When she was 18 months old, her family moved to Macclesfield , Cheshire , and when she was 11 years old, they moved again; to the spa town of Buxton in Derbyshire. Growing up, her only brother Edward was her closest companion. In one letter Leighton speaks for his generation of public school volunteers when he writes that he feels the need to play an "active part" in the war. She met Winifred Holtby , and a close friendship developed, both aspiring to become established on the London literary scene.
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Her fiance, Roland Leighton, had been killed on the western front the previous Christmas. Her beloved brother, Edward, had been seriously injured in the battle of the Somme. One of her two closest male friends, Geoffrey Thurlow, had been wounded at Ypres. The other, Victor Richardson, was fighting in the trenches in France. Brittain herself had been working as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse tending to wounded servicemen for more than a year.
She was physically exhausted, stricken with grief and in a near-constant state of heightened nervous apprehension. Yet amid the chaos and trauma of war, the seed of an idea was planted in her mind. The idea for a book, however, survived. It would later become Testament of Youth, one of the most famous memoirs of the 20th century, and this year marks the 80th anniversary of its publication. First she made several attempts at fictionalising her wartime experiences without much success. It was only when she decided to write as herself that her authorial voice seemed to flow and the events she had endured were given a poignant immediacy to which readers could relate.
In Testament of Youth, the words seemed to pour out of her, a potent mixture of rage and loss, underpinned by lively intelligence and fervent pacifist beliefs.
When it was finally published in August , the book was an instant hit. At the close of publication day, its first print-run of 3, had sold out.
The Sunday Times called it "a book which stands alone among books written by women about the war". Rebecca West wrote that it was "a vivid testimony". Virginia Woolf noted in her diaries that she felt compelled to stay up all night to finish the memoir.
Vera Brittain and her brother Edward, He was killed in Italy in Over the next six years, Testament of Youth sold , copies. It remains deeply influential. Even now, eight decades after its publication, it continues to inspire a new generation. A film adaptation co-produced by BBC Films and starring Saoirse Ronan, who won an Oscar nomination for her role in Atonement, is in development, and the book seems to strike a chord with contemporary readers who have themselves lived through an era of renewed conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When she died, in , she believed, according to Bostridge, "that her reputation was at the lowest ebb it had ever been. The literary editor and author Diana Athill wrote in a article for the Guardian that Brittain "was brave, and her strong feelings would always express themselves in action.
And she was honest… as blazingly honest as anyone can be". Many contemporaneous accounts portrayed women as victims who endured the shattering impact of world events, rather than as agents of their own change. When the war breaks out, she rages against the injustice of it and, frustrated by her own powerlessness, volunteers as a nurse in order to make a difference. I think you feel the same when you see these people dying in Iraq. She has an eye for the telling detail that helps the reader to understand the trauma she experiences.
Instead of receiving a call to confirm his arrival, she was telephoned with news of his death. In Testament of Youth she writes that, in the weeks after his death, a series of disconnected pictures rolled through her mind: "A solitary cup of coffee stands before me on a hotel breakfast-table. I try to drink it but fail ignominiously.
Walter first read Testament of Youth at school but returned to it later in life when she was researching her work Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism. She was drawn back to Brittain because of her "unapologetically intellectual ambition.
As a woman, Brittain was arguably the first to blend emotional resonance with intellectual clarity. She relayed her own life story — first as the daughter of a provincial paper factory owner who struggled to emancipate herself, then as a young woman trying to make sense of the personal ravages wreaked by war. In doing so, she laid out her political beliefs. The war taught her that you could not live your life in isolation from public events. But when she writes, the feelings always come first — which may be why the book remains so popular.
Shirley Williams , who was born in Chelsea in , three years before Testament of Youth was published, recalls her mother sticking to a punishing writing routine: sitting down at her typewriter at 10am, having already dealt with her correspondence and bills; at 2pm taking a break when she would lead the children around Battersea Park and recite the Latin names of the birds and flowers; then back to her desk until dinner time.
Roland, Edward, Victor and Geoffrey "were as familiar to me as my brother and living friends", she says. Williams breaks off. My mother kept everything. It got better as she began to realise I was going to survive. I wonder if, at some level, the capacity for finding things funny had been battered out of her?
Occasionally Winifred [Holtby, a lifelong friend and collaborator, and the author of South Riding] could make her laugh, but Winifred was a radiant personality and someone who could enjoy life a lot of the time. Her radiant happiness got across to my mother. It had wider implications too. Brittain and Roland Leighton had met for a total of only 17 days, and circumstances meant that much of their relationship had to be conducted by letter.
According to Mark Bostridge, this meant that their fledgling romance was necessarily heightened: "By the end of it, they were looking at each other almost as fictional representations," he says. Brittain never got over his loss.
How did George Catlin find it, knowing that his wife had been in love with another man? With a dead person, who died at the peak of their youth, they become frozen in aspic. He was a very understanding man. In fact, it later emerged that she was listed in the notorious Nazi "black book", which detailed notable people to be arrested in the event of a successful invasion of Britain by Hitler. Still, her reputation as a writer never regained the popularity it had enjoyed when Testament of Youth was first published.
There were further blows to be suffered. It has often been assumed that Holtby and Brittain were lesbians because of their unconventional living arrangement. But in many ways, it was simply that Holtby was able to provide the supportive companionship Brittain had once so valued in her beloved elder brother, Edward.
The gossip about their sexuality was, Williams writes in her autobiography, "deeply resented" by Brittain, who believed it was "a form of anti-feminism to the effect that women could never be real friends unless there was a sexual motivation, while the friendships of men had been celebrated in literature from classical times". The deaths of her father and her closest friend forced Brittain once again to shoulder the weight of tragedy. She poured her energy into campaigning against apartheid, colonialism and nuclear proliferation.
Her political activism had a lasting impact on her daughter. In , Williams led the opposition in the House of Lords to the invasion of Iraq: "My mother would have felt, like me, that Iraq was a huge mistake… She never ceased being a pacifist. She never gave up on that at all. She was It was eight years before Testament of Youth was reprinted by Virago and nine years before the hit BBC adaptation put her back on the bestseller lists.
She never lived to see the extraordinary resurgence of her most famous work. Even now, Baroness Williams receives letters from people who have read Testament of Youth and who want to share with her how much it meant to them. Eighty years on, it remains one of the most moving books ever written about the damage of war and its continuing personal cost.
Chronicle of Youth: The War Diary, 1913-1917