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.
possible for a woman to be. But in applying to nurse, Vera was also responding to the widely accepted parity between the public school educated men who volunteered for Kitchener’s Army and the socially privileged women who became Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses. For these middle and upper class women, longing for a wartime identity beyond the passive role of knitting for the troops or living vicariously through their male relatives, the figure of the volunteer nurse – as opposed to her
of a trench, at a casualty clearing station, on 23 December. It would take months for Vera and Roland’s family to piece together the circumstances of his death. Hardest for Vera to bear would be the absence of any final message from Roland in his last hours. What did eventually reach her was the manuscript of Roland’s poem ‘Hédauville’, probably his last, and undoubtedly his finest effort. Dated November 1915, from the period of their epistolary estrangement, and recalling their walks in
costumed them, with minute attention to detail, as station guards and porters, as young Tommies carrying heavy packs, trying to look at ease in their puttees, or simply as members of the travelling public. A man wearing a neat trilby and a loo brush moustache brings the only animal extra, his dog, in tow. The two principals appear unobtrusively on the platform: Alicia Vikander, 25 and from Gothenburg, Sweden, with her extraordinary command of English, as Vera; and Kit Harington, 27, as Roland
September 1921. Northern France. A small car pitches its way uncertainly through churned up ground. As the shot widens, a shattered, shell-wracked landscape comes into view. The remains of trees, with bare, skeletal branches, assume grotesque shapes, while the humped ruins of houses line the roadsides. Here and there in the piles of debris are small groups of wooden crosses. Men and women, Army Officers and Women’s Auxiliary Corps members, work amongst the smouldering wreckage, attempting to
son] on your side although I have a hunch that opposition only makes Shirley more determined.’ Looking back now, though, I see these events as much less clear-cut. As a biographer I had got hold of a good story which I wanted to milk for all its worth. It was as if I had been overcome by a kind of narrative greed, which paid no attention to the sensitivities of those more directly affected by possible revelations than I was. Much has been made of the ways in which a family can manipulate and