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.