World War I Novels and Memoirs (Part II)

by Jim Bratt.

Part I of this feature considered three classic novels and memoirs about the front lines of World War I. This entry considers two more and examines women’s experience of the war.

return-of-the-soldier World War I being a total war, it’s important to gauge home-front experiences as well. Two English novels for your consideration, both by women as is appropriate to an era that saw women’s suffrage coming to a radical crescendo just before the war and winning a bittersweet victory by its end. Rebecca West would go on to a distinguished career in letters, but her first novel, The Return of the Soldier (1918), though really more a novella, rates as a notable debut. It situates three women around a veteran who has been remanded home with shell-shock. The real combat in the book involves class bigotry on the home-front, persisting in the face of what for Britain was a ruthlessly democratizing war. The action here is close and intricate, savage and savagely observed at West’s deft hand. A cross-class love re-emerges out of the veteran’s PTSD—a trip back into an innocence forever lost, in a story that works a moral demolition of England’s status hierarchy as bluntly as the war did its material base.

Much longer, more nuanced, and for me the prize of the bunch is Vera Brittain’s famous Testament of Youth (1933). It is not just the war, not only Brittain’s vividly rendered service as a nurse in hospitals both on the front and back home, that come to life here. She also registers all the other forces and movements of the times that were underway before the war and deserve to be remembered beyond it, but also as complicated by it: the cross-currents of feminism, the cult of True Love with Earnest Feeling and Noble but Sure to be Frustrated Ideals (all depicted in poetry that makes us glad that Brittain found her way to prose), the unbelievable reticence about sex (kiss the girl already, departing soldier; you’re engaged for pity’s sake!); the pettiness of civilian complaints about wartime scarcities, particularly the poor supply of good help to assist Mama and Papa in their summering at seaside.

testament-of-youthThrough this dense maze Brittain quietly, powerfully layers up her losses—of lover, brother, friends, dreams. She eventually returns to Oxford after war’s end, only to find everyone hell-bent on forgetting the hell the nation has just been through, to the point of marginalizing those who had harrowed its depths. Vera scrambles for a career in writing and politics, and tries to keep the feminist flame alive. Eventually she does find love again, a much calmer, almost tentative and rueful venture, but deeply seasoned after all, and most precious.

Such was the humanity that survived World War I. God didn’t survive at all, so far as these books are concerned. Vera Brittain’s is the only one to pay any attention to religion. She still attended some services, the liturgy and music resonating deeply, but the church’s theological claims and ethical assurances were dead beneath a million shells on the Western front. It was that image—flashes of lightning which momentarily illuminate our way across a field of death and terror—that came to be used to describe divine revelation in the neo-orthodox reconstruction of theology (think Karl Barth) that emerged in the years between this World War and the next. A spare salvation, difficult to see. Fit for the life, and deaths, here recounted.

Sample some of these books, find others like them. One way, as historians, for you and me to mark the centennial of a literally earth-shaking, world-changing event.

Jim Bratt is professor of history at Calvin College, where he teaches courses in world and American history. The focus of his current research is American religion before the Civil War. He recently published a biography of the Dutch theologian and political leader, Abraham Kuyper, who has had an enormous influence on the history of Calvin College. Jim also blogs regularly for The Twelve: Reformed Done Daily.

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