Vera Brittain and the First World War – Mark Bostridge

The new movie based on Vera Brittain’s autobiography Testament of Youth is just about to be released in Australia. Testament of Youth is one of my favourite books & I’ve already posted about it here so there’s not much chance that I won’t go along to see the movie (you can see the trailer here). Mark Bostridge co-wrote a biography of Vera with Paul Berry, her literary executor & he was a consultant on the new film. This book, which combines biography with the story of how Testament of Youth was written & the afterlife of the book as television series, ballet & now film, is a useful introduction to Vera Brittain’s life.

I have to say that this book is probably most useful to someone who sees the movie & wants to know a little more about Vera’s life. Having read everything I can get my hands on by & about Vera since reading Testament of Youth in the late 70s, there wasn’t anything very new here. The first chapters tell the story of Vera’s life as a provincial young lady in Buxton, her struggle to be allowed to study at Oxford, her close relationship with her brother, Edward & her meeting with Roland Leighton, the young man she fell in love with & who was killed just before Christmas 1915. Vera had decided to postpone her studies to become a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse & worked in hospitals in London, Malta & France. After the war, when she had lost everyone who was closest to her, Vera returned to Oxford, meeting Winifred Holtby, who became her closest friend, & becoming a writer & lecturer, living in London. Vera married George Catlin in 1925 & had two children, but her wartime experiences never ceased to occupy her thoughts & she tried many different ways of telling her story.

War memoirs weren’t wanted in the immediate aftermath of the war & it wasn’t until the late 1920s that people wanted to read about the war. Vera had tried to reimagine her experiences as fiction; she tried to have her wartime diary published but finally she decided to write a memoir of her life which would take in more than just the war years. Testament of Youth covers 1900-1925, Vera’s childhood in Buxton, her desire to study & the years after 1918 when Vera tried to make a new life for herself after the shattering experiences & losses of the war. At the core of the book, however, are those four years of the war & the very personal story she tells of her love for Roland, her friendships with two other men, Victor Richardson & Geoffrey Thurlow, her love for her brother, Edward, & her own war service as a nurse. As well as telling her own story, Vera wrote the book as a tribute to the men she lost & also to emphasize the fact that women & women’s work played a vital part in the war effort. Testament of Youth was one of the first books to explore women’s experiences of the war. It may not have been the first book to do so but it was certainly the most successful.

The success of Testament of Youth changed Vera’s life. I enjoyed reading about the way Vera went about writing the book, because I love reading about how writers work, the changes she made to her feelings & responses to events as shown in her diaries & letters of the time & the way she shaped the narrative. The most interesting section of this book was the description of how Testament of Youth was rediscovered in the 1970s (unfortunately after Vera’s death) by Virago which led to the wonderful TV series with Cheryl Campbell. The feminist movement was instrumental in rediscovering books like Testament of Youth that described the experiences of women in a conflict dominated by the war memoirs & poetry of men – Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon & Robert Graves. I didn’t know that a ballet, Gloria, by Kenneth MacMillan, had been based on the book.

The production of the new movie is described with Bostridge’s personal experiences of being on the set. There’s also a chapter taken from Lives For Sale, a book about the experiences of biographers edited by Bostridge that explores in more depth the death of Edward Brittain & how Bostridge wrote his biography in collaboration with Paul Berry. Lives For Sale, by the way, is an excellent book about the writing of biography with chapters by Antonia Fraser, Hermione Lee, Lyndall Gordon, Margaret Forster & Claire Tomalin among many others. Bostridge also includes a Gazetteer of the places associated with Vera’s life & there are many photos included throughout the text as well as colour plates from the new film. So, I would have to say that this book is really only for the Vera Brittain completist (like me) or for someone who sees the film & wants to explore Vera’s life a little more. I’d be more inclined to say, read Testament of Youth, I’m sure I’ll be rereading it after seeing the new movie but if 600+pp is a little daunting, this book does concentrate on the period of the film.

On a bit of a tangent, I came across this wonderful blog, A Bluestocking Knits, where I read this fascinating post on the accuracy or otherwise of the knitwear in the new film. There’s also a link to this article in Harper’s Bazaar on the costumes, including some gorgeous hats. (Have a look at the Bluestocking’s post on the TV series Outlander as well – haven’t seen the series but loved the first four books before I lost interest). I’m sure I’ll be nitpicking about any changes to the book in the screenplay but the clothes look fabulous.

12 thoughts on “Vera Brittain and the First World War – Mark Bostridge

  1. I read Testament of Youth last year and was riveted by it. I still find myself thinking about the book. Thanks for the information about Vera Brittain and the First World War. It looks like something that I'd like. I'll look forward to your comments on the film. We don't get it in the States for another couple of months.


  2. I'm going to see the film on Saturday, I think, & I'm looking forward to seeing what they've done. TOY is such a stunning book, I can't wait to read it again.


  3. Today's Toronto Globe & Mail has an article about two Canadian nursing sisters who died at a Canadian Stationary Hospital on the Greek island of Lemnos duo g the Gallipoli campaign. It ends with a poem written by Vera Brittain when she visited Lemnos and saw their graves. It's entitled The Sisters Buried at Lemnos.


  4. Lyn as I've mentioned before, I'm not a history buff so there are huge gaps in my education. I had heard of Vera Brittain and knew she was associated with WWI but that's where my knowledge stopped. I'll be going to see this film thanks to your book review here and I'll certainly follow up with the book.
    Thanks also for the knitting link, I'm flying over there now.


  5. I've been reading some of Vera's poetry & came across that poem just the other day. Vera nursed in Malta & I think she visited Lemnos on her way there.


  6. I'm going to see the movie at the weekend. The reviews have been good but I'm sure I'll find something to nitpick about! I'm not a knitter but I love the clothes of the early 20th century so the articles on the movie were very interesting.


  7. Yes, I do know of SW, although if she wasn't VB's daughter, I probably wouldn't have been aware of her. We don't hear much about UK politics here in Australia. She's been very much involved in her mother's legacy & is obviously very proud of her.


  8. I love Vera Brittain and have read all Mark Bostridge's books, including the wonderful Letters from a Lost Generation – Vera's letters to the four men and theirs to her. This new book is intended evidently as a short intro but it does include much new stuff about how Testament was written – and also questions the reliability of Vera's autobiography, which I don't remember him doing in the 1995 biography


  9. I also loved the Letters & Bostridge's biography of Vera. He may have been a little constrained in his comments in the biography because he was co-writing with Paul Berry, a friend & champion of Vera's. I do remember quite a bit about the way she shaped the book, which is understandable as it wasn't a diary or letters, it was memoir. This new book is a fine introduction but doesn't have much that is new if you've read a lot about Vera except the information abut the adaptations.


  10. As an American reader I am really grateful for this book, especially as information about Vera Brittain in the USA is somewhat scare. Fascinating to read about the early versions of the autobiography as fiction.


  11. It's a good introduction to Vera's life & the writing of TOY & also emphasizes how her experience of the war dominated her later life & literary work.


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