The Unsubmerged City

Commuting days until retirement: 77

To continue the First World War theme from the previous post, I saw that a film based on Vera Brittain’s classic memoir of her early life – Testament of Youth, with that war as the central and dominating event – was soon to be released. I’ve often heard of the book but have never read it, and much prefer to see a book-based film only after having been able to immerse myself in the atmosphere of the book itself. So I’ve now done that, and am very glad that I did. It recreates the reality of that distant period in a way that could only have been managed by a writer who experienced both the best and worst that it had to offer.

Love without dignity

We first meet Vera Brittain as a girl growing up in the rather stultifying atmosphere of a middle class Edwardian household. Meeting some of her brother’s school friends might be an opening to the expanding possibilities of life, but:

The parental habit – then almost universally accepted as ‘correct’ where daughters were concerned – of inquisition into each day’s proceedings made private encounters, even with young men in the same town, almost impossible without a whole series of intrigues and subterfuges which robbed love of all its dignity.

Eventually however she does fall in love with Roland Leighton, one of the group of friends, and an especially brilliant literature and classics scholar who scoops almost all the school prizes available to him. But the experience of a closening relationship was then very different to today’s typical expectations:

We sat on the sofa till midnight, talking very quietly. The stillness, heavy-laden with the dull oppression of the snowy night, became so electric with emotion that we were frightened of one another, and dared not let even our fingers touch for fear that the love between us should render what we both believed to be decent behaviour suddenly unendurable….
I was still incredibly ignorant. I had read, by then, too much to have failed to acquire a vague and substantially correct idea of the meaning of marriage, but I did not yet understand the precise nature of the act of union. My ignorance, however, was incapable of disturbing my romantic adoration, for I knew now for certain that whatever marriage might involve in addition to my idea of it, I could not find it other than desirable.

Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain as a VAD (illustration from book)

But by this point – early 1915 – the war is under way, and soon Roland, as well as her brother Edward and other friends, are away in military training, eventually to be involved in action as officers. Vera has already gone up to Oxford, women since 1876 having been able to study at University, but not – bizarrely to our modern minds – able to take degrees. (Having returned to study after the war she became one of the first who did.) But feeling she must share the experiences of those she loves in one of the few ways that she can, by summer of that year she is becoming a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nursing assistant – one of the women drafted in to nurse the wounded in that war. With minimal training, they were pitched into dealing with men who were often dying in front of their eyes, many with wounds that would be a challenge for the most experienced nurse.

In addition, of course she is unversed in practical tasks in ways that many middle class girls of that were: she describes how she needed instruction in how to boil an egg. And of course more importantly for her work, there are other areas of ignorance:

Throughout my two decades of life, I had never looked upon the nude body of an adult male; I had never even seen a naked boy-child since the nursery days when, at the age of four or five, I used to share my evening baths with Edward. I had therefore expected, when I first started nursing, to be overcome with nervousness and embarrassment, but, to my infinite relief, I was conscious of neither. Towards the men I came to feel an almost adoring gratitude for their simple and natural acceptance of my ministrations. Short of actually going to bed with them, there was hardly an intimate service that I did not perform for one or another in the course of four years, and I still have reason to be thankful for the knowledge of masculine functioning which the care of them gave me, and for my early release from the sex-inhibitions that even to-day – thanks to the Victorian tradition which up to 1914 dictated that a young woman should know nothing of men but their faces and their clothes until marriage pitchforked her into an incompletely visualised and highly disconcerting intimacy – beset many of my female contemporaries, both married and single.

The reality of war

We see how the war explosively disrupted the hardened attitudes of the time in so many fundamental ways; but of course the core of Vera’s experience was that of death – at first hand in her nursing work, and fearfully anticipated in relation to her fiancé, brother and friends. Letters are nervously sent to, and received from, the front, and we experience her emotional swings as good and bad news of the fighting is received. As many must have done, they agree on coded phrases which will bypass censorship and give those at home clues to what is happening.

Roland anticipates that he will get through the war, nevertheless feeling it would be fitting to have received some wound as a token of what he has been through. But, as soon as Christmas 1915, Vera hears that he has died in action, shot by an enemy sniper. Numbly, she buries herself in her nursing work for the rest of the war. Her two closest male friends, members of the group formed at school with Roland and Edward, both succumb in turn, one being killed outright, and the other, Victor Richardson, blinded and brought back to hospital to recuperate, but then dying of his wounds. Her brother Edward, perhaps the quietest of the group, goes on to show great courage and wins the Military Cross. But finally, in 1918, he also dies in the fighting on the Austro-Italian border.

Brittain, Leighton Richardson

Edward Brittain, Roland Leighton and another friend, Victor Richardson (illustration from book)

I found Vera Brittain’s writing sometimes has something of the verbose, circumlocutory quality of the Victorian tradition she has inherited; but when describing the War period, driven by such enormous emotional stresses, it becomes more direct, powerful and evocative. At the same time some of the photographs included in the book brought home to me as much as anything what it must have felt like to live through that time. Not pictures of fighting or of the wounded, but simply of Vera’s brother and friends posed in relaxed groups for the camera: first in school dress at Uppingham, then in military uniform, later with freshly sprouted moustaches; the sequence then ends abruptly and shockingly with photographs of their graves.

The pacifist’s task

In the 1920s we see Vera working for what was then the League of Nations, and throwing herself into pacifist causes – but it’s a nuanced and intelligent pacifism. She writes of the heroism that war can draw out:

It is, I think, this glamour, this magic, this incomparable keying up of the spirit in a time of mortal conflict, which constitute the pacifist’s real problem – a problem still incompletely imagined, and still quite unsolved. The causes of war are always falsely represented; its honour is dishonest and its glory meretricious, but the challenge to spiritual endurance, the intense sharpening of all the senses, the vitalising consciousness of common peril for a common end, remain to allure those boys and girls who have just reached the age when love and friendship and adventure call more persistently than at any later time. The glamour may be the mere delirium of fever, which as soon as war is over dies out and shows itself for the will-o’-the-wisp that it is, but while it lasts no emotion known to man seems as yet to have quite the compelling power of this enlarged vitality…
Since those years it has often been said by pacifists… that war creates more criminals than heroes; that, far from developing noble qualities in those who take part in it, it brings out only the worst. If this were altogether true, the pacifist’s aim would be, I think, much nearer of attainment than it is. Looking back upon the psychological processes of us who were very young sixteen years ago, it seems to me that his task – our task – is infinitely complicated by the fact that war, while it lasts, does produce heroism to a far greater extent than it brutalises.

I’m lucky never to have been involved in a war, and have no idea whether I could have coped with the experience at all. But this sums up for me the paradox of how it can bring out qualities of bravery and selflessness in those who might never have been called upon to show them, were it not for the bumbling of politicians and the posturing of dictators. And perhaps that paradox was more painfully sharp in World War 1 than any other war before or since.

Brittain travels around Europe as part of her work, and experiences the festering resentment brought about by the post-war settlements, realising presciently that another war is a possibility, and wondering sadly what sort of cause it was for which those she loved had died.

War and literature

But perhaps one of the important themes of the book is the fight to preserve the life of literature in the face of the rampant destructiveness of war. There is Vera’s own underlying ambition to write, set against her war work, all-encompassing in time, energy and emotion; as well as her almost-missed university education. But more glaringly obvious is the cutting short of thousands of promising, talented lives such as Roland’s. And her brother Edward had musical ability and enthusiasm which he was never able to develop further.

As the War gets under way and Vera’s friends are sent away, letters between them include poems and other writing – their own as well as that of others. In 1915 Vera sends to Roland a leading article she has clipped from The Times newspaper, whose title I have borrowed for this post. In the book she quotes a passage:

A medieval fancy that still lingers, ghost-like, on the more lonely sea-shores, such as that Breton one so tenderly described by Renan, is the legend of the submerged city. It lies out there barely hidden under the waves, and on a still summer eve they say you may hear the music of its Cathedral bells. One day the waters will recede and the city in all its old beauty be revealed again. Might this not serve to figure the actual conditions of literature, in the nobler sense of the term, submerged as that seems to many to be by the high tide of war? Thus submerged it seemed, at any rate, to the most delicate of our literary artists, who was lately accounting for his disused pen to an aggrieved friend. ‘I have no heart,’ he said, ‘for literature in this war; we can only have faith that it is still there under the waters, and will some day re-emerge.’ . . . There is fortunately no truth in the idea of a sunken literature. A function of the spirit, it can never be submerged, or, indeed, as much as touched by war or any other external thing. It is an inalienable possession and incorruptible part of man.

And of course against whatever literature we might imagine never appeared, because of the destruction of those who would have created it, the war generated a whole body of work which would not otherwise have existed – Brittain’s Testament of Youth being one example.

Je suis CharlieOne of the reasons that I was struck by that ‘unsubmerged city’ passage was that I read it at about the same time that the Charlie Hebdo murders were committed in Paris. A hundred years on, we may be dealing with an entirely different situation and a kind of literature undreamt of in those earlier years, but compare these early 20th century sentiments to the ardent faces of the crowds waving pens and pencils in response to the shootimg of the journalists and cartoonists.

While moved by the Parisian expressions of feeling, I couldn’t help thinking at the same time of the far greater atrocities committed recently by Islamic extremists in Nigeria and Pakistan – not to mention Syria and Iraq. The Western media devoted far more space to Charlie Hebdo than to these – perhaps understandably, since they are closer to home and threaten our own Western culture. But I hope and expect that the floods of ignorance, fanaticism and brutality will not in the end submerge the metaphorical cities which form the true and established cultures of those other, more distant places. They are surely under a far greater threat than our own.

5 thoughts on “The Unsubmerged City

  1. What a fascinating post, that leaves a person questioning and wondering all the more, what we humans are really all about. You have definitely perked my curiosity on Vera Brittain, a name all new to me. The Islamic extremism bit, if one is capable of looking on the subject with absolutely no emotional involvement, is such an intriguing mystery. Last night, I was Googling jihad, extremists, indoctrination, Allah; which, after an hour or so, lead to brainwashing, frontal lobes, Darwin and evolution! It is a sobering scenario that in future, the possibility exists of mixing religious ideology more and more with our modern technologies. I agree that we may be looking at entirely different situations. A kind of new and bold literature is needed to start understanding all the whys and wherefores. I am so curious as to your thoughts on this…

    • Yes, Vera Brittain has been a well known writer, particularly for this book, although perhaps not so much to the modern generation. Partly because she has a famous daughter – Shirley Williams, who is a UK politician, a Minster of Education for the Labour Party in the 70s, and still politically active in her eighties – in a different party now. And as I mentioned, a film of this book was released in the UK last Friday – I hope to be seeing it soon.

      You raise a whole lot of difficult questions there, that can’t easily be summed up quickly. In terms of biological evolution (you mention Darwin) we are a set of advanced cognitive abilities coupled to a collection of primaeval instincts. I’m sure that some of the more dreadful episodes in human history – from medieval barbarity through Nazism to extremist Islamism today – have to do with these elements being out of balance with each other. But of course it’s much more complex than that. For one thing, we are also conscious, sentient beings – and I believe that is what makes us moral ones also. I also believe, as you’ll probably see if you read some of my posts, that no one has ever got their heads properly around what that means, and perhaps won’t for a long time, if ever. And there are also the elements which make us truly human: love, humour. What are they? Another difficult question – but it’s when they are missing that things go wrong.

  2. Sorry for the difficult questions! The acts in Nigeria, Paris, U.K. and here in the U.S., too – all the brutalities carried out with such planning and pride; it all gets so mixed up among our different cultures – what exactly makes a criminal or a hero. I guess it will remain a mystery unless we keep talking about such unpleasant subjects; hence I appreciate your blog and you broaching the difficult topic. Thank you so much for your reply.

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