Testament of Youth
Book by Vera Brittain
Testament of Youth is Vera Brittain’s memoir about her time, her generation, her circle: middle-class, well educated, aspiring writers, poets, young people having complex and nuanced conversations, experiences, and emotions, all the while writing diaries, letters and poems, just before, during, and after WWI – “the war to end all wars.” It is not a light read.
I picked it up some years ago because of my interest in early 20th century British women writers, their lives and their perspectives, especially of WWI, since most of what we have is written by men. Not many women were being educated, listened to, or published in those days.
Vera Brittain was rare. A young woman who could get into Oxford in 1913 was no common creature – it was hard enough for men. She had to struggle against centuries of cultural baggage to be among the earliest to achieve such a goal. Along with a well-heeled upbringing, she had to have the brains, the drive, and the discipline to win that position. She made friendships during those years which developed through conversations about literature, the nature of life, and when it came to it, the meaning of war, fighting for one’s country, and eventually, the relevance of the life of the mind during such times.
At the beginning of the war, her brother and their friends gave up school to join the fight. In 1915 she felt she too had to do something, and dropped out of Oxford to become a nurse. While posted in London, November 1915, she wrote to Roland Leighton, one of her brother’s best friends to whom she’d become engaged:
“I have only one wish in life now and that is for the ending of the war. I wonder how much really all you have seen and done has changed you. Personally, after seeing some of the dreadful things I have to see here, I feel I shall never be the same person again, and wonder if, when the war does end, I shall have forgotten how to laugh… One day last week I came away from a really terrible amputation dressing I had been assisting at – it was the first after the operation – with my hands covered with blood and my mind full of a passionate fury at the wickedness of war, and I wished I had never been born.”
That same month, he wrote to her:
“It all seems such a waste of youth, such a desecration of all that is born for poetry and beauty.”
In a letter from the summer before, he’d written:
“Among this chaos of twisted iron and splintered timber and shapeless earth are the fleshless, blackened bones of simple men who poured out their red, sweet wine of youth unknowing, for nothing more tangible than Honour or their Country’s Glory or another’s Lust of Power. Let him who thinks that war is a glorious golden thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and Love of Country. Let him look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shine bone and what might have been its ribs, or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting half-crouching as it fell, supported on one arm, perfect but that it is headless, and with the tattered clothing still draped around it; and let him realise how grand and glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence.”
After the war, alone with her ghosts, she returned to Oxford, but switched from studying for an English degree to one in History, so that she might “understand how the whole calamity (of the war) had happened, to know why it had been possible for me and my contemporaries, through our own ignorance and others’ ingenuity, to be used, hypnotised and slaughtered.”
She graduated, wrote novels and became a journalist known as a feminist and a pacifist. In the early 1930s, she wrote Testament of Youth.
I recently discovered the 5-part BBC serial made in 1979, with Cheryl Campbell as Vera Brittain. Though slightly dated (get over it), this production incorporates lengthy philosophical conversations, arguments, recitations of poetry, long silences…One is given plenty to consider about the expectations of women in those years, the nature of life, and the cost of war – all at the heart of Vera Brittain’s reasons for writing her book. Of course, with 5 hours, one can get deep like that – if one wants.
Sadly, the 2014 film production of Testament of Youth is a product of our time. It skims over all the depth, and gives us a largely wordless tragic love story, essentially silencing the philosophy and purpose of the author. I’d taken myself on a date to see this film, considering it a sacred outing, and found instead simply another syrupy WWI romance pic – so much less meaningful than it could have been. The focus is a tragic romance between two pretty and well-dressed people – her neck, his lips, etc…Sigh; how dull. Especially annoying when Vera Brittain wrote things like this (from a letter to her brother in 1917): “But where you and I are concerned, sex by itself doesn’t interest us unless it is united with brains and personality; in fact we rather think of the latter first, and the person’s sex afterwards…”
The film does not delve into the intelligence and passion that drew these people together, or much of the wrestling with their beliefs that the war forced on them. Nary a complex conversation highlighting not only the conflicting perspectives of war, but also the rare circumstance of a young man falling in love with a young woman deeply interested in thought and writing – barely acceptable in 2015; certainly off-putting 100 years ago. Instead, we get looooong shots of Alicia Vikander’s eyes (god forbid she should talk too much!), and emotions conveyed mostly through her neck, until her final speech, suddenly melodramatic, as if spoken by a different character for a different film – showing, I guess, how the war had changed her.
Matching the cleaned up internal landscape was the distracting cleanliness and newness of the entire production: new clothes, new furnishings, new trains so shiny you could see yourself in them, full of soldiers in uniforms that were dirty but not lived in. There was plenty of predictable footage of young men in trenches, young men on stretchers, young men in bloody bits and pieces or splayed in death while prim nurses bustled about, all to epically tragic music; but ultimately, I felt no connection to anyone in the heart of the story, no relationship to their struggles, and no reason to lament their deaths, other than the abstract horribleness of it.
I felt this film was a squandered opportunity. There was so much material to work with, especially the internal struggle this group of young people went through from believing in the glory to experiencing the reality, the cost and the waste of war, as well as the incredible uniqueness of Vera Brittain, herself an inspiration for so many women – all reduced to a fashionable, if sad, photo shoot.
WWI wasn’t pretty, and Testament of Youth is about much more than how sad it was that the boys died.
If you can find it, take the time, do them the honor, and read the book. (quotations courtesy of http://spartacus-educational.com/Jbrittain.htm)