Testament of Youth is a fitting tribute, says Vera Brittain biographer

Kit Harrington and Alicia Vikander in Testament of Youth

Kit Harrington and Alicia Vikander in Testament of Youth - Credit: Archant

Ben Lazarus talks to Vera Brittain’s biographer about new movie based on her WWI memoir.

Author Mark Bostridge

Author Mark Bostridge - Credit: Archant

A Belsize Park author is hoping a new movie based on First World War writer and pacifist Vera Brittain will spark renewed interest in her life.

Brittain’s biographer and literary executor Mark Bostridge was a consultant on Testament of Youth, the film based on her bestselling memoir of the same name which opens on January 16.

It tells how Brittain postponed her studies at Oxford University to serve as a volunteer nurse in London, Malta and France and describes the deaths of her brother, fiancé, and two closest male friends in the bloody conflict.

Bostridge is delighted with the adaptation, which stars Kit Harington as Brittain’s fiance Roland Leighton and Swedish actress Alicia Vikander as Brittain.

“I wanted to cry,” he confesses.

“The last scene when she goes home at the end of the war and all the men are dead always brings a lump to my throat. The voiceover says: ‘they’ll want me to forget you and I can’t forget I have to remember you’. This was very true to Vera - she had to immortalise these young men and show how their lives had been cut short and wasted. I think a lot of people will find it very moving.”

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He finds Vikander’s performance “absolutely extraordinary.”

“I did wonder whether a Swedish actress would work, but she utterly convinces as an Englishwoman. You are mesmerised by her face. It’s a glorious performance.”

The film, which was shot on location in Oxford and Yorkshire, also stars Taron Egerton as brother Edward Brittain, and Colin Morgan and Jonathan Bailey as friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow.

“The four young men were all so well cast,” says Bostridge.

“Screen Yorkshire was an important financial backer, so the Uppingham school stuff and the Brittains’ house in Buxton, and the French scenes are all filmed in Yorkshire.”

Keen to play down his involvement as a consultant, he jokes that his biography was optioned but was “very long and far too detailed to be useful to filmmakers”.

“I read the scripts and criticised them in a very pedantic way - for instance there’s a scene where the three men play rugby at Uppingham but they never would have because they hated sport and because of that spent time in the officer training corp instead.

“So I made lots of criticisms that weren’t very helpful,” he says laughing. “And sometimes they took them on board and sometimes they didn’t.

“The climactic scene in the book when she receives news of her fiancé’s death on Boxing Day is such an extraordinary moment but in the original script they’d left that out. I said: ‘This is the iconic moment of the book, you can’t leave it out!’”

“What surprised me was that as a consultant on television you generally get shafted, but the filmmakers always showed me everything and asked my opinion.”

Bostridge first read Brittain’s memoir while a student at Oxford and it had a “pretty overwhelming effect”.

“I hadn’t done the First World War at school and hadn’t understood the cataclysmic impact of the war on people’s lives, and here was someone who’d lost four people that were so close to her. I wasn’t even conscious that my grandmother had lost her husband and brother within three months on the Somme. That generation just didn’t talk about it. Only at the end of her life did I ask about it and she could just about remember the day she received the telegram saying her husband had been blown to pieces.”

Bostridge says what separates Brittain from other Great War writers is she penned “an incredibly moving love story about terrible loss”.

“Unlike a lot of memoirs it tries to educate. When she published it in 1933, Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany and she was very conscious that another war was likely. The book tries to warn about the attachment the 1914 generation had to the idea of war and its false glamour.”

Brittain was also an early feminist and her memoir describes how she suffered from restrictions around her education but was doggedly determined to live life on her own terms.

Bostridge became involved with the family, attending Westminster school with one of Brittain’s grandchildren, Oxford with another, and also briefly working for her daughter Baroness Shirley Williams after leaving Oxford.

Williams also read the scripts for the film which has been in development for six years and gone through numerous drafts.

“She wasn’t keen on a film at first because the 1979 television series was extraordinary for its time.

“There have been other approaches for television series and we felt the bench was set so high that we turned them down.

“Before she saw the film, she said: ‘I’m not really expecting much,’ but I went to a rough cut with her in July and she cried. I’ve never seen her cry before,” he adds.

Bostridge’s relationship with Williams hasn’t always been harmonious. They disagreed over details in his biography about Edward Brittain’s sexuality and death. Bostridge believes he may have deliberately put himself in the line of fire after being caught performing homosexual acts and was scared of being court martialled.

“It seems such a terrible story that someone should go through the war, win the military cross and then quite likely, even if he didn’t stand in the line of fire, be more reckless because he had nothing to live for,” says Bostridge.

“Had he been court martialled. The disgrace would have been enormous.

“Shirley doesn’t accept that, she thinks his death is as reported in Testament of Youth. But in the book he writes to Vera that he has issues with women so I think she knew (he was gay).”

“Shirley says, and she’s probably right, you can’t label him as gay. Uppingham school was full of what they called ‘filth’. A lot of boys who went into the army from that kind of school had homoerotic relationships. Had he lived he probably would have got married because (gay) men of that era couldn’t live openly.

“Shirley knows the story could be exploited in ways that are not true to the historical truth. Any family are going to want to protect a family member.”

Brittain never recovered from the loss of her brother and her ashes were scattered on his grave when she died in 1970.

As we wrap up, Bostridge picks up his latest book: Vera Brittain and the First World War, (Bloomsbury £14.99) which details how the story behind her writing the memoir, and reads a quote from her friend, Winifred Holtby: “Others have borne witness to the wastage, the pity and the heroism of modern war, none has yet so convincingly conveyed its grief.”

He adds: “I think it is that which really hits home for readers when they read it for the first time.”