Vera Brittain and the First World War: The Story of Testament of Youth
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Vera Brittain and the First World War tells the remarkable story of the author behind Testament of Youth whilst charting the book's ascent to become one of the most loved memoirs of the First World War period. Such interest is set to expand even more in this centenary year of the war’s outbreak.
In the midst of her studies at Oxford when war broke out across Europe, Vera Brittain left university in 1915 to become a V.A.D (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse, treating soldiers in London, Malta and Etaples in France. The events of the First World War were to have an enormous impact on her life. Four of Brittain's closest friends including her fiancé Roland Leighton and her brother Edward Brittain MC were killed in action, sparking a lifelong commitment to pacifism. In 1933 she published Testament of Youth, the first of three books dealing with her experience of war. In equal measures courageous, tragic and deeply fascinating, Testament of Youth is one of the most compelling and important works of war literature ever to have been written by a British woman.
Mark Bostridge's Vera Brittain and the First World War, published to coincide with the film of Testament of Youth, explores the effects of the First World War on Vera Brittain, both in terms of her personal life and in terms of its effect on her development as a writer and her eventual decision to become a pacifist. Taking advantage of the interest generated by the film, it will bring her story to a new generation and incorporate the most up-to-date research. It will also include a short essay 'From Book to Film', describing the process of turning Testament of Youth into a major feature film. This will include interviews with the production staff and actors, as well as with members of Vera Brittain's family, including Shirley Williams.
The film, which has been scripted by Juliette Towhidi and is being produced by BBC Films and Heyday Films, the makers of Harry Potter, is currently in production. Alicia Vikander (Anna Karenina) stars as Brittain, with Kit Harington (Game of Thrones, Pompeii) playing her fiancé Roland Leighton.
Hospital, Malta. At the 1st London we always had to be on with a Sister … but they trust you much more here – in fact they have to, because there are not enough Sisters to go round … Do you remember how afraid I used to be of thunder when I was little? Now I feel quite a ‘Lady of the Lamp’ marching along with the thunder crashing … to see if other people are afraid! Off duty, the social life offered by governmental and naval society was full of diversions. There were picnics and garden parties,
war as such undiluted horror (the British Army was said to be seriously worried about the effect that Journey’s End might have on recruitment). Following these debates closely, Vera had her own contribution to make. Where in any of these books by men was there to be found an adequate account of the wartime experiences of women? She launched a fierce attack on Richard Aldington, in a review of his Death of a Hero, in November 1929, for the ‘cynical fury of scorn’ he had directed at the wartime
ones in the First World War, and who want to derive some understanding of what they endured and suffered – as Kenneth MacMillan did when he choreographed his ballet Gloria to come to terms with his father’s experiences on the Western Front. ‘Others have born witness to the wastage, the pity and the heroism of modern war,’ Winifred Holtby observed of Testament of Youth in 1933, ‘none has yet so convincingly conveyed its grief.’ It is a description that remains just as true today as it was when
Edward’s death; (August) Vera’s first book, Verses of a V.A.D., is published by Erskine Macdonald; (11 November) Vera is working as a VAD in London, at Queen Alexandra’s Hospital on Millbank, when the Armistice is declared. 1919 (end of April) Vera returns to Somerville College, Oxford, and changes subject to history; (October) Vera meets Winifred Holtby at a shared tutorial with the Dean of Hertford. 1921 (August–September) Vera and Winifred spend six weeks together in Italy and France after
selections from Vera Brittain’s diaries and letters used throughout this book are: Chronicle of Youth. War Diary 1913-1917, edited by Alan Bishop with Terry Smart (1981). Letters from a Lost Generation. First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends, edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge (1998). The modern critical edition of Vera Brittain’s war poetry is: Because You Died. Poetry and Prose of the First World War and After, edited and introduced by Mark Bostridge (2008).