Vera Brittain and the First World War by Mark Bostridge, book review: Haunting testament of longevity

Exploring the life of Vera Brittain, as her First World War memoir is adapted for the big screen

Michele Roberts
Thursday 27 November 2014 18:20

Vera Brittain's first volume of autobiography, Testament of Youth, recounted her experiences as a nurse in the First World War, in London, France and Malta, her heartbreak over her loss of fiancé, friends and brother, her dawning rage at the waste of life she witnessed. Widely acclaimed on first publication in 1933, her urgently told story was reissued by Virago in 1978 as a classic feminist text and remains in print.

Mark Bostridge has written copiously on Brittain. The jacket of this, his latest book on her, complete with Brief Encounters-style still, reveals it as a tie-in to the forthcoming "major film starring Alicia Vikander and Kit Harington". Bostridge, as consultant on the film, provides an impressionistic account of a long day on set, praises the actors and the script, and bravely gives readers a glimpse of his original film treatment, which, he gamely admits, was too longwinded. Elsewhere he includes a chronology, a gazetteer and an index.

He says in his foreword that he hopes his book "will serve as an initial port of call for those coming to Vera Brittain for the first time, perhaps as a result of seeing the film, or of studying Testament of Youth at school or university".

People who have previously studied Brittain's autobiography cannot be labelled as coming to her for the first time, unless they fell asleep during class. What in this book will wake them up?

Most of it consists of a condensed version of Bostridge's previous biography of Brittain, written in a plain, accessible style, unafraid of serviceable clichés, charting her slow politicisation. At first she tried to re-cast her experiences as fiction, then settled on the memoir form. Memory and imagination are closely linked, and Bostridge points out how Brittain underplayed her initial gung-ho attitude to the fighting, simplifying her conflicts and contradictions to provide a streamlined narrative of pacifist awakening.

Bostridge also provides an afterword, in which he details his research into the tragic circumstances of the death of Brittain's beloved brother Edward, which she learned about just after the publication of Testament of Youth. Since homosexuality was involved, and since homosexual acts were illegal, Brittain chose to transform this taboo subject matter into fiction, in her 1936 novel Honourable Estate.

I enjoyed this glimpse of Bostridge at work. Novelists such as Penelope Lively (in According to Mark) and AS Byatt (in The Biographer's Tale) have written about biographers as archaeologists and detectives. More recently, Sarah LeFanu, the biographer of Rose Macaulay, has devoted an entire picaresque and witty volume (Dreaming of Rose) to her research on Macaulay, who was Brittain's near-contemporary, a sister Somervillian, a bestselling writer, a friend of Rupert Brooke, and the author of Non-combatants and Others, a novel written and set in 1915.

Like Testament of Youth, this gives a young woman's point of view. In a lecture this autumn at Bristol University, LeFanu pointed out that Macaulay's novel "pre-dates by more than 10 years those memoirs and novels – by Edmund Blunden, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, for example – that have become the foundational texts for our perception and understanding of the war". Brittain gets let into that male club as the one exceptional woman.

Bostridge calls Brittain's book "the greatest work of love, loss and remembrance to emerge from the First World War". However, just as Virago challenged the male-dominated canon back in the 1970s, new anthologies challenge the British-centric view. Pete Ayrton's recent compilation No Man's Land – Writings from a World at War, including a range of female writers, testifies to widespread trauma. Do read it.

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