Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth: a ‘staggeringly authentic’ WW1 film says daughter Baroness Shirley Williams
Described as the symbolic story of a generation, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth captured the impact of the First World War on the lives of women in a way no other work had. Published in August 1933, her memoirs recalled the horror and tragedy of the conflict, and paid tribute to those she had lost – Brittain’s fiancé, brother and two close friends died in the war. Now, Brittain’s story of love, loss, and determination has inspired a film by the same name
Starring Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton and Emily Watson, Testament of Youthcharts Brittain’s journey from aspiring writer with a place at Oxford to a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse raging against the injustices of war.
The First World War marked the beginning of Brittain’s journey towards pacifism: in later years she joined the Peace Pledge Union and Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, and during the Second World War spoke out against saturation bombing of German cities.
In later years Brittain identified herself also as a feminist and socialist – themes reflected in her public lectures and literary and journalistic writing.
In an interview with History Extra, Brittain’s daughter, Baroness Shirley Williams, a Liberal Democrat peer and professor emeritus of elective politics at Harvard University, shared her views on Testament of Youth, and revealed how her mother became the standard by which she has tried to live her life…
Q: Your mother has such an incredible legacy. How does it feel to see her life played out on screen?
A: Well the first experience I had of that was the 1979 BBC Two television adaptation ofTestament of Youth [starring Cheryl Campbell], which rocketed my mother’s memoirs back to popularity. We expected the buzz to pick up and then come back down again, but in fact it has remained ever since.
Her memoirs have since reached a new generation of readers. I think this is partly because so many schools put Testament of Youth on their reading lists. Every week we receive scores of letters from young people who’ve read it.
For me, it is a great delight to see Testament of Youth has reached that point of being almost semi-immortal. I think my mother would have been absolutely delighted.
Q: Were you pleased with the final version of the new film?
A: I was, yes. In the beginning I was quite skeptical, because my mother would have hated it to be a Hollywood ‘weepie’. But I spoke to the film’s great scriptwriter [Juliette Towhidi] about how my mother would have wanted to be played by someone with great self-discipline. My mother never let her mind get fogged by sentimentality.
[Swedish actress] Alicia Vikander, who plays her in the film, does an excellent job. She has the quality of quiet, Scandinavian detachment.
Q: Your mother suffered so much loss in the First World War, with the death of her fiancé, brother and two friends. How did the conflict shape her life, and lead her towards pacifism?
A: The war gave her the passion to find non-military solutions to military problems. She was involved with the Indian independence movement [which lasted until August 1947, when India gained independence from the British Raj], and in the Second World War was one of the few people who spoke out against saturation bombing of German cities [through her 1944 bookletMassacre by Bombing].
I think the film will help people to understand her.
Q: How much did you know about your mother’s First World War experiences growing up?
A: It was not openly discussed when my brother [John Brittain-Catlin, 1927–87], and I were little.
But when we came back from America in 1943, my brother and I had had some experience of independent living. We felt grown up at 13, and at that time I had long conversations with my mother about who she had lost in the war.
My father [Sir George Catlin (1896–1979), a political scientist and professor at Cornell University] had more influence on me politically – from him I learnt the ‘nuts and bolts’ of politics.
My mother was a moral icon. She was incredibly honest, outspoken and brave, and she became the standard by which I have tried to live my life.
Q: For our readers who are yet to see the film, how would you best describe it?
A: Testament of Youth captures the conventions of the Edwardian period – it is set in beautiful countryside, in what was perceived to be a ‘golden age’. This protected people from what was going on [in the wider world]. The film also shows the perception of war as a moral purpose; something people felt they had to do.
But more importantly, the film’s coverage of the First World War is staggeringly authentic – it does not hide the tragedies of war. This is largely thanks to its director, documentary producer James Kent [who won a BAFTA for his 2005 BBC Two documentary, Holocaust: A Music Memorial Film].
The film makes no pretence about how awful the war was. Of course it shows there was compassion, but you don’t get the idea that Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurses were ‘angels of mercy’. My mother would have been pleased with how the horrors of First World War hospitals are captured in the film, and how medicine was shown to be a pretty barbaric business at the time – most people who were badly wounded in the war died. A lot of First World War coverage avoids this.
Q: Your mother’s memoirs have never been out of print since they were published in 1933. Why do you think, all these years later, Testament of Youth continues to resonate?
A: Because of its brazen honesty. My mother always told the story as she saw it.
In the modern age we are very condemning of hypocrisy, and Testament of Youth shows clearly the gap between the home front and the war front. There was no television and little press coverage [of the fighting], so my mother’s parents thought little of bringing her home from the front simply to do the ironing and help with the upkeep of the house. They had only a vague sense of what was going on, and this frustrated my mother.
There was the idea among public schools that war was going to be gallant and honourable. There wasn’t any of the immediacy you had with the Second World War that came with radio coverage. The home front and war fronts were worlds apart, and that painful gap is captured in the scene when Roland’s military gear is sent home to his family immediately after his death.
Q: Your mother accomplished such a great deal – she was a writer, a public speaker and a journalist. What would you say was her greatest achievement?
A: I would have to say it was writing Testament of Youth, but her other great achievement was that all her life she stood up for her view that men and women should be equal. It is easy to say that now, but in my mother’s early years, women were seen to have a very limited capacity and strength – that was the view of the wider world. It was what most middle-class Edwardian men felt. Now, of course, we find that astonishing.
This is captured brilliantly in the film – it gives you a feel of the conventions of the time. You see her mother going along with her husband, and being rather shocked by Vera’s behaviour.
But the film also captures how in some ways my mother could be quite impossible – for example, when she rejects the gift of a piano from her father. But at the time that was all part of her struggle against being treated almost like a child. The film shows how little society had moved on from the ‘Jane Austen days’.
Testament of Youth is now showing in cinemas. Below, you can watch the trailer:
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