Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Shortly before her death, Winifred Holtby was asked to write her autobiography; ill health and the press of creative and political work prevented her from undertaking the project. Several years later, Vera Brittain wrote the biographical memoir Testament of Friendship from the unique perspective of an intimate friend of sixteen years with whom Holtby had shared apartments, houses, and holidays, both before and during Brittain’s marriage to G., whose academic and political activities frequently kept him away from the lodgings the three—and later Brittain’s children—shared in London.

The biography begins traditionally, with an account of Holtby’s Yorkshire ancestors and her early life at Rudston House in the East Riding, where her father was a farmer and loyal Councillor; her school years and her fifteen months as a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps nurse; and her experiences as a student at Somerville College, Oxford. It was at Somerville that she met Vera Brittain, with whom she formed the extraordinarily close friendship and literary association that provides the principal focus for this biography. The two met because they had the same history tutor, but they soon discovered more significant common ground: Brittain’s loss of her brother and fiancé in the war and Holtby’s heartfelt but forever unrealized attachment to Bill, a young soldier whose prospects for a normal life were undermined by the war’s psychological aftermath; the...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Testament of Friendship has been important to the study of women’s literature in three ways. First, Brittain’s biography was published long enough after Holtby’s masterpiece South Riding that it revived interest in a writer who had had her time on the best-seller list but whose works might have fallen into obscurity without the reminder that Brittain’s book provided. Brittain is thus at least partially responsible for Holtby’s place in the history of British women writers of the twentieth century, along with Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, A. S. Byatt, and Brittain herself.

Second, along with Brittain’s Testament of Youth and Testament of Friendship, this biography gives an important account of how a talented young woman was able, in the first half of the twentieth century, to succeed in areas such as political journalism that had long been largely male preserves, yet to do so on her own terms, without compromising her identity and integrity as a woman.

Perhaps most significant, Brittain’s book is an unabashed and apparently relatively candid picture of a lifelong professional friendship between two women who interacted not only personally but also as writers, encouraging and nurturing each other’s talent and helping each other in their careers. In her introduction to the 1981 reprint, Carolyn Heilbrun observed that for them “friendship meant, as it long had for men, the enabling bond which not only supported risk and danger, but comprehended also the details of a public life.” Testament of Friendship was an early attempt to discuss the potentials and realities of friendship between women in a modern context, and it was, on that level, a precursor of a number of academic studies written from a feminist viewpoint.


(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. This popular biography draws heavily on Brittain’s works and is useful mainly for supplying the chronology of events that is sometimes obscured in Testament of Friendship. It ends in the middle of World War II.

Brittain, Vera. Testament of Experience: An Autobiographical Story of the Years 1925-1950. London: Gollancz, 1957. The second volume of Brittain’s autobiography overlaps and provides a different perspective on many of the events described in Testament of Friendship, 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 to 1925, emphasizing World War I and its effect on the generation in which Brittain came of age.

Higonnet, Margaret Randolph, et al., eds. Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. Amid other essays on the lives of women during the two world wars, Lynne Layton’s essay “Vera Brittain’s Testament(s)” explores Brittain’s development of her wartime experiences. Provides an overview of Brittain’s views on various subjects.

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