Vera Brittain – the new film

The BBC is clearly getting ready for the big anniversary of 2014. As well as Tom Stoppard’s adaptaion of Ford Madox Ford’s  Parade’s End, which I’m greatly looking forward to, they have now announced a new film of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth.

I remember vividly the seventies TV adaptation of this book – so engrossing that after the second episode I bought the book to see what would happen – and then was disappointed. The tone of the book seemed nagging in a way that the TV version wasn’t.

Brittain had a tragic war, and she tells her story compellingly in the Testament,  but  she was writing in the thirties, and with a political agenda.

The case against Brittain is made very compellingly by James Bowman in this article from the New Criterion. He condemns her ‘passive-aggressive exploitation of her own grief for political purposes.’ Is he fair to Brittain? Not quite, perhaps, but he definitely has a point.

10 Comments

  1. Mary Douglas
    Posted May 31, 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    I’m afraid that the people commenting on this website have littel idea about the PPU, nor about today’s BBC.

    The PPU, once the war began, initiated a commendable programme to pacifist witness to alleviate the suffering of the war’s victims.

    The BBC does not finance these big screen projcets alone. In fact it provides a tiny fraction of the devleopment money. Testament is being made by Heyday Films.

    James Bowman makes silly, politically-motivated points against Vera Brittain. Why shouldn’t she use her war experience to emphasise the dangers of war in the future?

    By the way my undersatnding is that Mark Bostrdige is not ian Bostridge’s brother (though this seems hardly relevent). His scholarship, though, is of the highest standard.

  2. not Bridget
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 2:11 am | Permalink

    What exciting news! I, too, remember the TV production–& I also read Brittain’s books. Alas, she took all that death & pain rather personally. Perhaps you prefer Downton Abbey’s sanitized view of the Great War?

    And I’ve been anticipating Parade’s End, as well. Christopher Tietjens served (as did Ford Madox Ford), but Valentine Wannop was a pacifist–just as Ford’s lover, Australian painter Stella Bowen, had been; in the Second War, she did excellent work documenting Australian air crews serving in England.

    One particular scene in Some Do Not… has the hypocritical dilettante Edith Ethel (now Lady Macmaster) glibly explain to Valentine that prolonging the War, at the cost of “a few lives” was understood as necessary by “the higher circles” who retained the proper aloofness from the poor fools dying in the mud.

    The pacifists were not the only ones who, sadly, misjudged Hitler. Knowledge of the folly & lies that had killed a generation of Europe’s young men lived on. The fact that The War To End War had only hatched an even worse war was a horror few could believe. We do now….

    • Anne
      Posted July 6, 2012 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      Thank you for that post! It is quite shocking how much recent so-called historians try to gloss over the heavy criticism by so many already during the Great War, but also right afterwards. As if all our ancestors uniformly were idiots not seeing through jingoism and war propaganda during and after doing their bit. Not.

  3. Rebecka
    Posted June 5, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    That’s very exciting news! Although less exciting that Stoppard’s rendition of Ford’s masterpiece has been pushed back to 2014 as initially it was said it would be out this year. I very much admire Brittain for pushing her pacifist agenda, though to be honest I don’t think one notices that so much in Testament of Youth – in Testament of Experience however her pacifist opinions have full play, which is possibly why it is a bit drier than it’s predecessor. Although I don’t always agree with her views, I think she was very strong for sticking to her convictions particularly during the late 30s and the second world war, when she was made to suffer for them.

  4. michaelbully
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    I admire ‘Testament of Youth’ a great deal, and I will go to see the film a few times when it comes out. But one concern I share is that Vera Brittain is being cited too often as the definitive women’s view of VAD nursing and ‘Testament of Youth’ is even being too quickly highlighted as somehow representative of a woman’s view of the Great War. There’s already an excellent TV Dramatisation of ‘Testment’… it would have been great to have filmed the life of another woman VAD during the Great War.

    • Anne
      Posted November 9, 2012 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      I agree to an extent. Vera Brittain is the “nice side” of it all. She’s very erudite, has acceptable notions as to why she becomes a VAD, behaves “nicely” and of course also suffers unbearably through those many dead men she was linked with.

      I’ve read quite many nurse accounts, VAD as well as regulars, also of other female frontline helpers.

      And truth is that the reasons for war service were diverse and many. Most of them actually were NOT altruistic in the slightest. Many women and girls did so to get away from a stifling home situation, to go abroad, to be cool as we would say today, but there was also a large faction who did it to secure an officer husband. If he died, all the better, she’d have the pension. And more sinister yet, but quite established in the sexology of then and now: another largish enough faction wanted to see denuded men, suffering men, and potentially also be involved with the suffering, causing it as well.

      As a result the behaviour at the front and during nursing or nursing help was not necessarily what it often is painted as having been. Not all of it was warm or humane, on the contrary.

      Two accounts stand out as addressing this: Ellen LaMotte’s “The Backwash of War” written by a professional nurse in 1916 and Helen Zenna Smith’s “Not So Quiet…”, she novelised the diaries of a British ambulance driver. The first you can get for free online at archive.org, the latter at Amazon, but it’s worth it. Both books were repeatedly forbidden because they showed a far more realistic, and not at all so nice picture of the Great War and its medical service.

      Both also address the absolutely not so angelic behaviour of many women at the front, e.g. nuns refusing to dress any wounds below the waist and refusing to take care of bodily wastes, with results you can easily imagine. Nurses and matrons being intentionally rough to rid themselves of patients, VADs chasing every officer in sight and getting abortions when pregnant, downright sadistic women etc etc..

      So, while such accounts would make very interesting movies, I doubt you’ll find the finance for something which isn’t perpetuating the rosy image of the angelic, pristine and warm nursing maid.

      • Posted November 10, 2012 at 12:04 am | Permalink

        Can you really generalise to say that ‘most’ nurses were far from altruistic?
        And what evidence do you have that ‘Not So Quiet…’ was ‘repeatedly forbidden’? By whom?

      • Anne
        Posted November 10, 2012 at 7:06 am | Permalink

        That may have been an awkward way to shorten things, but I was already waxing too long. So, I beg your pardon for being imprecise.

        Going by recent publishing news “The Backwash” was at least twice forbidden, and “Not So Quiet” was allowed to go out of print and not put back into imprint for several decades and then repeatedly not re-issued as well. As stated by Smith’s publishers in their blurb theirs has been the first new impression for a long time, which amounts to practically the same thing in my book. Especially compared to the well-known male front accounts of the war which never went out of print at all.

        Given that publishers at the times all were male and clearly wished to perpetuate a set idea, I doubt this was pure coincidence either. Her book was deemed quite uncomfortable and had rather mixed reviews (“…most appalling book ever read…”). To call it either then or now well-distributed (e.g. translated into multiple languages and as readily available as for instance “All Quiet…” or the works of the warpoets) would be a joke as well.

  5. Posted November 10, 2012 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Anne –
    ‘Not So Quiet…’ was not banned in the 1930s, and was successful enough for several sequels (‘Women of the Aftermath’, etc.) to be published (after serialisation in a large-circulation newspaper).
    Like most books, by both men and women, it went out of print. Unlike most, it was valued enough to be reprinted (and translated)later. Many good war books by male authors did not have such good fortune (those by Stephen Graham and Richard Blaker, for example).
    To see the publishing fortunes of ‘Not So Quiet…’ as the result of a male conspiracy is not convincing. And we should always remember that it is not based on the author’s own experience, but is the reworking of someone else’s diary by an author excited by reading Remarque.

    • Anne
      Posted November 10, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      This threatens to become a longer discussion and one which should be carried out at a different level.

      As I stated, the “banned” referred to LaMotte (and she was banned) in a drawn together sentence. I clarified. Why you wish to come at this again with the exact same insinuation, is right now after my clarification hardly understandable, unless – I must say – you have an ulterior agenda. Do you?

      “Not so quiet…” was published 1930, went out of print, and was published again by the Feminist Press in 1978 and another time in 1988. The sequel “The Women of the Aftermath” has imprints in 1931 and 1932 and has since been out of print. It was attacked in an even heftier manner than “Not So Quiet…”

      There is NOT A SINGLE important (and her novel is extremely important and pertinent to the Great War, it’s also absolutely one of a kind!) war novel or account by one of the male authors which went out of print and was unavailable for longer than 2-3 years. None.

      There are however way over 50 imprints and editions of Graves’ “Good Bye to All That” (it was never unavailable), way over 50 editions of Sassoon’s “The War Poems”, nearly a hundred editions of his “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer”, a sheer endless amount of editions and translations of Junger’s “In Stahlgewittern”, ditto Remarque’s “All Quiet”.

      I could keep naming books and make it a truly long list. It’s not as if no women wrote about the Great War and their experiences. However, the vast majority – including one of the most important, Smith’s – weren’t kept in print for long. The obvious exceptions being Brittain and Borden, both perpetuating a totally different image of both the war, women and politics.

      So while I agree that this isn’t outright banning, it definitely is gendered and selective expurgation or censorship. It does not at all matter who did that. What matters is that it was done and very clearly selectively done.

      I would be glad not to be condescended to by the way. Did you read the newspapers lately? Dare you tell ANYone there is no male conspiracy, after that? If yes, I can only shake my head.


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