Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth on Film
One of the hottest booms in literary publishing during the late 1920s and early 1930s were the so-called “War Books.” For ten years following the Armistice in 1918, the North American and European reading publics seemed to have little appetite for stories about the First World War. But by the end of the 1920s, novels and memoirs by former combatants like Siegfried Sassoon, Erich Maria Remarque, Edmund Blunden, and Robert Graves were captivating the public imagination. Gritty accounts of battle horrors and sardonic portrayals of politicians, generals, preachers, and other jingoistic noncombatants gave rise to a widespread sense of disillusionment about national pride and militarism.
Scholarship on this period has called into question many of the early assumptions about the War Books, especially their supposed “antiwar” sentiments and their tendency to privilege the views of educated, artistically-inclined officers over working-class enlisted men. Equally crucial has been the recovery of women’s voices obscured by the wave of combat narratives written by men. This recovery work has shown that women’s stories about the homefront—Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, for instance—tell us just as much about wartime experience as men’s tales of trench life. But another dimension of this recovery pertains to the many women who had close encounters with combatants in a sometimes forgotten space of the war: the military hospital. Literally tens of thousands of women and girls served with the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) in Britain, caring for wounded soldiers in hospitals and driving ambulances in combat zones. Of the many women who wrote memoirs and fiction about these experiences, no writer has remained as popular as the VAD nurse turned anti-war activist Vera Brittain.
Brittain’s renown was secured by the blockbuster success of her first memoir Testament of Youth, published to great acclaim in 1933. By 1939, it had sold 120,000 copies, and it has remained continually in print. It experienced a resurgence in the late 1970s when it was republished by Virago, the British press that has for four decades championed neglected writing by women, and it became a BBC mini-series. I suspect, however, that Vera Brittain’s name is still better known today in the UK than the US, partly due to the perennial appearance of Testament of Youth in GCSE exams and partly because of the enduring legacy of the First World War in British popular culture.
Now, for the first time, a feature-length film version of Testament of Youth, with rising star Alicia Vikander playing Vera Brittain, arrives in step with the much-anticipated four year commemoration of the First World War’s centennial.
The depiction of the war in Testament of Youth, conveyed with great force in James Kent’s film, is one of total waste and immense cost to individual combatants and their families. Five friends join England’s surge against “the Hun”: Brittain’s brother Edward (Taron Egerton), her fiancée Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington) and their two mates Geoffrey Thurlow (Jonathan Bailey) and Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan). Edward, reluctant to leave home, is urged by his sister to do his patriotic duty. The other men similarly feel the tug of social obligation and take up arms on the Western Front. Pledging love for one another, the friends separate, and all but Vera meet agonizing deaths. She, being far from squeamish and equally touched by the patriotic call to service, becomes a VAD nurse and learns of her friends’ and brother’s deaths while cleaning the wounds of other dying soldiers. Brittain’s story, in basic outline, has operatic potential. But it is a tragedy with a coda: Vera turns her pain into a successful literary career and her anger into stalwart anti-war activism that will last through the next world war and into the nuclear age.
The turning point in Vera’s thinking about war came not from the loss of her friends and family, as one might expect. Mark Bostridge, Brittain’s literary executor and foremost biographer, has shown that the deaths of her loved ones reinvigorated her sense of “heroism in the abstract” and created models of self-sacrifice that inspired her own service (80). Instead, her conversion began while experiencing the absurdities of war when nursing its victims. Portrayed in one moving sequence of Kent’s film, the first major blow to Brittain’s patriotic zeal came in 1917 while she was working in a hospital in Etaples where she was assigned to care for injured German soldiers. She recorded initially that this was “a slightly alarming experience,” but found herself unable to hate these supposed enemies as she tended their battle wounds and amputations (Bostridge 2014, 95). In the film, the scene is played in sunlight and rain, with lens flares and handheld camerawork giving visual shorthand to urgency and momentousness. A nurse cheerily tells Vera, “I had to saw this chappy’s arm off myself yesterday!” and then informs her that these men are all Huns. Men clutching severed limbs, writhing in lung-stricken fits, and shaking with shellshock fill the background. In the foreground, Vera holds a dying man and speaks a few words in German to console him as his eyes grow dim. In voiceover, one of Brittain’s letters to Edward tells him that she is beginning to wonder about the absurdity of saving the very lives that he is risking his own to kill.
It is, of course, a cliché in discussions of literary adaptations to protest that the film pales compared with the book, but a few cavils of that sort seem nonetheless necessary here. The first has to do with the overall tone of the film, which leans into the tragic dimension of the narrative at the expense of Brittain’s own wry and caustic prose. While the film begins with a severe and sorrowful Vera on Armistice Day in 1918, isolated from the cheering crowds by her sense of grief, Brittain’s own first chapter starts more wittily: “When the Great War broke out, it came to me not as a superlative tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans” (17). Self-deprecating and slightly ironic, the Vera we meet in Brittain’s memoir conveys her personal loss as a form of political advocacy. She shows us what happened in her own life and family because of this war and embeds that narrative in a pacifist indictment of all wars. The Vera who emerges in Kent’s film inhabits a world of great beauty, full of lush green countryside and sun-blown manor houses shot with all the detailed care and capacious lighting of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. But little of Brittain’s wry humor is salvaged in the transfer to screen.
Also clunky in this adaptation is the handling of brief scenes with two of the vital figures in Brittain’s life, her close friend Winnifred Holtby and her eventual husband George Catlin. These people also appear in Brittain’s memoirs, and they bulk large in biographies about her. But in this film, only the initiate could really appreciate the cameos given to these figures. Holtby appears in the last ten minutes when Brittain has resumed her studies at Oxford, and she announces that she intends to be a writer. It is a bit like one of those moments in Shakespeare in Love, where Will, our struggling playwright, meets a nasty little boy who announces himself to be John Webster (the future author of bloody Jacobean revenge tragedies like The Duchess of Malfi). In that film, Tom Stoppard and company played those cameos for laughs, relying on the audience’s period knowledge to catch in-jokes about “Kit” Marlowe drinking in pubs or Queen Elizabeth requesting Will’s next play be something comedic for Twelfth Night. But played straight, as the cameos are in Testament of Youth, they seem confined to a rarefied audience who knows about Brittain’s personal life. Rather than introducing a viewer to Testament of Youth, the film relies on some amount of prior knowledge.
What the scenes with Winifred Holtby do provide is the beginning of Vera’s emergence from her postwar despair. Like Brittain, she had lost loved ones in the war, and as she puts it in the film: “All of us are surrounded by ghosts. Now we must learn how to live with them.” Though somewhat awkwardly appearing like a deus ex machina, this encouragement to learn to live with ghosts offers the path that Brittain will take, becoming a politically engaged writer whose literature and activism memorialize her loss. In the foreword to her memoir, Brittain wrote that she attempted a “history in terms of personal life” which could “rescue something that might be of value, some element of truth and hope and usefulness, from the smashing up of my own youth by the War” (11). Kent’s film, though certainly not a betrayal of that mission statement, may do its best service by sending new audiences back to Brittain’s own prose, to see how truth, hope, and usefulness arise from learning to live with ghosts.
Charles Andrews is Associate Professor of English at Whitworth University.
Bostridge, Mark. Vera Brittain and the First World War: The Story of Testament of Youth. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.
Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900–1925. New York: Penguin, 1994.