The Ambulance Driver and the VAD

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This lesson engages the vast field of WWI Literature focusing on two literary works: Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth.

It is addressed to fifth year students who will be already familiar with the events of the war from their history lessons and with an outline of WWI literature. They will also have already read Hemingway’s novel and some excerpts of Brittain’s.

Video from Downton Abbey – series 1 – episode 7


These were the closing scenes of the first series of Downton Abbey a world famous TV drama you may have chanced upon since it was aired also in Italy.

I have chosen to show you this fragment because it visualizes powerfully the dreamy, otherworldly life which will stay forever on the safe side of the watershed represented by the First World War, irredeemable, abruptly shattered in this fateful announcement and never to be restored again.

Nothing will ever be the same. The War that should have ended all Wars is only the first act of a tragic century whose unresolved questions we are still trying to tackle today.

All this is common knowledge and what we want to focus our attention on today is the cultural and literary revolution that followed this epic event.

We want to analyze what happened to human conscience and sensibility as a consequence of the enormous upheaval the war caused and to describe the changed methods of representation of all that was new.

We are going to discuss together two works which represent two almost opposite outcomes of the war experience, two examples which couldn’t really be more different.

On the one hand a work which has become a classic in every literary discussion of WWI, namely Farewell to Arms (1929) by Ernest Hemingway: a novel which epitomizes all that is new in the post war literature both on a stylistic and on a philosophical level. On the other a far less known work Testament of Youth (1933) by Vera Brittain that instead champions a controlled and formally elegant style which seems not to have been touched by modernism looking back instead to classical assets of composure, countenance, detachment and objectivity, but all the same finds ways to express its modernity.

Where Hemingway is sparse and laconic, Brittain is precise and accurate and generous, when he is solipsistic she is outreaching, and so on, on every possible level, down to the sheer detail of one book feeling too short and the other being definitely too long!

If Hemingway may be said to have created a new style with this novel which engages the modernist discourse and shows a deep involvement with preoccupations about how to say things and with Pound’s injunction “Make It New!”, Brittain, on the other hand, reminds us that the reaction to the Great War and what was going on in the literary scene of the period cannot be entirely relegated to the modernist approach. Her stance to the events which tragically signed her youth is not as much worried with art as much instead with the political and cultural and social dimension of the war and with recuperating artistically that mood and that intellectual experience. In this sense we have two authors here who seem to hint at the two all-important directions literature and literary criticism were to take in the following decades. On the one hand the avant-garde of the Sixties with its focus on the work of art or better with the “art object” which led to the self centered analyses of the deconstructionist critics, on the other, the more engaged approach promoted by new historicists. This relatively recent critical approach has led to the rediscovery and reevaluation of narratives which were excluded from the high modernist canon. Brittain’s work, in particular, seems to share with New Historicism an awareness about the problems implied in the writing of history and the reach for inclusion of non-mainstream narratives. During the post-war years and until 1933 when Testament of Youth was at last published, Brittain struggled with problems of form, passing from attempts at writing a novel to the decision to use instead the memoir as a more encompassing form able to comply with her intention to endow her narrative of all the power of both history and a strong personal voice.

But let’s look now at the two texts more closely..

A Farewell to Arms

Hemingway’s novel can be summarized as the rise, decline and fall of the protagonist’s, Frederic Henry, idealistic vision of war.

At the beginning of the book Henry convincingly embodies the values and life attitudes that often have been associated with Hemingway: machismo, war, masculinity, drinking.

When confronted with the fatalistic, irrational, preposterous aspect of warfare Henry loses gradually his enthusiasm and when he has to witness and is about to share the totally unfair treatment of the officials who were shot during the retreat after a very approximate interrogation, he decides to flee and desert the army instead of accepting what is perceived as an arbitrary and unjust sacrifice.

This decision signs the turning point of the novel:

Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation. … I was not against them. I was through. I wished them all luck. There were the good ones, and the brave ones, and the calm ones and the sensible ones, and they deserved it. But it was not my show anymore and I wished this bloody train would get to Mestre and I would eat and stop thinking. I would have to stop. 

From now on the novel is not about the war anymore. At least apparently. It is about what the war does to you, its consequences and disruptions. The protagonist undergoes a crisis when faced with the shattered believes he had fought for and retreats into a solipsistic research for dignity, fulfillment, quiet and in the end a possible survival out of the widespread wreckage.

The bucolic dream lived in the Swiss Alps by Frederic and Catherine is a huge contrast to the World War involvement from which they are fleeing. Their rejection of everything social or political hints at the shocking disillusionment suffered during the war and from which the two characters seem to shrink also in their human dimension to this diminished and self-centered or couple-centered form of life. The dream shattered on the large world stage cannot be fulfilled at the personal, human level either, and the end sees the protagonist walk away in the ever present rain that washes over all the story like a sad, unstoppable, everlasting wall of tears.

If we are looking for an answer here there is none to be had: Hemingway seems to have discovered and perfected the art of communicating alienation, panic, irresolution and despair when faced with the ultimate human questions. The characters ambling despondently in the scary landscape of the war exchange dialogues which resound for their emptiness, their vacuity, their research for repetition as a substitute for real communication and understanding.

This concise almost brusque style becomes the correlative of a vision of life devoid of hope and values which seeks refuge from pain in an isolated, individualistic dream destined to fail from the start. Putting the final demise of his hero in the hands of fate, of a tragic destiny leaves the speculation about Hemingway bleak vision of life open to a small glimpse of hope. But Frederic seems unable to take life into his hands and not even willing to do so.

That was what you did. You died. You did not know what it was about. You never had time to learn. They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you. …. But they killed you in the end. You could count on that. Stay around and they would kill you.

The reaction to the events of the Great War is disillusionment which leads to a surrender of responsibility and commitment, to a closure into an intimistic and self-contained philosophy which evolves towards Hemingway’s blasé attitude to life. All residual energy is used up to distill a style which should adhere to and convey this paroxysmal ennui. The end of Tenente Henry’s war is fixed in the image of a man devoid of dreams and expectations which walks away (from life?) in the rain.

Testament of Youth 

Moving on to analyze Brittain’s novel I would like to focus your attention for a moment on a biographical note. Hemingway’s personal experience of the war, if intense because of his young age and the physical damage he suffered, is quite marginal. He arrived in Italy in June 1918 as a volunteer ambulance driver and was wounded a few weeks later on July 8, 1918. In January 1919 he was already back home having spent the final months of the war recovering in a Milan hospital and falling in love with a nurse.

Brittain’s personal experience of the war is widely different. The war comes as a tremendously tragic personal loss and influences permanently her life expectations and opportunities.

The daughter of a wealthy middle-class family, she struggled with her father’s conservative mindset to obtain permission to enroll at the university. When at last this much pursued dream was about to come true, the war intervened to disrupt all her cherished expectations. Deeply in love with Roland, proud of her brother’s support in her literary ambitions and successful in her Oxford exhibition, in 1915 she was about to embark in her university career together with her fiancé and brother also just admitted at Oxford when instead she found herself to face the reality of war. After a few months at Oxford she decided to back Roland and Edward’s decision to enlist by joining the Voluntary Aid Detachment corps and became a nurse.

As in Hemingway’s novel also here the narrative of war is intermingled with a love story. Vera falls in love with Roland in the months before the war and again like Frederic has to suffer the devastation of the loss of her lover. These parallels notwithstanding the two stories could not be more differently told.

Frederic and Catherine’s love story seems to spring out of a conventional courteous pageant, they are the Romeo and Rosaline counterpart to the Romeo and Juliet embodied by Vera and Roland.

They seem to move in a disarticulated world where all feelings are reduced to physical sensations or at least find in the physical their correlative. Paradigmatic of this mimesis of sensation and feeling is Frederic’s thought: “When I saw her I was in love with her.”

Catherine and Frederic seem to talk of totally inconsistent, silly, facetious things and the reader is left with the feeling of having missed out on same important passage that could have justified their growing intimacy.

Frederic and Catherine:

“…Look at it snow now.”

“I’d rather look at you. Darling, why don’t you let your hair grow?”

“How grow?”

“Just grow a little longer.”

“It’s long enough now.”

“No, let it grow a little longer and I could cut mine and we’d be just alike only one of us blonde and one of us dark.”

“I wouldn’t let you cut yours.”

“It would be fun. I’m tired of it. It’s an awful nuisance in the bed at night.”

“I like it.”

“Wouldn’t you like it short?”

“I might. I like it the way it is.”

“It might be nice short. Then we’d both be alike. Oh, darling, I want you so much I want to be you too.”

“You are. We’re the same one.”

“I know it. At night we are.”

“The nights are grand.”

Vera and Roland, on the other hand, are always immersed in conversations on the weightiest of topics:

“But what is God, then?”

“Well, of course, if we’re going to discuss the nature of the Deity…”

Catherine and Frederic seem unable to discuss anything but themselves and their relationship. Even the baby is perceived as a possible intrusion in their perfect union, in the balance of self-absorption they have managed to achieve. Vera and Roland are instead constantly worried about larger issues than themselves and their relationship grows out of a mutual sensibility and a communion of minds.

Vera’s losses at the end of the war appear enormous: Roland dies in 1915, Edward in 1918, only five months before the end of the war. Her other two close friends from Oxford both die.

She faces the end of the nightmare war had become, not as a welcome release but having transformed into a person devoid of all hope and missing all of her contemporaries, those she had counted on to share her life.

Faced with the challenge to address this splitting life experience the two writers’ approach their subject matter in antithetical ways. Brittain declares her intentions in the foreword to Testament of Youth:

Only, I felt, by some such attempt to write history in terms of personal life could I rescue something that might be of value, some element of truth and hope and usefulness, from the smashing up of my own youth by the War.

Her reaction then to the War experience is one of commitment, as she says usefulness, of engaging with history and politics to try and understand what had actually happened.

After the war she fights the desolation and despair which threaten to overwhelm her and decides to go back to Oxford to complete her degree. She changes from English to History to answer the urge to gain the intellectual instruments she feels in need of in order to understand the world and its past tragedies, to acquire the skills required to find the answers she is looking for to the haunting question that echoes in her mind: “Why?”

Her second life, the one that begins on 11 November 1918 is one of dedication and commitment: towards feminism and women’s rights and pacifism.

This new beginning leads her to a successful and eventful life, to achievements both in the literary field as well as in the political battle against the new prospects of war in the late Thirties and more to the point leads her to the production of a work which is exceptionally reach in humanity and insight and vision.


By immersing ourselves in these two haunting narratives we share a life-changing experience with two young people (they were approximately your age when the war broke out, Brittain was 22 in 1915 and Hemingway was 19 in 1918 when he volunteered as an ambulance driver) who reacted to it, as we have seen, in quite different ways.

The question I want to leave you with today is whether you feel closer to Brittain’s commitment and enthusiasm towards understanding and promoting progress in the human destiny, or to Hemingway’s stylistic retreat into a passionate exploitation of art for art’s sake, his political escapism and his nihilistic belief in life as a wretched fate.

Let’s summon the authors themselves to advocate their thesis.

Here is Brittain explaining her decision to commit her life to redeem a sense out of her experience:

After the first dismayed sense of isolation in an alien peace-time world, such rationality as I still possessed reasserted itself in a desire to understand how the whole calamity had happened, to know why it had been possible for me and my contemporaries, through our own ignorance and others’ ingenuity, to be used, hypnotized and slaughtered. …

It’s my job, now, to find out all about it, and try to prevent it, in so far as a person can, from happening to other people in the days to come. Perhaps the careful study of man’s past will explain to me much that seems inexplicable in his disconcerting present. Perhaps the means of salvation are already there, implicit in history, unadvertised, carefully concealed by the war-mongers, only awaiting rediscovery to be acknowledged with enthusiasm by all thinking men and women.

I wonder, what if this had been a shared belief, what if this stance had been more widespread..  Would mankind have had to suffer the same tragedy only a few decades later?

And here is her indictment of individualism:

When I was a little girl at San Monica’s and in Buxton, I remembered, I imagined that life was individual, one’s own affair; that the events happening in the world outside were important enough in their own way, but were personally quite irrelevant. Now, like the rest of my generation, I have had to learn again and again the terrible truth of George Eliot’s words about the invasion of personal preoccupations by the larger destinies of mankind, and at last to recognize that no life is really private, or isolated, or self-sufficient.

Perhaps no life but that of the artist who finds in art his raison d’etre. Hemingway’s commitment to his art appears in these words as the only release from the prison of life:

The fact that the book was a tragic one did not make me unhappy since I believed that life was a tragedy and knew it could have only one end. But finding you were able to make something up; to create truly enough so that it made you happy to read it; and to do this every day you worked was something that gave a greater pleasure than any I had ever known. Beside it nothing else mattered.

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