Testament of Youth is the first installment, covering 1900–1925, in the memoir of Vera Brittain (1893-1970). It was published in 1933. Brittain's memoir continues with Testament of Experience, published in 1957, and encompassing the years 1925–1950. Between these two books comes Testament of Friendship (published in 1940), which is essentially a memoir of Brittain's close colleague and friend, Winifred Holtby. A final segment of memoir, to be called 'Testament of Faith' or 'Testament of Time' was planned by Brittain but remained unfinished at her death.
Testament of Youth has been acclaimed as a classic for its description of the impact of World War I on the lives of women and the middle-class civilian population of Great Britain. The book shows how the impact extended into the postwar years. It is also considered a classic in feminist literature for its depiction of a woman's pioneer struggle to forge an independent career in a society only grudgingly tolerant of educated women.
In the foreword, Brittain describes how she originally intended to write of her experiences as a novel but was unable to achieve the objective distance from her subject necessary. She then tried to publish her original diary from the war years but with all names fictionalised. This too proved unworkable. Only then did she decide to write her own personal story, putting her own experiences in the wider historic and social context. Several critics have noted the cathartic process by which she deals with her grief in the writing.
The narrative begins with Vera's plans to enter the University of Oxford and her romance with Roland Leighton, a friend of her brother Edward. Both were commissioned as officers early in World War I, and both were subsequently killed, as were several other members of their social circle.
The book's main subject is Vera's work as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, nursing wounded in London, Malta and at Etaples in France. It also describes how she returned, disillusioned, to Somerville College, Oxford after the war and completed her BA degree. It covers the beginning of her career in journalism, writing for Time and Tide and lecturing for the League of Nations. She visits the graves of her brother Edward in Italy and her fiancé Roland in France. Together with Winifred Holtby she toured the defeated and occupied regions of Germany and Austria in 1923.
It concludes with her meeting her husband George Catlin and their eventual marriage in 1925.
The diaries on which the book is partly based, Chronicle of Youth, edited by Alan Bishope, were published in 1981. In 1998, the war letters which Brittain also drew on in her autobiography were published in an edition by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge. Entitled Letters from a Lost Generation, their appearance was met with considerable acclaim.