Testament of Youth film adaptation poster
In 2016, The Guardian journalist, Robert McCrum listed Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth as the 42nd best non-fiction book of all times. What follows are extracts from his article and a passage from the Testament of Youth’s. Chapter 9:
“Testament of Youth was written by Vera Brittain, a woman approaching 40 who had spent some 17 years coming to terms with her singular experience of the first world war – as a girl, a fiancee, a feminist, a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse and, finally, as the sorrowing victim of intolerable grief. Brittain’s is one of several memoirs inspired by the fighting in Flanders, but it made a lasting impact through the raw passion of its anti-war message and its rather modern confessional candour.
Brittain’s “autobiographical study” (she would never allow “autobiography”) takes her readers on to the home front as much as into the trenches. A book that’s based at first on her teenage diaries comes to France quite late in the narrative. Peripherally interested in the war, Brittain provides a fascinating picture of a young girl’s tormented coming of age as the long summer of Edwardian England becomes overcast by the storms of total war.
Vera Brittain as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, 1915. Photograph: courtesy of VB Estate/McMaster University Library, Hamilton, Canada. Courtesy of The Guardian.
Brittain is never less than disarmingly frank. “When the great war broke out,” she begins, “it came to me not as a superlative tragedy but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans.” She had grown up in Macclesfield and Buxton, in a solid middle-class family, had become a “provincial débutante” in 1912, and was en route to Somerville College, Oxford. Her writing, at this stage, was an “incongruous mixture of war and tennis”. In another life, she might have embarked on a post-Victorian “ladyhood”. But that was not to be: “The train started. As the noisy group moved away from the door, he sprang onto the footboard, clung to my hand and, drawing my face down to his, kissed my lips in a sudden vehemence of despair. And I kissed his and just managed to whisper ‘Goodbye.’”
Roland Leighton. Photo courtesy of https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/11293154/roland-aubrey-leighton
Falling in love with Roland Leighton, and watching him go off to the trenches, changed everything. The young lovers grew up very fast and when, inevitably, the news came that Vera’s fiance had “died of wounds” just before Christmas 1915, Brittain’s fate was sealed. Now, all her ambitions as a writer were bent towards expressing the agony of her loss.
Roland Leighton’s grave. Photo courtesy of https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/11293154/roland-aubrey-leighton
Brittain’s experience in war becomes emblematic of the slaughter, as her immediate circle is annihilated. After Roland, her beloved brother, Edward, is killed and then two close soldier friends, Geoffrey and Victor (Tah).
“‘Tah – dear Tah,’ I whispered, in sudden pitying anguish, and I took his fingers in mine and caressed and kissed them as though he had been a child. Suddenly strong, he gripped my hand, pressed it against his mouth and kissed it convulsively in return. His fingers, I noticed, were damp and his lips very cold.” (By morning, Victor was dead).
Now Brittain enlists as a VAD nurse, tending the wounded in field dressing stations. The former suffragette, now equal with the troops, discovers her “feminism”, a word that makes an early appearance in these pages. Her “study” is no longer a romantic memoir, but almost a campaigning text for the idea that women and men should be treated equally. This was still, even in the 1930s, a provocative idea. It would come as a shock to many of her subsequent readers that women should be free to become university students, independent working women, assertive wives and mothers, public speakers and respected participants in national politics. When Brittain passed on the lessons of her wartime life to her daughter, Shirley Williams, she was handing the torch of early 20th-century feminism to a new generation.
Testament of Youth, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies on publication, had and continues to have its own afterlife. Rediscovered by Virago in the 1970s, it found a new audience and was adapted for television, with Cheryl Campbell playing Brittain. Part of its success, in hindsight, was that it both articulated a longing for women’s liberation while simultaneously celebrating a nostalgic vision of British middle-class comfort in the twilight of the Edwardian age. That dichotomy had been intrinsic to the book long before it was completed.
Brittain’s ambition, she said at the outset, was “to write something which would show what the whole war and postwar period has meant to the men and women of my generation”. Testament of Youth achieves this, then it goes further. It describes one woman’s struggle in the dominantly masculine world of military action and her determination to humanise the experience of being in extremis. It is courageous and honest, a work of literature that fulfilled all its author’s ambitions.”
From Testament of Youth, Chapter 9: Brittain receives a telegram announcing her brother’s death
Brother and Sister: Edward and Vera Brittain in 1915. Photo courtesy of http://spartacus-educational.com/FWWbrittainE.htm
I had just announced to my father, as we sat over tea in the dining room, that I really must do up Edward’s papers and take them to the post office before it closed for the weekend, when there came the sudden loud clattering at the front-door knocker that always meant a telegram.
For a moment I thought that my legs would not carry me, but they behaved quite normally as I got up and went to the door. I knew what was in the telegram — I had known for a week — but because the persistent hopefulness of the human heart refuses to allow intuitive certainty to persuade the reason of that which it knows, I opened and read it in a tearing anguish of suspense.
‘Regret to inform you Captain E H Brittain M.C. killed in action Italy June 15th.’
‘No answer,’ I told the boy mechanically, and handed the telegram to my father, who had followed me into the hall. As we went back into the dining room I saw, as though I had never seen them before, the bowl of blue delphiniums on the table; their intense colour, vivid, ethereal, seemed too radiant for earthly flowers.
Then I remembered that we should have to go down to Purley and tell the news to my mother.
Edith Brittain and her son Edward Brittain in 1916. Photo courtesy of http://spartacus-educational.com/FWWbrittainE.htm
Late that evening, my uncle brought us all back to an empty flat. Edward’s death and our sudden departure had offered the maid — at that time the amateur prostitute — an agreeable opportunity for a few hours’ freedom of which she had taken immediate advantage. She had not even finished the household handkerchiefs, which I had washed that morning and intended to iron after tea; when I went into the kitchen I found them still hanging, stiff as boards, over the clothes-horse near the fire where I had left them to dry.
Long after the family had gone to bed and the world had grown silent, I crept into the dining room to be alone with Edward’s portrait. Carefully closing the door, I turned on the light and looked at the pale, pictured face, so dignified, so steadfast, so tragically mature. He had been through so much — far, far more than those beloved friends who had died at an earlier stage of the interminable War, leaving him alone to mourn their loss. Fate might have allowed him the little, sorry compensation of survival, the chance to make his lovely music in honour of their memory. It seemed indeed the last irony that he should have been killed by the countrymen of Fritz Kreisler, the violinist whom of all others he had most greatly admired.
And suddenly, as I remembered all the dear afternoons and evenings when I had followed him on the piano as he played his violin, the sad, searching eyes of the portrait were more than I could bear, and falling on my knees before it I began to cry, ‘Edward? Oh, Edward!’ in dazed repetition, as though my persistent crying and calling would somehow bring him back.
English writer, feminist and political activist Vera Brittain (1893-1970) in 1956. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images. Courtesy The Guardian