a question of accuracy, but rather a question of integrity. How does Brittain’s memoir differ from the source material, which includes the letters, diary, and poems that were written during the war itself? The historical accuracy is not an issue of interest, as the source material helped Brittain with remembering her timeline and details of events. However, are there constant themes that bleed over from the source material into the memoir? Or are the themes that are apparent in the diary, letters, and poems transformed as Brittain exercised something she did not have during the time that the source material was written: hindsight?Using these questions as a focus, the themes that are apparent in the diary, letters, and poems are constant with those that are expressed in the memoir, which were the deification of the dead, the challenge of the traditional male ownership of the war story, and memory and writing. The combination of these three themes constitute the feminist intertwining of personal, politics, culture, and history that make Brittain’s contribution to the literature of World War I unique and important to add to a broader understanding of the Lost Generation.