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10 Reasons to Love: Vera Brittain

6th Feb 2015

10 Reasons to Love: Vera Brittain
Image: Photo of commemorative plaque at 52 Doughty Street, London, by Rohan Maitzen
Vera Brittain is best known for her poignant memoir of the First World War, Testament of Youth. With the film adaptation doing incredibly well in cinemas this month, we thought a great way to celebrate would be counting down our top ten reasons to love this talented writer...

1. Testament of Youth (1933)

Vera Brittain’s most famous book is more than an autobiography; it is a lament for a generation that sacrificed its best self on the battlefields of World War I. Unusually among war memoirs, though, Testament of Youth highlights women’s active part in the conflict: the war that took the lives of so many of the men they loved also, in a painful paradox, enabled them to redefine their own roles, as we see through Brittain’s own explicitly feminist coming-of-age story.

2. Testament of Friendship (1940)

“From the days of Homer,” Brittain observes in her Prologue to Testament of Friendship, “the friendships of men have enjoyed glory and acclamation, but the friendships of women have usually been not merely unsung, but mocked, belittled and falsely interpreted.” She countered this negative tradition with her generous celebration of the life and work of her closest friend, the journalist, activist, and novelist Winifred Holtby.

3. South Riding (1936)

We have Brittain to thank for Holtby’s last and best novel, South Riding. Holtby died in 1935, at only 37,  before completing work on it. She named Brittain her literary executor, and so it was Brittain who did final corrections on the typescript and saw the novel through to publication. South Riding, the story of a modern young woman in a slowly-changing rural community, was an immediate popular success and has been in print ever since.

4. Testament of Experience (1957)

Testament of Experience, the last and the least known of Brittain’s memoirs, takes us through the story of  her marriage — which she found difficult to reconcile with her ambitions as a writer and public figure — and her family’s experiences during World War II, during which Brittain faced harsh criticism for her steadfast pacifism.

5. Her feminism, both practiced and preached

“Probably no ambitious girl who has lived in a family which regards the subservience of women as part of the natural order of creation ever completely recovers from the bitterness of her early emotions,” Brittain wrote in Testament of Youth. She resisted the expectation of subservience in every facet of her own life; and in her public speaking, her fiction, and her journalism she advocated the same freedom of choice and activity for other women.

6. Her pacifism

Brittain’s pacifism, born out of her devastating experience of the First World War, was much harder to defend during the second. Though it led her to some awkward conclusions (such as support for Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement), her courage in standing openly by her principles demands respect: she faced prejudice, hostility, and even travel restrictions, with significant professional consequences. But to Brittain, there was no relevant distinction between the German bombings of England and Allied attacks on Germany or Japan:  both represented “as great a threat to the integrity of the human spirit as anything which has yet occurred on this planet.”

7. Her Oxford degree

“The idea of refusing [my brother] Edward a university education never so much as crossed my father’s mind,” Brittain observed in Testament of Youth, but her own academic successes meant little to her family. Undaunted, she pursued her ambition to go to Oxford, and started at Somerville College in 1914. Somerville was established as a women’s college in 1876, but it wasn’t until 1920 that women could actually earn degrees; one of the first to do so was mystery novelist Dorothy L. Sayers. Brittain withdrew from Oxford during the war but returned in 1919 and graduated in 1921 with a degree in Modern History.

8. Her letters to and from the front lines

The letters between Brittain and the four men she loved who were at the front — her brother, her fiancé Roland, and her dear friends Geoffrey and Victor —include some dramatic stories of the horrors they endured, but it’s the mundane details they recount that remind us most painfully of the very ordinary humanity of these young men, none of whom came home.

9. Her mediocre fiction

Brittain was and did many admirable things, but she was definitely not a great novelist. Still, her fiction dramatizes the conflicts playing out across the early decades of the 20th century, particularly with regard to women’s changing roles, and while it’s not very good, at least it’s bad in interesting ways. Honourable Estate (1936) is probably the best one to try, if you’re curious.

10. Her politician daughter, Shirley Williams

Brittain’s commitment to fighting for a more just and equal world was continued by the next generation: her daughter Shirley, now Baroness Williams of Crosby, was a Labour MP, a cabinet minister, and a founder of the Social Democratic Party.

 

– by Rohan Maitzen

Rohan teaches in the English Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings.