Monday 2 March 2015

Reading Testament of Youth

The Drama of Costume Reading Group
Saturday 21st February 2015

The fourth meeting of the ‘Drama of Costume’ Reading Group met to discuss Vera Brittain’s memoir, Testament of Youth (1933). The choice of text was timely; not only were people’s thoughts turned to the commemoration of those who fought during World War One, but also the new film adaptation of the book, directed by James Kent and released in January 2015, was currently bringing Vera Brittain to the attention of a younger generation. Many participants also remembered the 1979 BBC TV series starring Cheryl Campbell in the role of Vera, and there were opportunities to compare both adaptations as we discussed this powerful and moving memoir. At our reading group meetings we choose novels and other texts which have been adapted for the cinema and/or television, and we consider the role of costume on screen, as well as how the writers have depicted cloth and clothing.

Vera Brittain in her V.A.D. uniform during WWI

We were fortunate to be joined by Dr Phylomena Badsey, an expert on Vera Brittain from the History Department at the University of Wolverhampton. She opened the discussion with an interesting account of the author’s life and work and invited us to browse through the box of books she had kindly brought along, including a selection of Brittain’s novels and political writing and a first edition signed by Brittain herself. It was helpful to hear more about Vera Brittain’s politics, particularly her feminism, and many participants had found it refreshing to read about the War from a woman’s perspective. Brittain served as a V.A.D., both at home and overseas, and wrote very movingly about the waste of young lives she witnessed.


We spent some time discussing the topic of uniforms and how central this was to our visualisations of World War One. Participants wrote down their comments immediately after the discussion. Val Price stated: ‘Until I read the book, WWI was signified by the uniforms of the soldiers. I had not considered the nurses. Uniforms de-personalise those wearing them, they become simply units to be moved around the map’. Yet Val, who currently works in the NHS, emphasised the importance of uniforms in a professional context.

Roland Leighton, Vera Brittain’s fiancé, killed at the front in 1915

The importance of uniforms for medical professionals was seconded by Chris Davies; he agreed that uniforms were ‘vital to symbolise roles and therefore expectations of behaviour’. A retired surgeon, Chris’s interest in Testament of Youth had been prompted by its detailed depiction of medical aid at the clearing stations at the Front. Karen Bond, who also worked in the NHS, focused on the uniform as a marker of professional identity: ‘the wearing of a uniform made an individual a “soldier” or a “nurse”’.


Roland Leighton’s grave (photograph taken by Jackie Davies)

Vera Brittain and fellow V.A.D.s in Malta

Some participants noted that not wearing a uniform could be problematic in war time and we discussed Brittain’s description of her uncle, engaged in vital work in London, unable to join up as a soldier, who was constantly made to feel ashamed of his ‘civvies’. Carol Coles noted that ‘those who “laboured” on the Home Front’ were separated from the soldiers and nurses, and Jackie Davies agreed, stating that ‘it was difficult for those engaged in vital war work who had no uniform’. She added that when she worked as a nurse in the 1960s, the uniform she wore resembled that worn by Brittain, which suggests that uniforms exist within a tradition, a form of clothing which changes much more slowly than fashion does.

Cheryl Campbell in the role of Vera in the 1979 BBC series, Testament of Youth. This uniform resembled the one worn by Jackie in the 1960s.

We all agreed that it was significant that Vera Brittain often referred in Testament of Youth to the clothes that she was wearing at significant moments of her life, such as her description of the blue crêpe-de-Chine blouse she decides to wear to meet Roland, but at this point she receives the telephone call informing her that her fiancé has been killed in action. Many participants felt that this description of the blouse was not a trivial detail, but a realistic touch. Jackie Davies commented: ‘Any young woman would prepare her outfit ready to meet her fiancé. The moment is rendered more poignant by the description of her carefully chosen blouse’. Susan Preston-Hough agreed: ‘She wanted to record everything about the moment’. Sharon Forsdyke also felt that the colour blue was significant: ‘for me a symbol of clarity and hope’.

Blue is the chosen colour for Vera’s clothes in the 2015 film adaptation.
Here Alicia Vikander plays the role of Vera.


One of the passages we discussed in detail is the account of Vera’s visit to Roland’s mother after her son’s death. She has just received her dead son’s uniform:

Roland’s ‘mother and sister [were] standing in helpless distress in the midst of his returned kit, which was lying, just opened, all over the floor. The garments sent back included the outfit he had been wearing when he was hit. I wondered […] why it was thought necessary to return such relics – the tunic torn back and front by the bullet, a khaki vest dark and stiff with blood, and a pair of blood-stained breeches…’

Both Sharon Kelly and Sharon Forsdyke found this passage ‘harrowing’. Carol Coles agreed, stating that this passage ‘is a very powerful moment as it brings home the nature of the injury suffered by Roland. In addition it highlights the fact that the effects were all that was returned to the family as there was no repatriation of the dead bodies’. Val Price felt that the blood-stained uniform brought the war ‘into the relative safety of family and home’, while Chris Davies found it a ‘brilliant description of an awful moment which must have been repeated in many homes’.

Susan Preston-Hough agreed that the description was ‘moving and very sad’ but added that it was ‘perhaps necessary at this time in order that closure could be granted to the deceased’. A similar point was made by Rosamond Peet, who felt ‘at first sight it seems an inhuman thing to do – how can a parent deal with seeing the clothes a child died in? Yet there are those who need to see these things as part of the grieving process. The sparseness of the writing makes the scene more powerful and shocking’. Karen Bond found it ‘poignant, heart-rending and the simplicity and terseness of the language is compelling’. Sharon Forsdyke added: ‘The emphasis on Vera's crepe-de-chine dress, when she's informed of Roland's death, makes the arrival of his blood-stained uniform even more shocking.’

Jackie Davies planting a cross on Roland Leighton’s grave.

Dr Badsey contributed lots of useful information to our discussion; she explained that Vera Brittain ‘trained long and hard’ and wore her nurse’s uniform ‘with great pride’. She also pointed out that it was ‘normal practice to return the belongings of the dead’ to their relatives, and that for Roland’s family it ‘provided evidence that Roland was never coming back’. She also mentioned that officers owned their own uniforms, unlike those in the ranks.

A scene from the 2015 film adaptation of Testament of Youth.

Sharon Kelly pointed out that those in ‘the ranks were allotted uniforms which approximated to their size and shape’, and this must have intensified the visual separation between the officers (in their tailored clothes) and the men. Dr Badsey explained that there were visual differences between different types of nurses, the various distinctions being signalled in their uniforms. She pointed out the ways in which hierarchies and distinctions were signalled through dress.


Hayley Atwell as Hope in Testament of Youth (2015)

Sharon Forsdyke reflected on the clean, starched nurses’ uniform: ‘Aside from the prevention of disease, a clean starched uniform symbolises one-to-one care. If a wounded solider were faced with a dishevelled, blood-stained nurse, I imagine he might think her incapable of caring for him if she had not taken care of herself; he might feel that his fate may be the same as the previous unfortunate; and there is something reassuring about knowing that a nurse in a clean uniform is there just for you, that one wounded soul, that her attention and yours is not distracted by the thought or evidence of another's state of health or demise.’


The V.A.D. nurse’s uniform, front and back view

We closed the afternoon with a clip from the 1970s BBC series of Testament of Youth, as many participants remembered watching it first time round. We watched the scene where Vera starts work at the clearing station in France and, to her dismay, finds she is tending wounded German soldiers. For those who had never seen this early adaptation, the recently-released DVD was now added to their shopping lists.


A scene from the BBC TV version of Testament of Youth.

Several participants had seen the new film version in cinemas. Rosamond Peet had and she felt that the ‘costumes were very pretty in the civilian scenes, perhaps to contrast with the squalor of uniforms at war’. Sharing our ideas helped us to understand the book better, and we will watch the adaptations with a new understanding of Brittain’s achievement in Testament of Youth. As Sharon Forsdyke summed up: ‘I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book. I understand how Vera may come across as an 'entitled' self righteous member of her class, but putting that into the context of her upbringing, I found her perspective, honest, refreshing and self-deprecating and would certainly have her as a guest at one of my “ideal dinner parties”. Her driving determination to surmount all the odds whilst still being able to embrace the changes, and fight for what is right and just, with a little kicking and thrashing along the way, makes Vera Brittain a model for determined women everywhere.’

Dr Phylomena Badsley added further information about Brittain's work as a nurse and the uniform she wore:

Uniforms of Meaning

Testament of Youth (1933) is filled with references to clothes from school and Oxford University, which demonstrate the interest that Vera Brittain always had in her appearance and throughout the narrative reflect not only events but her emotional state. She took great pride in her Voluntary Aid Detachment uniform, but she earned the right to wear it by sheer hard work and dedication to duty from the start of her nursing career. A rare, relaxed photograph of her and her brother Edward shows them sitting together in uniform on a park bench.

Vera and Edward Brittain, Buxton 1915

Nurses both VADs (with handkerchief style caps tied at the nape of the neck with mid-blue dress, white apron with Red Cross) and the professional trained nurses, in particular the Queen Alexandra Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) (with nursing veil, gray dresses, red capes) were instructed not to smile in photographs and to maintain professional standards of deportment. All photographs of nurses that we have of the First World War are staged; it was not considered appropriate then or now to show them nursing patients. That is why the written accounts of the actual work they did are so important to our knowledge and understanding of their experience of the First World War.

The image of Vera Brittain which most exists in the public consciousness is of a young woman dressed as a VAD nurse, mourning the deaths of her loved ones, helpless and alone, awaiting an uncertain future. A photograph taken in Trafalgar Square in July 1942 at a Food Relief Rally shows the mature women campaigning for victims of conflict, another in 1961 shows her protesting against the Sharpville Massacre. The older images of Vera Brittain deserve to be more widely known both for her political activism and the courage reflected in her eyes as she looks out at the world around her.

Vera Brittain in the 1960s

Dr. Phylomena Badsey MA was awarded her PhD from Kingston University in 2005, "The Political Thought of Vera Brittain", she has published on Vera Brittain as a war reporter in War, Journalism and History - War Correspondents in Two World Wars (2012). She lectures on nursing during the First Word War and is a Visiting Lecturer and Project Manager at the University of Wolverhampton.