Testament of Friendship Critical Essays

Vera Brittain


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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!...

(The entire section is 796 words.)