I was reading Harper's Bazaar the other day and an interesting item caught my eye. It was about the beautiful costumes in a new period film Testament of Youth, just released in the U.K. It stars Alicia Vikander in the central role. The film is based on the book Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain's powerful and moving memoir of World War I. The book was published in England in 1933 and was an instant hit, selling out on its first day of publication. It hit a nerve with the public, capturing the anguish and life-changing drama of the first world war. It was told from the perspective of a young woman who was 22 in 1916. It was the year her fiance was killed on the western front. Her beloved brother and two closest male friends would also be dead by the time the armistice was signed in November 1918.
According to the article, the film adaptation features beautiful period costumes that reflect Vera Brittain's love of fashion. It seems that the young suffragette did not want to dress like a frump and enjoyed spending her wages from her work as a nurse on beautiful pieces of clothing. And although she tells a gut-wrenching story of war and death, there are passages in the book that show Vera as a normal young girl who loved pretty things. The writer quotes a passage in which Brittain buys "a neatly cut navy coat and skirt, a pastel-blue blouse in soft crepe-de-Chine, an unusually becoming fawn felt hat trimmed with crimson berries and a black taffeta dinner-dress with scarlet and mauve velvet flowers tucked into the waist."
I decided to do a little research into Vera Brittain's life since I don't know much about her. There was a television adaptation of Testament of Youth on Masterpiece Theatre many years ago that starred Cheryl Campbell. I remember loving this production, but don't remember many details. This is what I learned.
At the end of the war, after losing her fiance, brother and two closest friends, Brittain vowed to write a book that would immortalise them all. Surprisingly, it took 17 years for her to complete it. Part of the problem was that she tried to write the story as a novel. When that didn't work she decided to write the book as herself and in her own voice. This was a good decision, since at that point the book simply flowed out of her in an honest and heart-wrenching fashion. She told the story of her generation's wartime experiences, focusing on the four young men most important to her who died in the trenches. When the book was published in 1933, it was hailed as a great wartime memoir, the only one told by a woman. Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary of staying up all night to finish it.
After many years as a bestseller, the book fell out of fashion with the outbreak of World War II because of its pacifist philosophy. In the 1970's the publisher Virago reprinted it and the television adaptation was made. Once again the book became hugely popular. But sadly Vera Brittain did not live to see the resurgence of the book's popularity. She died in 1970 thinking that her literary reputation was over. She never knew about the second chapter of her career. Hopefully this film adaptation will enlighten a new generation of readers about her book. Its release feels very timely, considering that last year was the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of World War I.
I don't know about you, but I am swooning over these images from the piece in Harper's Bazaar. They are a visual feast for anyone who loves vintage fashion.
The filmmakers have depicted Vera Brittain as a serious young Edwardian woman with an eye for beauty. Go here to read more.
Have you read Testament of Youth?
I can't wait to see the film!