Biographer Mark Bostridge reveals what drew him to tell Vera Brittain’s story afresh — and we offer a chance to win his latest book plus the new Testament of Youth DVD.

An enduring testament

By Lindsey Harrad

After reading Vera Brittain’s memoir of the First World War, Testament of Youth, while an undergraduate at Oxford (St Anne’s College, 1979), Mark Bostridge felt an immediate connection with this young woman from a similar middle-class background to his own, who was equally inspired by the romance of Oxford and the intellectual opportunities offered by the University. She wrote her now-classic wartime account based on her experiences as a VAD nurse and the loss on the battlefield of four important young men in her life, including her fiancé Roland Leighton and brother Edward Brittain.

An enduring testament

‘It’s the greatest story of love, loss and remembrance to emerge from the First World War and it’s a very compelling personal account,’ says Mark. ‘I was shocked by the succession of deaths of the young men in her life, and it offers a rare insight into the war from a female perspective. When she began the book in the early 1930s it was because she felt the necessity to warn against the perceived “glamour of war”, that another generation should not make the mistake that hers had made. The final section of the book is directed at 1930s Europe where the rise of fascism was only too evident.’

Coincidentally, Bostridge had been a friend of Brittain’s grandson at school and her granddaughter at Oxford, and went on to work as a research assistant for the politician Shirley Williams, then president of the SDP and Vera Brittain’s daughter. An idea to write a book on her mother’s life, which Bostridge admits had been lodged in his mind for some time, started to take shape; and he was eventually invited to write her authorised biography in collaboration with Brittain's long-time friend Paul Berry, who had found the mammoth task beyond him. After eight years of painstaking research, the biography was finally published in 1995. Bostridge later edited Brittain's war letters and her war poetry.

Six years ago Brittain’s extraordinary story attracted the attention of filmmakers (BBC Films and Heyday Films), and in the centenary year of the war Testament of Youth, starring Alicia Vikander and Kit Harington (Game of Thrones), finally went before the cameras. Bostridge admits he felt ‘rather possessive’ of the material at first and struggled with the creative licence required to translate her story effectively to the big screen and make it relevant for a contemporary audience.

An enduring testament

‘I was initially amazed at the liberties the scriptwriter and producer took, but I finally understood how necessary that was,’ he says. ‘Although I may not approve of everything, I do think the film works magnificently because it gives the essence of the story and it genuinely moves people. Every time I’ve been to see it, people have been weeping in the cinema around me. If it hadn’t provoked that emotional response, it would have been a failure.’

With his new book – Vera Brittain and the First World War: The Story of the Testament of Youth – published alongside the film launch to help introduce a new generation to Brittain’s story, Bostridge feels an important chapter in his professional life has now closed, having successfully secured Brittain’s legacy.

‘I’m very relieved the film has been made, as it’s always been one of my wishes as one of her literary executors that her story should be told to a wider audience. There was little indication, back when I was an undergraduate, that Testament of Youth would become part of the canon of war literature as it is now. Vera Brittain's reputation as a writer, feminist and pacifist is firmly established.’

Vera Brittain and the First World War is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99. The movie Testament of Youth has just arrived on digital platforms and will be available on Blu-ray and DVD from 25 May from Lionsgate Home Entertainment.

We have five copies respectively of the DVD and Mark’s book, to give to the first five readers who correctly answer the first question and offer a thoughtful contribution on the second.

  1. The female lead in the film Testament of Youth, Alicia Vikander, is indirectly associated with pacifism via a previous role. How so?
  2. Which other First World War memoir ought to be brought to new audiences via the cinema, and why? We will publish a collection of readers’ suggestions in due course.

Please email your answers to richard.lofthouse@admin.ox.ac.uk with ‘WW1 Quiz’ in the subject line, providing a daytime phone number and postal address.

Watch our video series Oxford and the Great War:

Movie images © Lionsgate UK Ltd. Book cover © Bloomsbury. Photo of Mark Bostridge © University of Oxford.

Comments

By Richard Whiley
on

Without doubt, ToY is the only book I have read which really captures the feelings, the tragedy, the morality, of that terrible conflict and its aftermath. And the pages in which VB recounts the way she received the news of Roland's death cannot be read without tears being shed, no matter how often one reads them.

By Fiona Tchen
on

I read Testament of Youth the year I left Oxford, (1986) and felt the shock of parallels with my life. It really made the effects of WW1 on individuals come alive. I think all undergraduates should read it (or see the film) sometime in their years at Oxford. (And possibly all 20 year olds in the UK!)

By Erika Fairhead ...
on

I enjoyed the film, but was incensed to see that the Oxford scenes were not filmed at Somerville, where both Vera Brittain and her daughter Shirley Williams were educated. Why was this?

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