Testament of Youth is a powerful story of love, war and remembrance, based on the First World War memoir by Vera Brittain, which has become the classic testimony of that war from a woman's point of view. A searing journey from youthful hopes and dreams to the edge of despair and back again, it's a film about young love, the futility of war and how to make sense of the darkest times.
An Interview With Mark Bostridge, Biographer of Vera Brittain
As the film's expert on Vera Brittain there is no one better placed to give us an insight into the woman behind the book Testament of Youth?
Vera Brittain (b.1893 – d.1970) was brought up in Buxton in Derbyshire, as the daughter of a paper manufacturer. She had one younger brother, Edward and from an early age she wanted to be a writer. She also wanted the type of education that was difficult for a woman to get at that time, an education at a university. Just before the outbreak of the war, in 1914, she managed to get into Somerville College, Oxford and she went up to Oxford in October 1914, just a couple of months after the war had broken out. By the beginning of 1915, she'd fallen in love with a school friend of her brother Edward's and by the summer of that year, she decided that her university studies were increasingly irrelevant to what was going on in the world, and that she really had to do something for the war effort. She went off to become a VAD nurse, and in all, she served in some seven civilian and military hospitals throughout the war. She finally left hospital in 1919 after the war had ended and she suffered huge personal losses. What is remarkable about her story is not only that she went on to write about it so memorably, but that she rebuilt her life and really dedicated much of the rest of it to being a pacifist, to fighting the idea that society should ever go to war.
What do you do as a consultant on the film?
As a consultant, you're called upon to read the various drafts of the script, and say where you think they're not being true to the book or to the characters. Then on set, I was asked questions by the director, the screenwriter and sometimes the actors asked about their characters. Colin Morgan, I remember, was particularly keen to know more about Victor and his background. So, I asked Victor's niece if I could show Colin some letters that had been written by Victor that aren't published and that helped him a great deal.
At what point did you become involved?
BBC Films first made contact with me in 2008, because we had just finished making a documentary about Vera Brittain for the Remembrance Sunday season. One year later, Heyday Films joined the project. For Heyday's producer Rosie Alison, this was a real passion project and her determination drove the film pretty much all the way through. She fell in love with the story herself when she was a schoolgirl and really wanted to make it. There was an attempt to make a film version of the book in 1934, which fell apart.
Explain how challenging it was for women to study at university at this time?
Vera Brittain came from a well-off family and at the time it wasn't expected a woman should need to go to university unless she wanted to be a governess or a teacher in order to make a living. Vera was still quite a rarity in wanting to go to university. She could study and she could go to lectures, though she had to be chaperoned in order to go to those lectures in case she came into contact with male students. However, until after the First World War in 1920, women were not awarded degrees. They could only read their chosen subjects. Vera and her great friend, Winifred Holtby, were among the first women to receive degrees at Oxford.
Why did you choose to make Vera Brittain the focus of your studies?
I read Testament of Youth for the first time over thirty years ago and I've read a lot of books about the First World War since. No single book has ever had the impact on me that Testament of Youth did. It really moved me. I didn't know it at the time but my own grandmother had lost her husband and her brother within three months of each other at the Battle of the Somme. Coincidentally I had been at school with one of Vera Brittain's grandchildren and at university with another. There seemed to be a real connection with her. When I left university, I worked for Vera Brittain's daughter, Shirley Williams and that's really where my serious interest began.
Do you think Vera would have approved of a film version of her life and loss?
Absolutely. She would have approved of both our film and the TV series that was made in 1979. There are letters from Vera to friends to this effect. At that time the experiences of women during the First World War were still largely overlooked. When you think of the BBC's great landmark series, The Great War, which was first shown in 1964-65, in all 20 hours of footage only 10 minutes is devoted to women and their experience during the war.
So why is it that Vera's story has stood the test of time?
I think it unites lots of different universal elements. It has great drama and a terrific narrative plot line. It's a book about a woman's struggle to emancipate herself and get an education. It's a love story and it's a story about keeping faith with the dead. How do you go on living? How do you rebuild your life when you have lost so much?
What do you think Vera's intention was when she wrote the book?
Vera's intention was to educate and inform the world about how movements opposing war grew out of the experience of the First World War. Shortly after she left Oxford University in 1921 she began lecturing for the League of Nations Union, which was committed to an international policy.
By the time Vera Brittain wrote Testament of Youth in the early 30's, the League of Nations was failing and Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany. She began to realise that ultimately the only thing that would stop war is for everybody to oppose the idea of war completely.
Were you confident that the film could exist on those two levels as both a drama and a political message?
I knew it would be a challenge but I'm absolutely amazed at the way Juliette Towhidi has boiled down a very complex and didactic book, yet retained its essence. That's one of the great things about the script.
The book has had several resurgences of popularity since it was first published – what are the reasons for this?
It has been an extraordinary process. She had been a best-selling author on both sides of the Atlantic, right up until the beginning of the Second World War, when her pacifist worldviews began to damage her book sales. When Virago republished Testament of Youth in 1978, it sent the book back into the Bestseller list again. That re-publication, along with the BBC television series in 1979 really established the book. But never the less it's taken 30 years to embed Testament of Youth in the canon of First World War literature. In my mind, what's extraordinary, eighty years on from its first publication is that it's the most powerful work of love, loss, and remembrance to emerge from the First World War.
It took ten years after the end of the First World War before Vera began writing Testament of Youth – why do you think it took her so long?
The actual experience of writing the book we now know as Testament Of Youth, (which she started writing in November 1929 and finished in the spring of 1933), was a searing one, not only because the process of remembering very painful things was obviously difficult to deal with, but also because she was trying to build a family and build a marriage at the same time.
She was middle class and she could afford to employ people to look after her children, it was nevertheless a very stressful existence. When you read letters that she wrote, especially from 1931 to 1933 when the book was finished, she really is close to breakdown at times. It was so important to her that the book should succeed, not only because she wanted to be a writer but also because she wanted to immortalise the lives of those she had lost.
Vera Brittain was both a mother and a successful author – how do you think she balanced the two?
I think it's difficult for us to understand that for women of that generation who were committed to equality, like Vera Brittain, there was a sense that they had a right to have a career, to fulfil themselves and also to have a marriage and children. The fulfilment of being a writer was very important to Vera Brittain. One thing she says at the end of the war in 1918 is that the war had left her with nothing and the only thing that held her to life was ambition itself.
What kind of a man was Roland Leighton?
Despite having all his letters it is still very difficult to really understand what sort of man Roland was. We know he was obviously quiet, confident and self-assured and Vera said in Testament of Youth, ‘he may have been only 19, but he could easily have passed for 30.' Roland was a born writer and Vera Brittain recognised that bond between them. He came from a literary family and his father had been the literary editor of The Daily Mail while his mother was a flamboyant romantic novelist who was initially kind to Vera but later disapproved of her increasingly left-wing politics and feminism.
Tell us a bit more about Edward?
I think Edward was always the temperamental foil to Vera Brittain. He was quieter, he didn't flare up, and he didn't have her temperament. Therefore, he was quite an essential counter-balance within the Brittain family. Mr Brittain had a terrible temper and was a depressive. There were quite a lot of lively rousts in the family, and Edward was always sort of the mediating influence. Much later in life she says somewhere that its so extraordinary that such a quiet, withheld personality could've been so courageous in the war without really making much fuss about it.
He had, of course, been extraordinarily courageous during the first Battle On The Somme when he'd gone over the top and then been caught in No Man's Land. He survived on water for a number of hours before attempting the crawl back.
What can you tell us about Victor?
Victor was undoubtedly less academically gifted than Roland and Edward, though he had a place at Cambridge where he was going to study medicine. I think he was a very dependable, caring person who'd been through quite a lot personally before the war started. In the early months of the war, Victor caught meningitis and almost died from that, but nevertheless was very keen to enlist and eventually went off to France.
What's the trick to making the film work on both a political and a personal level?
I think partly, it lies with the actress. Alicia is obviously very beautiful, and the camera loves her. What's interesting is that even when she's in repose an extraordinary flow of different emotions flood across her visage. That is mesmerizing to watch and draws you in. The thing about Alicia is she's incredibly intelligent and also interested in the visual setup and in the way the director is putting the scene together.
Of course, the adaptation is also important and Juliette has cleverly conveyed the essence of the pacifist, or at least the anti-war message, in certain key scenes that aren't necessarily in the book. Finally, the director allows you to feel that you're not hearing an autographical voice, but perceiving an autobiographical voice. The film has a very strong point of view, which I think is essential in an adaptation of Testament of Youth, because ultimately, it's one woman's story. It's an autobiography.
Do you get the sense that Shirley Williams is still keen for another story to be told to a wider audience?
She is thrilled. I mentioned to her that the Twitter comments around the film show how this new generation is responding to the casting of these incredible young actors and how it will take her mother's reputation to a whole new level.
It seems quite foreign to us now that a whole generation could join in a war effort so whole-heartedly – was it part of the breeding?
It's important to remember that the four men in Vera Brittain's life belonged to a very precise class in society; they were young officer material and educated at public schools. A public school like Uppingham was extremely militaristic - probably the most militaristic of all the public schools. That kind of attitude, patriotism and desire to serve your country, to die if necessary was inculcated into them through their education. It's important to remember, however, that not everyone reacted as these men did. There's a myth that everybody rushed to the colours in August 1914 – they didn't. These young public school officers did, and their life expectancy could be as short as three weeks in the trenches.
Can you explain the role of a VAD nurse?
The VAD scheme, or the Voluntary Aid Detachment, had actually been established before the war following films of German invasion. The VAD nurses were generally drawn from the upper and middle classes. You didn't get many working class girls doing that job. It was intended to be a support system for the professional Queen Alexandra nurses. As time went on and conditions became more difficult, especially near the front, VADs were called upon to do more and more difficult and more extreme tasks like assisting in operations.
What kind of work did Vera do when she was a VAD nurse and what would have been her daily regime?
Vera began as a VAD nurse at the Devonshire Hospital in Buxton and then transferred to the first London General at Camberwell, which appears in the film. At first she was doing very simple tasks, such as cleaning the hospital, making sure the patients were comfortable and ensuring the bed linen was kept clean. As soon as the wounded began to arrive, more and more pressure was imposed on the young VADs, who had no formal training. Because of this, the professional nurses often regarded them with contempt as depicted in the film. It was a great shock for Vera when she goes to a military hospital to actually be responsible for giving a young man a bed bath. Given her restricted upbringing it was extraordinary for her to see a man naked for the first time. When she travelled to Etaples, she was very close to the front line and supplies were short so the pressure was even greater. One thing that is very true about Vera Brittain's character is that she was often extremely frightened, but she believed that the only way of dealing with that fear was to face up to it. She stayed in France during the worst times, even though she was scared stiff.
In what way did this job contribute to shaping Vera's future ideology?
The point that's so important about Vera's experience of France is that she is nursing German prisoners of war whilst her brother Edward, in a different part of the line, is trying to kill them. Vera is there, patching them up and trying to save their lives. That drove home the whole incomprehensibility of war contributing ultimately to the pacifist ideals that she would embrace after the war.
What sort of themes in the film do you think will appeal to an audience?
It's a great wartime love story, and I think that's what a lot of people will come to this film wanting to see. It is an extraordinary story of love and about keeping faith with the dead. But I think the message that Vera Brittain would want most people to take away from the film is the agony and destructiveness of modern warfare to the human race.