Monday, 26 January 2015

Vera and Edith

As Zero and I walked down Victoria Street after seeing the film Testament of Youth recently, I observed that I thought Vera Brittain had a somewhat similar personality to that of Edith Stein. They both enjoyed a certain severity of character combined with a capacity to feel very deeply. And as I made this observation, I realised that the similarity extended to them both being very determined young women, in particular with regard to their academic desires. Oh, and do see the film - it is very beautifully made and striking in its portrayal of characters and events.

I later remembered that Edith had also volunteered as a nurse during the First World War, though her experience in that regard was significantly different than that of Vera. Their motivations for volunteering, though, were quite similar - a certain restrained patriotism and a sense that they could not do otherwise when people they knew were serving in their respective armed forces. Edith, like Vera, also lost friends to the war, perhaps most notably Adolf Reinach.

Edith and Vera were contemporaries in another sense, too. They both embarked upon university studies when there were still barriers to women in academia. Edith was blocked from habilitation at Gottingen because she was a woman, prompting a strong letter on her part to the minister of education at the time. That resulted in a letter to German universities pointing out that being a woman was not a barrier to habilitation, too late to help Edith. Somewhat analogously, Vera began her studies at Oxford at a time when women could study at the university, but not actually take the degrees they earned there.

At the time when their lives were most alike, Edith shared a lack of religious belief (against the background of her Jewish family) with Vera.

By the time I had recognised these parallels between Vera and Edith, certainly as far as their younger lives were concerned, I remembered something else.

Just as Vera had written a memoir - Testament of Youth - Edith had also written a memoir - Life in a Jewish Family - though its account is cut short in 1916, a result of Edith's arrest by the Germans in August 1942. Though the motivation for writing was very different for the two, nevertheless the timescale covered and a certain similarity of experience makes them kindred texts.

So, not having read Vera Brittain's book before seeing the film, I am now engaged in a parallel reading of Testament of Youth and Life in a Jewish Family.

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