Vera to Edith Brittain
Malta, 15 December 1916
I do wonder if I shall ever see Edward again; it is very hard that we should be the generation to suffer the War, though I suppose it is very splendid to, & is making us better & wiser & deeper men & women (at any rate some of us . . .) than our ancestors ever were or our descendants ever will be. 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 made by the birth of Christ . . . ( . . . )
I finished reading Letters from a Lost Generation on December 22nd. Only when I put it aside and picked up Testament of Youth did I realize that Vera Brittain’s fiancé Roland Leighton was shot exactly 99 years ago and died on December 23rd 1915. When I chose the book I didn’t know about this; reading it exactly during that time made it even more moving.
The first half of the book contains mostly the letters between Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton. There are a couple of letters between her and her brother Edward and between her and their best friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, but the major part is the correspondence between Vera and Roland.
Reading these letters was very difficult. They are not graphic or gruesome at all – at times I wondered whether the four men really served in the trenches – but they are so unbearably tragic and sad. These five people were such close friends, that each time one of them dies, they all suffer terribly. Since Roland is the first to go and seems the one everyone liked the most, his death overshadows all the later letters. He’s mentioned constantly, quoted, remembered, and after a while I started to feel the loss almost as badly. No wonder people still visit his grave in France.
After Roland is killed Vera dedicates herself with even more verve to nursing. She first stays in England but then moves to Malta and later to France.
What spoke to me is the way they deal with grief. It shows how very important it is when you lose someone you love to know exactly what happened. In each case, and also in the case of friends who are not as close, they try, like detectives, to find out what happened. It’s particularly painful for Vera to know that Roland was wounded on the 22nd and only died one day later, after having been conscious the whole time, but didn’t write her a goodbye note. They find out later that he took an unforseen turn to the worse and might not have known he was going to die. Other aspects of his death become painful only later. Some of the friends are wounded and killed during battles, not so Roland. His death is rather an accident and Vera sometimes wishes that he’d died in one of the big battles so that his death would forever be linked to that name.
What I found extremely shocking is that Roland’s clothes – the stinking, muddy, bloody uniform and shoes – were sent to his family. I’d never heard of anything like this before. Vera describes the particular stench and the horror of the sight in great detail and I felt so sorry for them. How cruel and thoughtless. In Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room is a scene in which the sister takes out Toby’s clothes and speaks of the stench of the trenches. I’m pretty sure Pat Barker was inspired by the description of Roland Leighton’s clothes.
Letters from a Lost Generation is an important document on how the perception of the war changed. The four men signed up enthusiastically, spoke about honour and glory. Even war is glorified. The longer the war takes, the higher the losses, and the more futile it all seems, the more that perception changes.
Reading about the work of a nurse was especially interesting and showed to some extent why it was possible for so many people in England to ignore the mutilations. By the time the wounded men arrived, they had already been patched up as good as possible.
Another aspect that struck me is how humble the five friends were. None of them complained much or made a big fuss. Not about the cold, the mud, and the rain, nor about the battles and the fear of death. Not even when they are wounded.
I still wonder how Vera Brittain managed to survive the death of the four people who were closest to her. After the war she met the writer Winifred Holtby who became her best friend and helped her to overcome her grief. Sadly Holtby too died an early death in 1935. Another great loss for Vera.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a collection of letters this quickly and as soon as I finished the book I started Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth. I want to know more about her, about them. Letters from a Lost Generation is as important as it is beautiful and moving. It’s a document of deep and heartfelt friendship, a testimony of grief, loss and sorrow, and a valuable contribution to understand a generation and its motives.
Letters from a Lost Generation was the last book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is The Disappeared by Kim Echlin. Discussion starts on Tuesday 31 March, 2015. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2015, including the book blurbs can be found here.