In 1916, Vera Brittain was 22 years old. 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. "If the war spares me," Brittain wrote to her brother in a letter that year, "it will be my one aim to immortalise in a book the story of us four."
In the end the war did spare Vera Brittain, but her fiance, her brother and her two dearest male friends were all dead by the time the armistice was signed in November 1918. The idea for a book, however, survived. It would later becomeTestament of Youth, one of the most famous memoirs of the 20th century, and this year marks the 80th anniversary of its publication.
"I think what is different about Testament of Youth, what has made it last, is that it does two things simultaneously," says Brittain's biographer and literary executor, Mark Bostridge. "It moves and it educates."
After writing that letter to her brother, Brittain took the best part of 17 years to complete the manuscript. 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. InTestament 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 1933, the book was an instant hit. At the close of publication day, its first print-run of 3,000 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. When it was later published in America, the New York Times reviewer wrote that Brittain's autobiographical account was "honest… revealing… heartbreakingly beautiful".
Over the next six years, Testament of Youth sold 120,000 copies. With the outbreak of the second world war, Brittain's pacifist philosophy fell out of favour. It wasn't until the late 70s, after her death, that the feminist publisher Virago reprinted Testament of Youth and a hugely popular television series brought the work to a wider audience.
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.
It's a legacy that would have surprised Brittain herself. When she died, in 1970, she believed, according to Bostridge, "that her reputation was at the lowest ebb it had ever been. It's one of the sad things about her literary career that she never lived to see the success of Testament of Youth."
Although Brittain is no longer alive to witness it, her book has shaped the consciousness of modern-day feminists. The literary editor and author Diana Athill wrote in a 2009 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".
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