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Vera (Mary) Brittain (1893-1970)


British pacifist, feminist, poet, and novelist. Brittain's novels are largely autobiographical. Her best-known work is Testament of Youth  (1933), a story of 'the lost generation' and the irrevocable changes in her life caused by World War I. Its has been sometimes compared to Robert Graves's more bitter autobiography Goodbye to All That (1929) – both are personal farewells to the past and the England they knew. In Testament of Friendship  (1940) Brittain told about her close friendship with the writer Winifred Holtby, who died in 1935.

"We had quite a gay bridge at the Whiteheads' this afternoon. I was most rash and doubled all I could and went "no trumps" on both possible & impossible hands, but just missed the prime. I finished Felix Holt after dinner. How George Eliot's books do inspire me; they make all good seem worthwhile. How I long to be such a character as Felix Holt, to have no regard for failure, to hold an ideal for humanity high enough to be forever leading further onward & yet applicable to the smallest things of life! How I yearn to follow pure and heavenly aspiration, without the alloy of a desire for self-glory or of personal ambition, to heal some little part of the sore burdens of mankind." (Brittain in her diary in 1913, from Phoenix, 2000)

Vera Brittain was born at Newcastle under Lyme, Staffordshire, the daughter of Thomas Brittain, a wealthy paper manufacturer, and Edith Bervon. Her childhood years Brittain spend in Macclesfield with her brother Edward who was less than two years her junior. She was educated at St Monica's School. After completing her final term, she returned to her parents' home in Buxton, Derbyshire. To escape the Northern provinces and her sheltered life, she wanted to continue her studies at Somerville College, Oxford. Her father first rejected the idea, but eventually her parents gave up their opposition. Thomas Brittain, who had suffered from depression for many years, drowned himself in 1935.

"When the Great War broke out, it came to me not as superlative tragedy," wrote Brittain in Testament of Youth, "but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans." Brittain left Somerville temporarily and served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse. Her fiancé, Roland Leighton, was killed by a sniper's bullet in 1915. "Nothing in the papers, not the most vivid and heartbreaking descriptions, have made me realize war like your letters," she had written to Leighton shortly after she arrived on the Western Front. She also lost her younger brother Edward, who died in 1918 on the Italian Front, and two close friends, Geoffrey Thurlow and Victor Nicholson. Their moving correspondence, Letters from a Lost Generation, came out in 1999.

As a VAD nurse, Brittain had first hand experience of women's changing role in society. She worked in hospitals in Malta and near the Western Front, nursing English soldiers and German prisoners, and witnessing the consequences of modern combat. These experiences turned Brittain into a convicted pacifist, and an active member of peace movements in both England and the United States.

After the war she returned to her studies at Oxford with a strenghtend commitment to feminism. Before moving to London in 1922, where she devoting herself to writing, Brittain worked for a period as a teacher. Between the years 1921 and 1925 she travelled extensively in Europe. Her journeys included visits to the Rhineland, the Ruhr, and Cologne, during the post-war occupation of Germany. In 1925 Brittain married the political scientist George C.G. Catlin (1896-1979), who was later appointed professor of politics at Cornell University and knighted in 1970. Soon after their marriage they went to the United States and lived for a year in Ithaca, New York.

While George Caitlin lived in the United States, working at Cornell, Brittain remained in England. She developed a close friendship with the novelist and ardent feminist Winifred Holtby (1898-1935), whom she had met in 1919 at Somerville College in Oxford. Holtby had served during World War I in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. After completing their studies, they settled in 1922 in a flat in London as aspiring writers. Neither of two women regarded their relationship as lesbian; Brittain's vision of sexual relations was traditional. However, when she married Catlin, Holtby continued to live with the couple. Holtby's novel Anderby Wold appeared in 1923. Her final novel, South Riding (1936), was set in Yorkshire, and told the story of an enterprising headmistress Sarah Burton.

Basically Brittain believed, that all writing should be based on the writer's life. Her first novel, The Dark Tide (1923) was an account of life in Oxford and the sexism she encountered there, and her early struggles as a woman to achieve an education. The central characters, Virginia Dennison and Daphne Lethbridge, were the thinly veiled Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby. It provoked a storm of protests in Oxford, where the dons believed it would bring bad publicity for the college. Her wartime experiences and marriage to George Caitlin were recounted in Testament of Youth. The book was based on her diary, which she began in 1913, and which was published in 2000 under the title Phoenix: Chronicle of Youth. Testament of Youth was an immediate bestseller and has gained the status of an important feminist text.

Brittain joined the Peace Pledge Union of Canon Dick Sheppard, and also fought for peace during World War II. Against the dominating climate of opinion, in Seed of Chaos (1944) she fearlessly attacked the saturation bombing of Germany. The book was rejected unanimously both in England and America.

Although Brittain wrote after her autobiography several volumes of poetry and fiction, she is perhaps best remembered for Testament of Friendship (1940), a memorial to Winifred Holtby, and Testament of Experience  (1957), a companion to the early autobiography, which covers the years 1925-50. Her other books include Born1925, a family saga dealing with the responses of two generations to World War II, Lady into Woman: A History of Women from Victoria to Elizabeth II (1953), Radclyffe Hall:a Case of Obscenity? (1968), which defended Hall's lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness. Brittain's diaries between 1913 and 1917 were published under the title Chronicle of Youth (1981).

Vera Brittain was an Honorary Life President of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists, a vice-president of the National Peace Council, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She died in London on March 29, 1970. During her final illness, she wrote a pencilled note, "I loved Winifred, but I was not in love with her." Brittain's daughter, Shirley Williams, was a prominent Labour Party politician and cabinet minister in 1960. She co-founded the Social Democratic Party in 1981 and served as its president in 1982-88.

For further reading: On Second Thought by J. Gray (1946); The Vera Brittain Archive in McMaster University Library by T. Smart et al. (1977); Feminist Theorists by M. Mellown (1983); Vera Brittain by G. Handley-Taylor and J.M. Dockeray (1983); Between Ourselves, ed. by K. Payne (1984); Family Quartet by J. Catlin (1987); Vera Brittain. The Story of the Woman Who Wrote Testament of Youth by H. Bailey (1987); Eva Brittain and Winifred Holtby by J.E. Kenard (1989); A Life of Her Own: Feminism in Vera Brittain's Theory, Fiction, and Biography by Britta Zangen (1996); Vera Brittain: A Feminist Life by Deborah Gorham (1996); Letters from a Lost Generation: The First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends, ed. by Alan Bishop (1999); Self-Portraits: Subjectivity in the Works of Vera Brittain by Andrea Peterson (2006)

Selected works:

  • Verses of a V.A.D., 1918 (foreword by Marie Connor Leighton)
  • Oxford Poetry, 1918-1920, 1920 (ed.)
  • The Dark Tide, 1923
  • Not Without Honour, 1924
  • Women's Work in Modern England, 1928
  • Halcyon; or, The Future of Monogamy, 1929
  • Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925, 1933
  • Poems of the War and After, 1934
  • Honourable Estate: A Novel of Transition, 1936
  • Thrice Stranger, 1938
  • Testament of Friendship: The Story of Winifred Holtby, 1940
  • War-Time Letters to Peace Lovers, 1940
  • England's Hour, 1941
  • Humiliation with Honor, 1943
  • "One of These Little Ones ...", 1943
  • Seed of Chaos: What Mass Bombing Really Means, 1944
  • Account Rendered, 1945
  • Above All Nations, 1945 (with G. Caitlin and S. Hodges)
  • On Becoming a Writer, 1947
  • Born 1924: A Novel of Youth, 1948
  • Valiant Pilgrim: The Story of John Bunyan and Puritan England, 1950 (; with 55 illus. by Cyril Hargreaves and others; U.S. title: In the Steps of John Bunyan: An Excursion into Puritan England, 1950)
  • Search after Sunrise, 1951
  • The Story of St. Martin's: An Epic of London, 1951
  • Lady into Woman: A History of Women from Victoria to Elizabeth II, 1953
  • Testament of Experience: An Autobiographical Story of the Years 1925-1950, 1957
  • Long Shadows, 1958 (with G.E.W. Sizer)
  • The Women at Oxford: A Fragment of History, 1959
  • Selected Letters of Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain, 1960
  • Pethick-Lawrence: A Portrait, 1963
  • The Rebel Passion: A Short History of Some Pioneer Peacemakers, 1964
  • Envoy Extraordinary: A Study of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Her Contribution to Modern India, 1965
  • Radclyffe Hall: A Case of Obscenity?, 1968
  • Chronicle of Youth: War Diary 1913-1917, 1981 ( edited by Alan Bishop with Terry Smart)
  • Testament of Peace Lover: Letters from Vera Brittain, 1988 (edited by Winifred and Alan Eden-Green)
  • Testament of a Generation: The Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, 1988 (edited and introduced by Paul Berry and Alan Bishop)
  • Wartime Chronicle: Diary, 1939-1945, 1989 (edited by Alan Bishop & Y. Aleksandra Bennett)
  • Vera Brittain's Diary 1939-1945, 1993
  • Phoenix: A Chronicle of Youth: Vera Brittain's Great War Diary, 1913, 2000 (edited by Alan Bishop)
  • One Voice: Pacifist Writings from the Second World War, 2005 (new ed., with a foreword by Shirley Williams; and an introduction by Y. Aleksandra Bennett)
  • Because you Died: Poetry and Prose of the First World War and After, 2008 (edited with an introduction by Mark Bostridge)

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