When the writer Vera Brittain died in 1970, aged 76, after a campaigning life dedicated to working for peace and women’s rights, her reputation was at its nadir. Her daughter Shirley Williams remembered that “she believed that as a writer she had been forgotten, the fading voice of a dying generation”.
However, as Brittain struggled with serious illness in her final years, she did put some trust in the judgment of posterity, comparing her work for peace to a small voice, speaking against the tide of its time, which comes to prominence later.
She had anticipated that her posthumous legacy would be based on a new generation’s discovery of Testament of Youth. her searing memoir of the First World War. The book, which described Brittain’s experience as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in hospitals at home and abroad, and her personal losses in the killing fields of France, Flanders and Italy of her fiancé, brother and two close friends, had been a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic in 1933, and had transformed Brittain overnight into a literary celebrity. Its success had also been partly responsible for making Brittain, in her words, “a minor prophetess of peace” on countless public platforms, influencing her conversion to pacifism.
One committed early reader, Virginia Woolf, felt forced to stay up all night in order to finish the book, while the reviewer in the New York Times wrote that: “Of all the personal narratives covering the world war period, there can surely have been none more honest, more revealing… or more heartbreakingly beautiful than this of Vera Brittain’s.”
Within a decade of Brittain’s death, Testament of Youth was a bestseller again. Carmen Callil, the co-founder of the new feminist publishing house Virago Press, found herself weeping while reading it on holiday in her native Australia. Back home, she propelled the book once again to the top of the bestseller lists, assisted by BBC TV’s five-part adaptation in 1979, with an extraordinarily luminous performance by Cheryl Campbell in the central role and an intelligent script by Elaine Morgan. The series has retained its place as one of the outstanding achievements in television drama of the golden age of British public service broadcasting.Related Articles
With news confirmed of a forthcoming big-screen adaptation of the book, produced by BBC Films and Heyday Films, makers of Harry Potter. and starring 18-year-old Saoirse Ronan, who won an Oscar nomination for Atonement. it seems an appropriate moment to ask why Testament of Youth continues to exercise such appeal.
The book, at almost 600 pages, and exhibiting in its heroine what one critic unkindly described as an example of “war-damaged high-mindedness”, is not an easy read. Its first 100 pages, which follow Brittain’s attempt to escape from her snobbish provincial background by winning an exhibition to Somerville College, Oxford, are sometimes criticised as too protracted and uninvolving by teenage students studying the book for A-level.
And the book’s final section, which charts Brittain’s peace work for the nascent League of Nations Union and its ideal of collective security in the early Twenties, has often been dismissed as too taken up with ephemeral politics to interest a modern audience, even though its narrative is essential to our understanding of how Brittain made positive use of the destruction of her youth through her commitment to trying to ensure that a world cataclysm on the scale of the First World War never occurred again.
But what continues to enthral readers is the overwhelming power of the book’s portrayal of four public schoolboys, destined for university in the summer of 1914, who respond to the call of King and Country, and who, one by one, are killed. There is nothing else in the prose literature of the First World War – not in Graves nor in Blunden or Sassoon – that so eloquently and movingly conveys the suffering and bereavement inflicted by the 1914-18 conflict.
The first of Vera Brittain’s young men to die was her fiancé, Roland Leighton. She learnt of his death, from a sniper’s bullet, in December 1915, while waiting for him to come home on Christmas leave. (The impact of her description of his death can be seen today by anyone visiting the small cemetery at Louvencourt, on the Somme, where Roland is buried. His grave is often covered in violets – in tribute to the love poem, “Violets from Plug Street Wood”, which he wrote for Vera – and the visitors’ book filled with heartfelt remarks.) Eighteen months later, while serving in a hospital in Malta, Brittain received news in quick succession of the death in action of a friend, Geoffrey Thurlow, and the blinding at Arras of another member of her intimate circle, Victor Richardson, who survived just long enough to be reunited with Brittain on her return to England.
Finally, there was the most shattering blow of all, the death of her beloved only brother Edward in the Battle of Asiago, on the Italian front, five months before the declaration of the Armistice. “I ended the First World War with my deepest emotions paralysed if not dead,” Brittain wrote many years later. “This would not have happened if I had had one person left… I could have married Victor in memory of Roland, and Geoffrey in memory of Edward, but the war took even the second best. It left nothing. Only ambition held me to life.”
In writing Testament of Youth. Vera Brittain was intent on giving a voice to the wartime role of women, which had been overlooked in the spate of men’s books about the war that had begun to appear in the late Twenties. She made no “puerile” claim that women’s suffering and service in the war was the same as that of men, but she did argue that a woman who had worked with the armies could provide a wider and more truthful picture of the conflict than the soldier whose knowledge was inevitably confined to a small corner of the front.
As a VAD, who had nursed in six hospitals at home and abroad, she was well placed to do this. Furthermore, as a prominent post-war campaigner for equal rights for women in the workplace and within marriage, she was determined that women’s experiences should be adequately recognised.
Testament of Youth does indeed possess a significant difference of tone from books by male memoirists. Whereas a writer like Edmund Blunden tries to evoke the senselessness and confusion of trench warfare by revealing the depth of the war’s ironic cruelty, Vera Brittain contrastingly attempts to provide a reasoned exposition of why the war had occurred, and how war in the future might be averted.
This provides the book with perhaps its most important message: to warn succeeding generations of the dangers of succumbing out of naive idealism, as Brittain’s male contemporaries had, to the false glamour and excitement of war. Vera Brittain called Testament of Youth a “passionate plea for peace”, which attempts to show “without any polite disguise, the agony of war to the individual, and its destructiveness to the human race”.
Let us hope that the makers of this new film version remain true to the spirit of the book by exposing war in all its obscene, bloody horror.
Mark Bostridge is the author of 'Vera Brittain: A Life’ and a consultant on the film of 'Testament of Youth’
There was a time when autobiographies were only written by the old, who alone, it was supposed, had had experiences numerous and notable enough to make a book. After the War, however, that supposition, perhaps never wholly justifiable, became obviously untenable. So, perforce, there came an era of autobiographies written by those still young in years; and among such books Miss Vera Brittain's "Testament of Youth" must have a high place….
Few people could have brought themselves to write such a chronicle. The task must have been painful, in many of its aspects, to Miss Brittain. Yet it was well worth doing—as a record of spiritual growth, as a memorial to sacrifices nobly made, and as a testimony to the horror and waste of war. For Miss Brittain, active pacifist though she is, can see the real difficulty of the fight against war—the truth, which it is useless to deny, that war stirs men to thoughts and deeds that are as splendid as anything humanity knows…. [Indeed] the book is, as a whole, a wise one. There are certainly irritating things in it, but they are all in inessentials. In the important things of the story—tragic, noble, and in the end not without consolation—there is, in spite (or perhaps because) of its unshrinking frankness, no failure of taste, no irreverence for theatricality in the lifting of the veil from past sorrows.
"'Testament of Youth'," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1933; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 1648, August 31, 1933, p. 571.Access our Vera Brittain Study Guide for Free
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Vera Mary Brittain (29 December 1893 – 29 March 1970) was a British writer, feminist and pacifist, best remembered as the author of the best-selling 1933 memoir Testament of Youth . recounting her experiences during World War I and the beginning of her journey towards pacifism.
Born in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Brittain was the daughter of a well-to-do family who owned paper mills in Hanley and Cheddleton, Staffordshire. She had an uneventful childhood with her only brother her closest companion. At 18 months her family moved to Macclesfield, Cheshire and when she was 11 they moved again, to Buxton in Derbyshire.
From the age of 13 she attended boarding school at St Monica's, Kingswood in Surrey where her aunt was principal. Studying English Literature at Somerville College, Oxford. she delayed her degree after one year in the summer of 1915 in order to work as a V.A.D. nurse for much of the First World War.
Vera and Edward Brittain in 1915. Courtesy Spartacus Educational .
Her fiancé Roland Leighton, two other close friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, and her brother Edward Brittain MC were all killed during the war.  Their letters to each other are documented in the book Letters from a Lost Generation.
Returning to Oxford after the war to read History, Brittain found it difficult to adjust to life among the postwar generation. It was at this time she met Winifred Holtby. and a close friendship developed with both aspiring to become established on the London literary scene. The bond lasted until Holtby's death in 1935. 
In 1925 Brittain married George Catlin, a political scientist and philosopher. Their son, John Brittain-Catlin (1927–1987), was an artist painter, businessman, and the author of the autobiography Family Quartet. which appeared in 1987. Their daughter, born in 1930, is the former Labour Cabinet Minister, now Liberal Democrat peer, Shirley Williams.
Brittain's first published novel was The Dark Tide (1923). It was not until 1933 that she published Testament of Youth . which was followed by the sequels Testament of Friendship (1940) – her tribute to and biography of Winifred Holtby – and Testament of Experience (1957), the continuation of her own story, which spanned the years between 1925 and 1950. Vera Brittain wrote from the heart and based many of her novels on actual experiences and actual people. In this regard her novel Honourable Estate (1936) was in part more of a memoir. Brittain's diaries 1913-17 were published in 1981 in Chronicle of Youth.
In the 1920s she became a regular speaker on behalf of the League of Nations Union. but in June 1936 she was invited to speak at a peace rally in Dorchester. where she shared a platform with Dick Sheppard. George Lansbury. Laurence Housman and Donald Soper. Afterwards Sheppard invited her to join the Peace Pledge Union. and following six months' careful reflection she replied in January 1937 to say she would. Later that year Brittain also joined the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship. Her newly found pacifism came to the fore during World War II. when she began the series of Letters to Peacelovers.
She was a practical pacifist in the sense that she helped the war effort by working as a fire warden and by travelling around the country raising funds for the Peace Pledge Union 's food relief campaign. She was vilified for speaking out against saturation bombing of German cities through her 1944 booklet Massacre by Bombing. Her principled pacifist position was vindicated somewhat when, in 1945, the Nazis' Black Book of 2000 people to be immediately arrested in Britain after a German invasion was shown to include her name. 
From the 1930s onward, Brittain was a regular contributor to the pacifist magazine Peace News . She eventually became a member of the magazine's editorial board, and during the 1950s and 1960s was "writing articles against apartheid and colonialism and in favour of nuclear disarmament ". 
In November 1966 she suffered a fall in a badly lit London street while on the way to a speaking engagement. She fulfilled the engagement but afterwards found she had suffered a fractured left arm and broken little finger of her right hand. These injuries began a physical decline in which her mind became more confused and withdrawn. 
Vera Brittain never fully got over the death of her brother Edward. When she died in Wimbledon on 29 March 1970, aged 76, her will requested that her ashes be scattered on Edward's grave on the Asiago Plateau in Italy – ". for nearly 50 years much of my heart has been in that Italian village cemetery".  Her daughter honoured this request in September 1970. Recognition Edit
Plaque for Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby at 52 Doughty Street, London. Photo by Chemical Engineer. 2011. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons .
In 1998 Brittain's First World War letters were edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge and published under the title Letters from a Lost Generation. They were also adapted by Bostridge for a BBC Radio 4 series starring Amanda Root and Rupert Graves.
Because You Died. a new selection of Brittain's First World War poetry and prose, edited by Mark Bostridge was published in 2008 to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Armistice.In popular culture Edit
She was portrayed by Cheryl Campbell in the 1979 BBC 2 television adaptation of Testament of Youth.
Songwriter and fellow Anglican Pacifist Fellowship member Sue Gilmurray wrote a song in Brittain's memory, titled "Vera". 
On 9 November 2008, BBC One broadcast an hour-length documentary on Brittain as part of its Remembrance Day programmes hosted by Jo Brand. 
In February 2009, it was reported that BBC Films was to adapt Brittain's memoir, Testament of Youth into a feature film.  Irish actress Saoirse Ronan was cast to play Brittain at first.  However, in December 2013 it was announced that Alicia Vikander would be playing Brittain in the film, now to be released in late 2014 as part of the First World War commemorations.  The film will also star Kit Harington.  Colin Morgan. Taron Egerton. Alexandra Roach.  Dominic West. Emily Watson. Joanna Scanlan. Hayley Atwell. Jonathan Bailey and Anna Chancellor.  David Heyman. producer of the Harry Potter films, is set to produce.
Plaques marking Brittain's former homes can be seen at 151 Park Road, Buxton;  Doughty Street, Bloomsbury ; and at 117 Wymering Mansions, Maida Vale.  There is also a plaque in the Pavilion gardens, Buxton, commemorating Brittain's residence in the town, though the dates shown on the plaque for her time there are incorrect.
Vera Brittain's archive was sold in 1971 to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. A further collection of papers, amassed during the writing of the authorised biography of Brittain, was donated to Somerville College, Oxford, by Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge.Publications Edit Poetry Edit
Barring women from the very kind of education required of citizens in a democracy. denying them the traits and capacities thought to be the mark of a moral individual. he ensures their second-class status both at home and in the world. Good education could help women to enter international organizations and create a powerful anti-war movement
Both authors suppose that the feminist pacifists should be grappled as individuals and in relation to one another with the polarized wartime gender system. Objectors sought to move away from the warrior ideal. the particular
form of manliness favored by the state in the context of war while the feminist-pacifist civil libertarians attempted to distance themselves from the contradictory ideal of the wartime woman as an actively loyal patriotic mother-citizen as well as a passive and defenseless creature in need of male (warrior ) protection. More than ever today women have the opportunity to build a new and better world but in this slavish imitation of men they are wasting their chance (Woolf 2003. Woolf and Brittain struggle to invent new identities for themselves as they resisted societal pressures to conform. This project to deconstruct and then reconstruct gender identity outside of the wartime norm was not always (or perhaps even usually ) a fully self-conscious act on the part of objectors and feminist pacifists Brittain underlines the role of a nurse stating. Perhaps. too. the warm and profoundly surprising comfort that I derived from their presence produced a tenderness which was able to communicate back to them. in turn. something of their own rich consolation (Brittain 1989 br
47. However. out of the conflicts and tensions involved in the attempt to become more self-directed people emerge some fresh understandings of the personal dimension of war resistance
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Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though You have passed away.
Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.
Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although You cannot hear.'
But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago. Poetry and Spoken Word