Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 796
Although it remains the only full-length biography of Winifred Holtby, Testament of Friendship is far from a typical literary biography. Brittain’s intimate personal relationship with her subject bars her from even the pretense of objectivity; the book is a labor of love that verges, at times, on hagiography. Indeed, Brittain often refers to Holtby as a kind of secular saint, and some of the anecdotes suggest that the characterization may be deserved. Much of the book is devoted to stories that display Holtby’s kindness, decency, generosity, and self-sacrifice. For example, in July of 1935, shortly after a serious bout with the symptoms of Bright’s disease and less than three months before her death, Holtby traveled alone from London to Wimereuz, France, where Brittain was on holiday with her children, in order to spare her friend the shock of receiving news of her father’s death by telegram. Worn out by her journey, Holtby had a relapse, but she nevertheless accompanied Brittain back to London and shortly thereafter returned to France to look after Brittain’s children for a period that extended to several weeks because G. had meanwhile fallen ill with septicemia. Although extreme, the incident was far from unique; throughout her life, by Brittain’s account, Holtby gave her time and energy so naturally and cheerfully that the recipients of her kindness often failed to recognize the full extent of her selflessness.
Brittain also emphasizes Holtby’s less personal humanitarianism. Like Brittain, Holtby recognized a struggle within herself between the desire for artistic expression and the desire for social reform, and as often as not the claims of her sense of a moral imperative won out over her desire for solitude and time to work on her novels, stories, poems, and plays. Brittain praises Holtby’s literary accomplishments, particularly the novels The Land of Green Ginger (1927), Mandoa! Mandoa! (1933), and South Riding, and she demonstrates that her friend’s devotion to the cause of reform in South Africa, her lecture tours on behalf of the League of Nations Union, and her journalistic writing on feminist and other social issues constituted distractions, however worthy, from her vocation as a writer of fiction.
The most striking and pervasive theme of Testament of Friendship, however, is neither Holtby’s personal generosity, her dedication to progressive causes, nor her development as an artist, but the nature of the personal relationship between the book’s subject and its author. From 1922 to 1925, when Brittain married, the two women shared not only flats, first near the British Museum and then in Maida Vale, but also lives, in a manner that can only be described as a kind of ideal marriage in everything but (apparently) the sexual aspect. Brittain records how her falling in love with G. was attended almost immediately by her regrets concerning the inevitable effect on her relationship with Holtby, and how when her wedding was postponed for lack of money she and Holtby immediately, almost with relief, undertook three months of travel in Eastern Europe, speaking on behalf of the League of Nations and also enjoying what can only be described as a romantic adventure in Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. Even when Brittain and G. did marry and leave for the United States, where he taught at Cornell University, the plan was for the couple to return to London and share a home with Holtby—a plan that was realized, although over the years G. apparently spent more time away from his wife and her friend than with them.
These unconventional domestic arrangements inevitably drew curiosity and comment among acquaintances, and Brittain returns often to characterizations of her friendship with Holtby that amusedly deny that the two had a sexual relationship. Yet these protestations are called in question by some of Brittain’s accounts of both women’s feelings and avowals. Whether Holtby and Brittain were lovers in a physical sense is less important to contemporary readers than it apparently was to their acquaintances. Jean Kennard, in her study of the two writers’ partnership, comes to the conclusion that it is impossible to determine the nature of their physical relationship, but that if one defines a “lesbian” relationship as one in which two women are the emotional centers of each other’s lives, the word is appropriate to that between Holtby and Brittain. What is more significant than questions of sexual orientation is the extent to which their friendship contributed to their personal happiness, gave sustenance to their efforts for social reform, nurtured their development as literary artists, and even contributed to the strength of Brittain’s marriage and gave Holtby the benefits of an adult family life. In those senses the book is, as well as a literary biography, an unashamed celebration of genuine friendship between women.
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