Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Testament of Experience, the second volume of Vera Brittain’s autobiography, follows her Testament of Youth (1933) in attempting to trace the history of the generation that came of age in Britain at the time of World War I, through an account of her personal experiences and her responses to public events. The perspective is that of a widely traveled university-educated woman from an upper-middle-class background whose career as a literary journalist married to a political scientist active in the Labour Party enabled her to become acquainted with some of the most prominent public figures of her time, from Sir Oswald Mosley of the British Union of Fascists and Dick Sheppard of the Peace Pledge Union to President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Jawaharlal Nehru. At the same time, living in London and elsewhere in the south of England during and after World War II, Brittain was exposed to the dangers and deprivations then undergone by Londoners of all socioeconomic classes.

Testament of Experience is a predominantly chronological account of Brittain’s life from the time of her marriage in 1925 to that of her return from a speaking tour of India in 1950, shortly before her silver wedding anniversary. Part 1 focuses on the period between the wars, emphasizing the rise of Nazism and Fascism on the public level and Brittain’s initial literary success on the personal; part 2 deals with World War II and Brittain’s much-maligned...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Vera Brittain’s story as recounted in Testament of Experience is significant in terms of women’s issues largely for the example she set as a woman who, in a social environment that was still largely hostile to independent women active in politics, let alone unorthodox politics, sought, as she put it, the right to combine “normal human relationships with mental and spiritual fulfillment.” Seeing herself early in her marriage sacrificing her literary career, which she viewed as a devotional crusade for humane values, to her husband’s academic and political pursuits, she boldly asserted her independence, and the two worked out a free but apparently successful relationship that enabled both equally to do the work that was important to them. Her personal experiences as a woman influenced the social and literary topics she promoted and developed; for example, her difficult first pregnancy impressed her with the inadequacy of maternity health care in Britain. By the time of publication in 1928 of her book Women’s Work in Modern England, Brittain had come to be thought of as an important writer on women’s issues, with her essays appearing in several major newspapers and journals. She was called as an “expert witness” in the case of the suppression of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness.

In addition to its account of the struggle to balance literary work and the demands of motherhood, Testament of...

(The entire section is 457 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bailey, Hilary. Vera Brittain. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1987. Part of Penguin’s Lives of Modern Women series, this is the first biography of Brittain, and it ends in the middle of World War II. A popular rather than a scholarly biography, it draws heavily on Brittain’s works and is useful mainly for supplying the chronology of events that Testament of Experience itself sometimes obscures.

Brittain, Vera. Testament of Friendship: The Story of Winifred Holtby. London: Gollancz, 1940. Brittain’s biography of her friend Winifred Holtby presents a different perspective on many of the events described in Testament of Experience, from 1925 until Holtby’s death in 1935.

Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. London: Gollancz, 1933. The first volume of Brittain’s autobiography presents her life and its sociopolitical contexts from her birth until 1925. The greatest emphasis is placed on World War I and its personal effect on Brittain and her generation.

Higonnet, Margaret Randolph, et al., eds. Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. In the company of a group of essays on the roles and perceptions of women in the two world wars, Lynne Layton’s essay “Vera Brittain’s Testament(s)” explores Brittain’s development from patriot to pacifist and feminist as a result of her wartime experiences. The essay offers a brief but insightful overview of Brittain’s views on war, gender, and sexuality.

Kennard, Jean E. Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby: A Working Partnership. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1989. Kennard discusses Brittain’s friendship with Holtby and assesses its impact on their writing and their political activities.