Vera Brittain: testament of an inspiring woman

Last week, I heard that a film adaptation of Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’ is about to be released. If you’ve never read it, you should. I first discovered it when I was sixteen and was blown away by it.

Vera was born to a middle class family in 1893, and rebelled against convention throughout her childhood. She was desperate to study at Oxford but her provincial parents didn’t approve of education for women. She eventually wore them into submission, and won a place at Oxford without any coaching or encouragement. But she’d barely started her studies when war broke out. Frustrated by her own inability to be make a difference, she enrolled in the Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, tending to wounded servicemen in England, Malta and France. Her idealism soon faded. In the hospitals, she heard stories of atrocities committed by British and Germans, as well as witnessing horrific injuries, and became cynical about the war coverage in the British media. She also lost the four people she cared most about in the world: her fiancé Roland, two close male friends, Victor and Geoffrey, and her brother, Edward. Meanwhile her parents urged her to return to her ‘rightful’ place at home, obsessed with petty worries about lack of decent domestic staff.

When she returned from the war, she found it hard to adjust. She returned to Oxford and was devastated when she received a hostile response from younger fellow students following her description of her wartime experiences at the debating society. But she formed a close and lifelong friendship with fellow student Winifred Holtby and, after Oxford, the two of them moved into in a studio flat in an arrangement that was considered bohemian and led to later rumours about their sexuality. They scraped a living by writing articles and lecturing, though both were passionate about becoming writers. Vera had to contain her jealousy when Winifred was the first to have her novel published (she became a successful novelist and is best known for South Riding.) In 1925, Vera married George Catlin, a philosopher and political scientist. They had two children, one of whom is Shirley Williams, former Labour Cabinet minister and now a Liberal Democrat peer, who remembers her mother being constantly haunted by the loss of Roland, Victor, Geoffrey and Edward. Although she was a good mother, her writing came first; Shirley Williams recalls that ‘interruptions were permitted only for deaths, serious accidents or wars.’

Vera published Testament of Youth in 1933 and it became one of the most famous memoirs of the twentieth century. Although she wrote two more memoirs and a handful of novels, nothing came close to the success of Testament of Youth. And her life became further touched by tragedy. In 1935, her father, who never recovered from her brother’s death, committed suicide by jumping from a bridge. Also that year, Winifred died of Bright’s disease, aged only 37.

After this double blow, Vera threw herself into campaigning for pacifist causes. But she acted as well as talking; in the Second World War she worked as a fire warden, helped people whose homes had been bombed as well as working on food relief campaigns. Controversially, she also campaigned against the mass bombing of Germany.

Vera died in 1970, believing that she’d been forgotten as a writer, ‘the fading voice of a dying generation’. She was wrong. Testament of Youth was adapted for TV in 1979 and is still considered one of the greatest accounts of World War I ever written. I hope the new film does it justice.

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