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3609 words

The voice of a generation

1 April 2015

Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, now in its second screen version, recounts a remarkable life amid the upheavals of a century ago, writes Brian McFarlane

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Passion and perception: Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain in James Kent’s version of Testament of Youth.

Passion and perception: Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain in James Kent’s version of Testament of Youth.

Testament of Youth
By Vera Brittain | Little, Brown | $22.99

Testament of Youth
Directed by Moira Armstrong | BBC/London Films | 1979

Testament of Youth
Directed by James Kent | BBC Films/Heyday Films | On general release from 23 April


Many decades ago a well-meaning teacher urged me to read a book with the not-too-enticing title of Testament of Youth by someone called Vera Brittain. It didn’t sound like the sort of stuff I was into at the time. Then, thirty-five years ago, I bought a copy of the book in an edition inspired by the TV series of the late 1970s. Now, in 2015, I’ve finally read it, and I must say that few books in recent memory have struck me so forcibly with the passion of their response to life’s challenges and the wonderful eloquence of the prose in which this is rendered. First published in 1933, Testament of Youth remains amazingly acute in its perceptions about both the author’s journey through twenty years and what was going on in the larger world during the tumultuous period between 1914 and the mid 1920s.

So, who was Vera Brittain? Before the first world war interrupted her life, as it did for so many of her generation, she was a schoolgirl whose middle-class parents, especially her father, determined that she “should be turned into an entirely ornamental young lady.” Middle-class they may be, but Brittain describes them as “robustly low-brow,” adding that “there is no evidence that any of them ever did anything of more than local importance.” By Vera’s time, “local” was first Macclesfield, Cheshire, then, when she was eleven, it became Buxton, Derbyshire, where most of the wives, like her mother, “kept house” and were clear about who belonged to “the set.” Vera, aged thirteen in 1906, was sent away to a Surrey boarding school, where many of the girls came from “country houses of which the name ‘Hall’ or ‘Park’ was frequently a part.” From an early age, she became aware of the constrictions of class and gender. Further, her reading turned her from “an unquestioning if somewhat indifferent church-goer into an anxiously interrogative agnostic.” The ritual of deb dances failed to excite her, and her yearning for higher learning took her to Oxford’s Somerville College where she kept a diary, on which the book draws freely, and came to believe that “the golden hours” of youth were often overrated.

Crucial events were about to complicate the texture of her life. During the Easter school holidays in 1914, her younger brother, Edward, a key figure in her story, introduced into their Buxton home a friend from boarding school, Roland Leighton, who would become the love of Vera’s young life. But in that year, 1914, such progress as she had made towards intellectual and social freedom would be “closed for [her] by a Serbian bomb hurled from the other end of Europe at an Austrian archduke.” Her account recalls Alice Duer Miller’s in her famous 1941 verse novella The White Cliffs: “The name of a town in a distant land/Etched on our heart’s by a murderer’s hand.” Perhaps this was a common reaction: what could this faraway assassination have to do with young women in England?

“Oxford Versus War” is the title of a long chapter, in which Vera comes to find public and private matters inseparable. Her brother and Roland will both be killed in the war, along with others of her friends, and she finds herself renouncing Oxford and taking up nursing, first in London, then at various European sites, finding work a sort of opiate. There is a most moving account of Roland’s death in December 1915, and of her coming to terms with this, as she will later have to do with the death of her much-loved brother. Letters to the latter, which do so much to sustain her during the years of chaos, reveal that, for her, patriotism has “worn very very threadbare.” Here, the words of another famous nurse, Edith Cavell – that “patriotism is not enough” – come to mind. Vera’s maturing feminist views are now strengthened by a tenacious pacifism. She may have hated the horrors of war, but she has contempt for such home-front sufferings as the difficulty of finding reliable servants – or any servants at all. In her role as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment, a nursing unit serving field hospitals at home and abroad) she has seen enough of the rigours and squalor that trailed in the wake of war to ensure a lifetime commitment to the pacifist cause. Neither would she find enough reassurance of a better world in the early days of the peace that ensued.

There is not space here to trawl through the 660 pages of her memoir, tempting as such a project is. I’ve wanted simply to suggest some of the formative influences on a young life, receptive to both serious thought and strong feeling, and I want to stress how persuasively she writes about both. Her Foreword makes her agenda clear: it is to “attempt to write history in terms of personal life,” to tell her “own fairly typical story as truthfully as [she] could against the larger background,” and the evidence of the memoir is that she has succeeded brilliantly. For instance, the “eager feminism” of her own prewar girlhood will later inform, and be hugely extended by, her awareness of the fight for women’s suffrage, and by her friendship with another burgeoning writer, novelist Winifred Holtby. She will return to Oxford to read History, not English as in her prewar days, and the shift in interest no doubt grows from her war experiences.

What is so impressive is the unclamorous firmness with which she unfolds her gradually life-changing dealings with such issues as class, war, love and the women’s movement. How, I wondered, would film-makers deal with all this without succumbing to the risk of talky didacticism? It is the quality of mind behind the prose even more than the chronicle of events that accounts for the inspirational element of Testament of Youth. Yes, “Youth” is in the title, but the book’s appeal and significance go well beyond that demographic.

Why should we read Vera Brittain now, nearly a hundred years on? Partly because she is a writer of real accomplishment, of course, but crucially because, as much as anyone, she gives us such an astute, committed insight into the interaction of private and public worlds. And perhaps above all she exposes the hideousness of war and how it smashes up lives – and how postwar peace gives no guarantee of real repair.

Brought to the small screen

In 1979, the BBC and London Films reminded viewers that Brittain’s young womanhood, though so clearly a product of her time, still resonated strongly nearly fifty years after the book’s appearance. The series was written by Elaine Morgan, who had adapted many novels to the demands of television series, and directed by the comparably prolific Moira Armstrong, and perhaps there was no coincidence in the presence of two very experienced women in these key collaborative roles. But just as Brittain’s memoir makes its case for feminism, among other key issues, with clarity and without shrillness, so too this miniseries version commands respect for keeping its eye on crucial matters.

Adapting Brittain’s 660-page work to the small screen in five episodes of roughly fifty minutes each must have been a major challenge. Each episode is allotted a year of Vera’s experience. Episode 1, 1913, establishes her as being at odds with the stifling conventions of middle-class Buxton society. Vera (Cheryl Campbell) is first seen at the piano she hadn’t wanted her father (Emrys James) to buy, wishing instead that he had used the money to send her to university. When brother Edward (Rupert Frazer) comes home, she tells him with some bitterness that he will get his own way but she won’t, as far as their futures are concerned. She wants to go to Oxford but her mother (Jane Wenham) fears this “might spoil her chances” – that is, for marriage. As well as giving a sense of what Vera is reacting against, this first episode introduces two further key encounters: with Miss Penrose (Rosalie Crutchley), the not very sympathetic principal of Somerville College, Oxford, to which she does eventually win an entrance exhibition; and with Edward’s school friend, Roland (Peter Woodward), with whom she can talk about writing and religion, and life at large – and with whom she falls in love.

So, the ground is laid in this first episode for a viewing experience in which our attention will be required not just for incident but also for the interaction of character and idea, and all this against the momentous background of war. Episode 2 (1914) begins with the grandiose statement that “honour has come back… and we have come into our heritage.” All Europe is arming and “Your country needs you,” as the famous Kitchener poster proclaims. Vera’s father relents about her going to Oxford, but by the end of the episode she had decided she wants “to go down for a year” and to become a nurse. “A waste of talent,” says Miss Penrose when Vera announces her plans. Her feminism leads her to reject angrily the notion that women have no useful role to play.

Episode 3 (1915) opens with Vera reading a letter from Roland, whose voice is heard on the soundtrack, and dramatises some of her nursing experiences primarily in English hospitals and, in a finely calculated moment, her learning of Roland’s death. In Episode 4 (1917), she applies to go to France where she serves in the nightmare of a military hospital where she (and the viewer) gets a potent sense of the horror that warfare brings in its wake. The final episode begins with a shot of Big Ben at 11 am, and with crowds cheering and cannon firing to proclaim Armistice Day. Vera will experience “blind rage” at some of the ensuing peace-time attitudes; she returns to Oxford, to read History now rather than English, the war having changed her priorities, and she will eventually embark on a writing career, as will her postwar friend the novelist Winifred Holtby (Joanna McCallum).

By drawing attention, in a little more detail than usual, to “what happens” in each episode, I have wanted to stress the skill with which the miniseries has been constructed. The overarching trajectory will trace Vera’s development from seventeen-year-old girl dissatisfied with the conventional opportunities that seem to be open to her to the young woman who has found her own way through loss and struggle. In pursuit of this narrative agenda, the series’ makers have made clear the key stages by which this is achieved. There is plenty of persuasive detail of person, place and period in each episode, but this is essentially at the service of articulating the shifts in Vera’s thinking and delineating the world turmoil that has influenced that thinking. So much of the book’s compelling interest is in the spectacle of a mind and heart coming to terms with a changing world that I was a bit apprehensive about how the visual medium might render this – or whether it would just settle for incident. I needn’t have worried. A great deal is required of the actress playing Vera and Cheryl Campbell meets its every challenge. What she offers is in fact a tour de force, as, so often in close-up, she registers Vera’s progression from talkative outspokenness to a more reflective turn of mind to a silence that suggests a serious inner life. Campbell has always had a way of hinting at more than she is letting on, and this serves her very well here as she documents a woman who so often moved between the passionate outburst and enforced reticence.

But just as the memoir/autobiography places the protagonist in the context of the wider struggles of war and peace, so too does the television version. Each episode is introduced by black-and-white images that derive from actual footage: at least, these images have the look of newsreel material, relating to the horrors of war or to the activities of suffragettes or the graves of the dead. Colour characteristically seeps in on the pensive face of Vera, and this editing strategy is another way of enunciating the book’s and the series’ preoccupation with the individual caught up, as she must be, in the swirl of life-changing events.

It’s not that what happens to Vera is what matters most, but rather that her situation is in many ways emblematic and she is increasingly articulate about this, as when she declares at the end of the war: “In the last four years, my God, my king and my country have taken everything I value.” The series doesn’t exploit the hardship and terrible injuries that war has brought, but these are sufficiently suggested in key images to account for how harrowing and disruptive they have been in Vera’s life and those of many others. These images – of, say, a soldier bleeding to death in a military hospital – are contrasted with scenes of civilian life in which the editing often skilfully juxtaposes her mother’s ongoing problem with inadequate servants or Miss Penrose’s talk of “waste of talent” with those of real horror. Such images make the effect without resort to didacticism or polemic.

The major issues that preoccupy Brittain in her book – the dissatisfaction with what is available to women, the smugness of class, the displacement of patriotism by pacifism, her growing agnosticism – are appropriately dramatised rather than discussed in the series. Characters age subtly so that we are made aware of the passing of time and of ideological shifts. Moira Armstrong’s command of television’s resources, and the performances of an accomplished cast, bring Elaine Morgan’s screenplay to affecting life. The main stages in Vera’s move towards some kind of independence in a changing world are rendered with persuasive admiration for what the human spirit may aspire to.

And now to the big screen

I approached the new film with some trepidation, coming as it does in the wake of my late-arriving admiration for its great literary antecedent and of the compelling TV miniseries. No need to worry: director James Kent’s cinema feature is a wholly engrossing experience.

Whereas Vera is the narrator – obviously – in her autobiography, in the film she is inevitably narrated. In the book everything is seen through her perceptions; in the film we watch her as she acts and reacts. We are above all observing her rather than seeing everything through her eyes: of course there are important point-of-view shots, but there is a good deal else that the film compels us to perceive from a more or less neutral stance.

This is not to dazzle readers with a great theoretical truth: clearly any film derived from an autobiography will tend to work in this way. The point I really want to make is to draw attention to the film’s incarnation of Vera in the superb performance of Alicia Vikander. This Swedish actress, last seen here as Kitty in Anna Karenina, and with an immaculate English accent, is entirely equal to the camera’s and our scrutiny. The director has allowed the camera to linger on her face to register some complex shifts of thought and emotion. From the first almost-androgynous close-up, her face encircled by an unbecoming cap, to the last moment as the camera homes in to reflect her response to a major experience, Vikander reminds one why Brittain’s book is so powerful, as she creates on screen a Vera whose passion and perception we can respond to and count on.

Mention of the book leads one to ask how a film of just over two hours has chosen to deal with a 660-page memoir of one woman’s life against, and taking part in, a wildly shifting panorama of world events. What kind of obligation has the film-maker to the facts of Vera Brittain’s life as she has chosen to tell them? We come up against the “based on a true story” syndrome, which often seems to imply a coherence about “real life” that is rarely the case, but when those life events have already been constructed into a cogent narrative by the protagonist of their action, the film-maker may perhaps be allowed a certain leeway in the matter of where the emphases of his film may fall. Working from a screenplay by Juliette Towhidi, James Kent has exercised an imaginative control over the material that seems to know how long to hold a scene or insert a moment of memory or invoke a voice-over, or how much detail is needed to create, say, the horrors of wartime France or the prejudices of class and gender on the home front. In doing so, he has made a coherent drama of his own.

In structural terms, the film-makers have elected to open with the riotous triumph of Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, in the crowded streets from which Vera, first seen in pensive close-up, extracts herself, and makes her way into a neighbouring church. This opening leads us to wonder what the peace means to this young woman: why has she opted for silent retreat rather than celebration? What has the war meant to her? Has her sense of loss outweighed relief and joy at the end of hostilities? There’s an episode towards the film’s end that will recall to us this opening episode – and a respect for the skill that has gone into organising the film’s structure. It ends with Vera’s passionate plea for not harbouring hatred for the defeated enemy, recalling Nurse Cavell’s “Patriotism is not enough.”

Between these memorable opening and closing episodes, the film divides itself into three main “chapters.” The first of these depicts the end of Vera’s girlhood, her reactions against the conventionality of her provincial middle-class upbringing, leading her to Somerville College, Oxford, much as her parents fear the effect of this on her matrimonial chances. Towards the end of this section, she has met and fallen in love with Roland (Kit Harington), school friend of her beloved brother Edward (Taron Egerton). The lives of all three, along with so many others, will be irrevocably disrupted by the war, and the large central section of the film will dramatise vividly the nature of this disruption. Vera quits Oxford to become a nurse, and the exposure to the horrors of “the front,” where she nurses “Huns” as well as British wounded, along with the deaths of those closest to her, alters her forever. In the third section, she returns to Oxford, with all the appalling knowledge of the last four years behind her, and announces a change in her intellectual pursuit, from the comparative safety of Literature to the messier demands of History.

This structure highlights the centrality of the experience of war, not just for Vera as an individual but for her representative function. Virtually everyone’s life is disrupted by the war but what Vera’s trajectory emphasises is the way such an experience might alter the whole course of the rest of a person’s life. Postwar, she will head off in different directions, with new commitments. She has always resented the restrictions placed on her as a woman by parents and others; now, she will have no truck with these. She will go her own way, not out of obduracy but from the honing of perceptions of what matters – and there will be a very brief glimpse (for those in the know, anyway) of the man she will marry.

Director Kent maintains a firm grasp of all this, offering an astute but unhurried account of Vera’s metamorphosis (brilliantly incarnated by Alicia Vikander) and of the changing world in which this occurs. That she has changed more than the provincial world in which she has grown up is depicted through its narrow conventionality, which will be shocked and shaken as it wonders what to do with the peace. Her parents are played by Emily Watson and Dominic West (who both seem to get better with every film) with a fine eye for their innate prejudices, and are nicely contrasted by Anna Chancellor as Roland’s much more liberated mother and, in a different way, by Miranda Richardson’s parade of certainties as the principal of Somerville College. And the two young men, played by Harington and Egerton, movingly enact two kinds of youth whose promise will never be fulfilled.

Kent’s film does justice to – honours – the great work on which it is based, and earns the right to share the final title, which describes Brittain and her book as: “The voice of a generation.” It is salutary that this should be heard again. •

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