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In 1916, Vera Brittain was 22 years old. Her fiance, Roland Leighton, had been killed on the western front the previous Christmas. Her beloved brother, Edward, had been seriously injured in the battle of the Somme. One of her two closest male friends, Geoffrey Thurlow, had been wounded at Ypres. The other, Victor Richardson, was fighting in the trenches in France.
Brittain herself had been working as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse tending to wounded servicemen for more than a year. She was physically exhausted, stricken with grief and in a near-constant state of heightened nervous apprehension. Yet amid the chaos and trauma of war, the seed of an idea was planted in her mind. “If the war spares me,” Brittain wrote to her brother in a letter that year, “it will be my one aim to immortalise in a book the story of us four.”
In the end the war did spare Vera Brittain, but her fiance, her brother and her two dearest male friends were all dead by the time the armistice was signed in November 1918. The idea for a book, however, survived. It would later become Testament of Youth, one of the most famous memoirs of the 20th century, and this year marks the 80th anniversary of its publication.
“I think what is different about Testament of Youth, what has made it last, is that it does two things simultaneously,” says Brittain’s biographer and literary executor, Mark Bostridge. “It moves and it educates.”
After writing that letter to her brother, Brittain took the best part of 17 years to complete the manuscript. First she made several attempts at fictionalising her wartime experiences without much success. It was only when she decided to write as herself that her authorial voice seemed to flow and the events she had endured were given a poignant immediacy to which readers could relate. In Testament of Youth, the words seemed to pour out of her, a potent mixture of rage and loss, underpinned by lively intelligence and fervent pacifist beliefs.
When it was finally published in August 1933, the book was an instant hit. At the close of publication day, its first print-run of 3,000 had sold out. The Sunday Times called it “a book which stands alone among books written by women about the war”. Rebecca West wrote that it was “a vivid testimony”. Virginia Woolf noted in her diaries that she felt compelled to stay up all night to finish the memoir. When it was later published in America, the New York Times reviewer wrote that Brittain’s autobiographical account was “honest… revealing… heartbreakingly beautiful”.
Over the next six years, Testament of Youth sold 120,000 copies. With the outbreak of the second world war, Brittain’s pacifist philosophy fell out of favour. It wasn’t until the late 70s, after her death, that the feminist publisher Virago reprinted Testament of Youth and a hugely popular television series brought the work to a wider audience.
It remains deeply influential. Even now, eight decades after its publication, it continues to inspire a new generation. A film adaptation co-produced by BBC Films and starring Saoirse Ronan, who won an Oscar nomination for her role in Atonement, is in development, and the book seems to strike a chord with contemporary readers who have themselves lived through an era of renewed conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s a legacy that would have surprised Brittain herself. When she died, in 1970, she believed, according to Bostridge, “that her reputation was at the lowest ebb it had ever been. It’s one of the sad things about her literary career that she never lived to see the success of Testament of Youth.“
Although Brittain is no longer alive to witness it, her book has shaped the consciousness of modern-day feminists. The literary editor and author Diana Athill wrote in a 2009 article for the Guardian that Brittain “was brave, and her strong feelings would always express themselves in action. And she was honest… as blazingly honest as anyone can be”.
When I came to write my own second novel, Home Fires, in which a young girl struggles to cope with her father’s return from the front, Brittain’s memoir was my first port of call. There was almost nothing else available that conveyed the personal devastation of the first world war from a young woman’s point of view with such candour. Many contemporaneous accounts portrayed women as victims who endured the shattering impact of world events, rather than as agents of their own change.
By contrast, Brittain’s feminism courses through her memoir. Growing up in a conservative middle-class family in Buxton, Derbyshire, she writes unapologetically about her own ambitions to better herself, and wins an exhibition to Oxford despite her parents’ traditional ideas about a woman’s place being in the home. When the war breaks out, she rages against the injustice of it and, frustrated by her own powerlessness, volunteers as a nurse in order to make a difference.
Carmen Callil, the co-founder of Virago, who oversaw the republication of Testament of Youth, says it is Brittain’s refusal to comply with accepted norms that gives the book its power. “To some degree I suppose it had the impact it did because of the anguish in it, which so many women must have felt,” says Callil. “Brittain wasn’t going to put up with it. She was saying: ‘This is awful.’ Those women who lost their sons, who sent their sons away – it was just accepted. I think that’s an outrage, myself. I think you feel the same when you see these people dying in Iraq. Vera Brittain taught millions of people that you didn’t have to put up with war if it wasn’t a just war.”
For the author and feminist Natasha Walter, it is Brittain’s ability to weave the political into the personal that makes her memoir so riveting. “You just feel this journey she’s going on,” says Walter. “She tells it with incredible immediacy… It all comes through in this torrent of force and personal power. You don’t have to be at all interested in feminism or pacifism to get it.”
And it’s true that, feminism aside, Brittain’s writing is deeply accessible. She has an eye for the telling detail that helps the reader to understand the trauma she experiences. When Brittain’s fiance was killed just before Christmas 1915, she had been expecting him home on leave. Instead of receiving a call to confirm his arrival, she was telephoned with news of his death. In Testament of Youth she writes that, in the weeks after his death, a series of disconnected pictures rolled through her mind: “A solitary cup of coffee stands before me on a hotel breakfast-table. I try to drink it but fail ignominiously.” It is the kind of small incident that anyone can understand – and yet it elucidates something much more profound.
Walter first read Testament of Youth at school but returned to it later in life when she was researching her 2010 work Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism. She was drawn back to Brittain because of her “unapologetically intellectual ambition. We’ve lost a bit of that in feminism… We need to reclaim it.”
Brittain was indeed one of the only writers of her time able to chronicle the female experience of war with such visceral force. Until Testament of Youth appeared, the literary memorialisation of the first world war had been mostly the preserve of the male voice (Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden) or of sentimental novelists who gained short-lived commercial success.
As a woman, Brittain was arguably the first to blend emotional resonance with intellectual clarity. She relayed her own life story – first as the daughter of a provincial paper factory owner who struggled to emancipate herself, then as a young woman trying to make sense of the personal ravages wreaked by war. In doing so, she laid out her political beliefs. The war taught her that you could not live your life in isolation from public events. But when she writes, the feelings always come first – which may be why the book remains so popular.
“You feel empathy with Vera Brittain,” says Walter. “It was just so important that she gave women’s experience a voice and it’s really important for us to remember what female writers struggled against to bring their stories to light.”
The writing of such a powerful memoir did not come without personal anguish. Although Brittain never believed she would find happiness in a relationship after Roland’s death, she did eventually marry the philosopher and political scientist George Catlin in 1925 after a courtship initiated by letter. The couple had two children, the youngest of whom, Shirley, is the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Williams of Crosby.
Shirley Williams, who was born in Chelsea in 1930, three years before Testament of Youth was published, recalls her mother sticking to a punishing writing routine: sitting down at her typewriter at 10am, having already dealt with her correspondence and bills; at 2pm taking a break when she would lead the children around Battersea Park and recite the Latin names of the birds and flowers; then back to her desk until dinner time.
“She found me and my older brother [John] a bit of a distraction,” says Williams, 82, when we meet in her Westminster office. “She loved us but she didn’t let us get in the way.”
As a child, Williams was only too aware of the ghosts of her mother’s past. Roland, Edward, Victor and Geoffrey “were as familiar to me as my brother and living friends”, she says. Williams breaks off. “That’s Edward’s violin,” she says, gesturing to a battered instrument case on top of a bookshelf. “It should probably be in a museum somewhere. My mother kept everything.”
Williams remembers her mother being anxious and occasionally over-protective, constantly worried that something dreadful would happen to her loved ones as it had done in the past. Williams rebelled against this as a teenager: “We’d just take off on our bicycles. My mother would say: ‘Where are you going?’ I would say: ‘Out.’ She realised she’d never get any more than that from me. It got better as she began to realise I was going to survive.”
Brittain, she says, was extremely shy in social situations and had “no sense of humour”. I wonder if, at some level, the capacity for finding things funny had been battered out of her?
“I think so,” Williams agrees. “After the war, she couldn’t really think of humour for a long, long time. Occasionally Winifred [Holtby, a lifelong friend and collaborator, and the author of South Riding] could make her laugh, but Winifred was a radiant personality and someone who could enjoy life a lot of the time. Her radiant happiness got across to my mother.”
The writing of Testament of Youth – and its success on publication – did not just affect Brittain herself. It had wider implications too. For one thing, her husband had to cope with reading his wife’s impassioned reminiscence of her former love. Brittain and Roland Leighton had met for a total of only 17 days, and circumstances meant that much of their relationship had to be conducted by letter. According to Mark Bostridge, this meant that their fledgling romance was necessarily heightened: “By the end of it, they were looking at each other almost as fictional representations,” he says.
Leighton emerges from the pages of Testament of Youth as a glamorous, heroic figure, an idealistic public schoolboy who was captain of the Officers’ Training Corps at Uppingham School before signing up at the outbreak of war. He was killed at the age of 20 by a German sniper while repairing barbed wire on a moonlit night in a stretch of no man’s land. Brittain never got over his loss.
How did George Catlin find it, knowing that his wife had been in love with another man?
“Tough,” Williams admits. “He once said to me: ‘It’s easier to deal with a lover than a ghost,’ because with a living person, sooner or later, the flaws will show up. With a dead person, who died at the peak of their youth, they become frozen in aspic. My father didn’t try to compete. He was a very understanding man.”
It helped, perhaps, that both Brittain and her husband were such committed pacifists and therefore had a common goal to work towards. When the second world war broke out, Brittain’s critics accused her of collaborating with the Nazis because of her anti-war stance, and the sales of Testament of Youth dropped off. In fact, it later emerged that she was listed in the notorious Nazi “black book”, which detailed notable people to be arrested in the event of a successful invasion of Britain by Hitler. Still, her reputation as a writer never regained the popularity it had enjoyed when Testament of Youth was first published.
There were further blows to be suffered. Brittain’s father, unable to recover from his son’s death, committed suicide by jumping into the Thames in 1935. In the same year, Winifred Holtby, who lived with the family in Chelsea and who had become the children’s surrogate aunt, died of Bright’s disease.
It has often been assumed that Holtby and Brittain were lesbians because of their unconventional living arrangement. But in many ways, it was simply that Holtby was able to provide the supportive companionship Brittain had once so valued in her beloved elder brother, Edward. The gossip about their sexuality was, Williams writes in her autobiography, “deeply resented” by Brittain, who believed it was “a form of anti-feminism to the effect that women could never be real friends unless there was a sexual motivation, while the friendships of men had been celebrated in literature from classical times”.
The deaths of her father and her closest friend forced Brittain once again to shoulder the weight of tragedy. She poured her energy into campaigning against apartheid, colonialism and nuclear proliferation.
Her political activism had a lasting impact on her daughter. In 2003, Williams led the opposition in the House of Lords to the invasion of Iraq: “My mother would have felt, like me, that Iraq was a huge mistake… She never ceased being a pacifist. She never gave up on that at all.”
At the same time, Brittain believed keenly that she had not fulfilled her ambitions to be a great novelist. Nicholas Eden-Green, whose mother Winifred was Brittain’s secretary for more than 20 years, recalls that by the mid-1950s: “I got the feeling that Vera Brittain had grown a bit, not sour exactly, but saddened by the fact that she wasn’t the popular figure she once was. I think she felt she didn’t get the recognition she wished.”
In 1970, Brittain died after a long physical decline precipitated by a fall on a London street while on her way to a speaking engagement. She was 76. It was eight years before Testament of Youth was reprinted by Virago and nine years before the hit BBC adaptation put her back on the bestseller lists. She never lived to see the extraordinary resurgence of her most famous work. “She had no idea that she was going to be a permanent figure in the literary canon,” says Williams.
Even now, Baroness Williams receives letters from people who have read Testament of Youth and who want to share with her how much it meant to them. Eighty years on, it remains one of the most moving books ever written about the damage of war and its continuing personal cost. “Without showing off,” Williams says, leaning forward in her chair and looking at me with lively, attentive eyes. “I think she’s become immortal.”
It’s a fitting word for a woman who survived, and whose life’s work was dedicated to honouring the memory of those who, tragically, did not.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Testament of Youth: Vera Brittain’s classic, 80 years on | Books