HomeCultureBooksBook Reviews

Vera Brittain and the First World War – Poignant look at the memoir’s modern day reach

BY Anna Walker

1st Jan 2015 Book Reviews

Vera Brittain and the First World War – Poignant look at the memoir’s modern day reach

Penned to coincide with the highly anticipated film adaptation, this sensitively drawn overview of Vera Brittain is the fifth book by Mark Bostridge on her captivating, moving life.

80 years ago Vera Brittain wrote Testament of Youth, a moving memoir about her experiences as a young woman during the First World War. Her account detailed the men she had lost (including several friends, her fiancé and brother) and the personal battles she fought as a VAD nurse. Brittain’s immense bravery and biting account of the horrors of war captured the hearts of a generation.

To mark the centenary of WWI, Vera’s timeless memoir has been made into a major motion picture (released January 16th). The glittering cast, which includes Dominic West and Emily Watson, stars Alicia Vikander (Anna Karenina) as Vera and Kit Harrington (Game of Thrones) as her tragic fiancé, Roland.

Vera Brittain and the First World War, written by Brittain’s official biographer Mark Bostridge, is a concise and feeling introduction to the writer, and the process of adapting her enduring memoir for the big screen. Despite the huge task of condensing Vera’s life into just 250 pages, it never feels rushed and is peppered throughout with poetic turns of phrase.

Bostridge presents gorgeously attentive passages on the careful work that went into creating an authentic Charring Cross and precise period costumes. Amusingly, he tells how Kit Harrington is contractually obliged to keep his Game of Thrones locks flowing, i.e. he is not allowed to cut it, resulting in a £3000 wig especially for Testament of Youth.  

The most touching moments in this book lie in the stories too painful even for Brittain’s fearless biography. For example, Bostridge’s discovery of Vera’s brother’s homosexuality draws links between the shame felt by gay soldiers and the culture of fear that surrounded the HIV epidemic of the 1980s.

We are left with a closing thought: Testament of Youth should stand as ‘a warning which speaks to our own time as much as it did to the book’s first readers’, a sentiment matching Brittain’s own belief:

‘A personal difficulty overcome, a grief survived, a philosophy evolved out of sorrow – these things…belong to the collective effort of humanity.’

Like Brittain, Bostridge can’t shake the feeling that personal sorrows must be shared, memoirs must be written and films must be made to ensure the world never repeats the uncontrollable hatred of the First World War.


Testament of Youth opens in UK cinemas January 16th.


Read more articles by Anna Walker here