Thursday, 14 July 2016

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

On 1 July when the Battle of the Somme centenary commemorations were taking place I happened to be reading the last pages of Testament of Youth, the First World War autobiography by writer, feminist and pacifist Vera Brittain (1893-1970). Her Oxford dream comes true when the war has broken out and after one year at Sommerville College she puts her studies on hold to volunteer as a nurse. With the help of diary entries and letters, her book describes the horror of the Great War and its aftermath - she lost a fiancé, a brother and friends. First published in 1933, it has continued to reach a new generation of readers.

The film Testament of Youth (2014) is adapted from the book, with actress Alicia Vikander in a leading role, superbly capturing Vera's serious tone. I have to mention the film and, while bending the rule of using my photos only, feature part of its beautiful set design: Her bedroom and its gorgeous bookish paraphernalia in her parents' home in Buxton, Derbyshire, is the work of set decorator Robert Wischhusen-Hayes.

One doesn't pick up Vera Brittain's book for entertainment. It's a serious, emotional read, about love and friendships during war, and how war steals youth, forcing young people to grow up faster than they should. Sometimes I didn't understand how Vera could go on as a volunteer. The hours, the workload, the conditions; it got beyond exhausting - she worked in England, Malta and France. On top of that was the constant fear of losing someone dear:
Even when the letters came they were four days old, and the writer since sending them had had time to die over and over again. (p. 121)
On more than one occasion she fell apart or got sick but always got back on her feet and kept going. She did it for those she had lost and those still fighting.

Without going into too many details, before going to Oxford she meets Roland Leighton through her brother Edward. With him at the front, their relationship develops through letters. Constantly lurking is the fear that he will be killed in combat or forever changed by war:
To this constant anxiety for Roland's life was added . . . a new fear that the War would become between us - as indeed, with time, the War always did, putting a barrier of indescribable experience between men and the women whom they loved, thrusting horror deeper and deeper inward, linking the dread of spiritual death to the apprehension of physical disaster. (p. 122)
Those who have seen the film probably remember a scene by the beach with Roland turning violent. In real life it didn't happen. It was one of the dramatic licenses taken to tell a true story. In fact, the lovers had a short row through letters but I thought of that scene when I read this particular description of her brother:
[H]e was an unfamiliar, frightening Edward, who never smiled nor spoke except about trivial things, who seemed to have nothing to say to me and indeed hardly appeared to notice my return. (p. 324)
The siblings had a beautiful relationship and this was a very different Edward. He was one of the soldiers wounded in the Battle of the Somme and was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery in it. The war claimed his life in 1918. When I reached this part of the book I thought that screenwriter Juliette Towhidi had done a marvellous job. That beach scene is quite powerful.

Back to the book. Despite the horror of war there are a few stolen moments of joy. My personal favourite is when Vera enjoys a break from work, goes to the theatre, and afterwards writes to Roland:
Do you ever like to picture the people who write to you as they looked when they wrote? I do. At the present moment I am alone in the hostel common-room, sitting in an easy chair in front of the fire, clad precisely in blue and white striped pyjamas, a dark blue dressing-gown and a pair of black velvet bedroom slippers. (p. 199)
From the trenches Roland affectionately replies:
I should so like to see you in blue and white pyjamas. You are always correctly dressed when I find you, and usually somewhere near a railway station, n'est-ce pas? . . . It all seems such a waste of Youth, such a desiccation of all that is born for Poetry and Beauty. (p. 200)
This was in 1915 and they were engaged. Only a few pages later Roland is dead, shot by a German sniper right before his Christmas leave that same year.

In Downton Abbey there is a scene during the Great War where Lady Sybil [Findlay] says to Isobel Crawley [Wilton]: 'Sometimes, it feels as if all the men I ever danced with are dead' (series 2, about 10 min. into episode 1). That sentence has stuck with me. I think it has to do with my home country Iceland having no army. We don't have this collective memory of sending our young men to war, of its human cost and sacrifices (sons of Icelanders that had emigrated to Canada and the US died in the war but that's another story). Since moving to the UK I feel as if I have been gradually grasping the sense of the First World War and its impact on the British nation. Vera Brittain's book certainly gave me new insights.

After the war Vera went back to study at Oxford. At one point, when nerves and nightmares were taking their toll, these were her thoughts:
Why couldn't I have died in the War with the others? . . . I'm nothing but a piece of wartime wreckage, living on ingloriously in a world that doesn't want me! (p. 448)
Eventually, the emotional scars of the war faded. She got through the experience with the help of Winifred Holtby, an Oxford friend (both became authors; Holtby died in 1935). Vera finished her studies, spoke publicly for the League of Nations, got married, and became an advocate for peace.

Kit Harington and Alicia Vikander as Roland and Vera in Testament of Youth (2014)

1: photo by me | background image of a field of poppies by Andrew Montgomery, from the book Country by Jasper Conran | 2-5: screenshots by me (production stills of bedroom unavailable) | 6: still via Alicia | credit: BBC Films, Heyday Films, Screen Yorkshire + BFI | director James Kent · screenplay Juliette Towhidi · costume design Consolata Boyle

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