There is a film coming out shortly – Testament Of Youth – a new screen version of Vera Brittain’s memorable tale of her life and loves during WW1. As part of the publicity surrounding its launch, a good deal of media attention has been given to a new biography of her – Vera Brittain and the First World War: The Story of Testament of Youth by Mark Bostridge (Bloomsbury, £14.99) published last month.
Plainly, the old adage ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity’ works just as well in publishing as it does in all other walks of life. Bostridge’s key ‘revelation’ in pieces both in the Daily Mail and today (28th December 2014) in The Sunday Times is that Edward Brittain, Vera’s brother, was a homosexual who may have deliberately got himself killed in northern Italy during the campaign of 1917/1918 because his proclivities had been discovered by routine censoring and as a result his reputation was about to be ruined by arrest and then trial by military court.
Contrary to the impression currently being given by Mr Bostridge and/or his publishers, this information is not new at all.
The facts are that, after WW1 – if memory serves in the early 1930s – Vera Brittain sought out Colonel (later Brigadier) Charles Hudson VC, a fellow officer in Italy, in an effort to find out more about the circumstances of her brother’s death. In their meeting, in round-about terms, Hudson told her the truth, though he never talked publicly about the matter, before or subsequently. He died in 1959.
Seven years ago I bought Mark Hudson’s biography of his father The Extraordinary Life of Charles Hudson VC – Poet, Soldier, Rebel (The History Press, 2007), partly because at the time I was researching into my own grandfather’s part in the north Italy campaign of 1917/1918.
In it was the tale of Charles Hudson meeting Vera Brittain and indeed the basics of the still-unconfirmed circumstances surrounding Edward Brittain’s death. [In essence, the military censors had found a letter written by Edward that gave clear indications not only that he was in a same-sex relationship with another officer but that he had also had sex with ‘other ranks’]. The censors brought this to Hudson’s attention as Edward’s senior officer, on the basis that he should reveal nothing to Edward. However, Hudson felt a duty to a brother officer and met with Brittain to tell him obliquely (words to the gist”I didn’t realise that the military censors read all our mail”) that he was – or could be – about to be uncovered as a homosexual.
Shortly afterwards, in the very next action in which his unit took part, Brittain was killed ‘going over the top’ at the front of his men.`That event could be complete coincidence, but (the implication was) that conceivably Brittain, realising his reputation was quite probably going to be ruined, chose to get himself killed – or possibly even shot himself.
Mark Hudson’s biography of his father spelled all this out in words of one syllable, using his father’s own papers.
I don’t know Mr Bostridge, or his reputation. He is probably a very fine biographer and I wish him well with sales of his new biography of Vera Brittain. However, even though – according to what I have read – he openly credits his discussions with Mark Hudson as assisting his research in the matter of Edward Brittain’s sexuality, I do regard his new book being publicised/sold via the hook of being able to reveal for the first time the controversial truth of the circumstances of Edward Brittain’s death not altogether worthy or indeed appropriate.