Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 868
Vera Mary Brittain (BRIHT-uhn) is known principally for her moving account of her experiences as a nurse in World War I, Testament of Youth, and for her later pacifist and feminist writings. She was born in 1893 to a wealthy industrialist, Thomas Brittain, and his wife, Edith Bervon Brittain. Her only brother, Edward, to whom she was especially devoted, was born two years later. An affluent, secure childhood was partially marred by her father’s attacks of melancholia and the lack of intellectual stimulation. Determined to break away from the life that had been set for her, Brittain went to Somerville College, Oxford, in 1914. She spent only a year there before becoming a V.A.D. (volunteer nurse) in London and France, following the example of her brother and her fiancé, Roland Leighton, who had joined the British army and had been sent to the front after the outbreak of World War I. The death of her fiancé in 1915, that of her brother in 1918, and those of several close friends throughout the war left Vera Brittain a changed woman when she returned to Oxford in 1919 to resume her studies and take her degree in 1921.
As an older student who had experienced suffering and loss, Brittain differed greatly from the average eighteen-year-olds and was naturally drawn to Winifred Holtby, who had also been a nurse during the war. After taking their degrees, Brittain and Holtby moved to London together to pursue careers as writers. Brittain’s first novels, The Dark Tide and Not Without Honour, are journeyman attempts to learn her craft and find a proper voice. Holtby, who was more successful with the novel form than was Brittain, is best remembered for South Riding (1936). Brittain married the political economist George Catlin in 1925 and had two children, one of whom, Shirley Williams, became a prominent member of Parliament in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
In 1929, Brittain began the work for which she is best known, Testament of Youth, an account of her life from 1910 to 1925. It was published in 1933 to immediate acclaim. Testament of Youth is the only memoir of World War I from a female perspective and ranks with Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That (1929) and Siegfried Sassoon’s memoirs as the most telling accounts of the illusions of prewar England and of the gradual disillusionment of a generation of young people. In addition, Testament of Youth shows the growth of a bright but protected young woman into a strong adult. Brittain had attempted unsuccessfully to put her war experiences into novel form but learned from Testament of Youth that nonfiction writing was her forte. The poignancy and immediacy of Testament of Youth are bolstered by the fact that the work is based on her own copious journals from the period and contains war poetry written by Brittain, Roland Leighton, and Rupert Brooke.
Throughout the rest of her life, Brittain was a prolific writer of both books and nonfiction articles for periodicals such as The Times Literary Supplement and Time and Tide. In 1936, she published her most successful novel, Honourable Estate, which contains the feminist and pacifist themes for which she was known. One character, Janet Rutherston, a would-be activist for women’s rights, is crushed by her insensitive clergyman husband, whereas another, Ruth Alleyndene, who is much like Brittain herself, attends Oxford University, becomes a nurse in World War I, has an affair with a soldier who is killed, and later marries Janet Rutherston’s son, who has been strongly influenced by the feminism of his mother.
The gathering storm of World War II in the 1930’s led Brittain and her husband into the roles of speakers for the pacifist cause; Brittain was considered an effective public speaker. During the war, she edited a pacifist newsletter and published Wartime Letters to Peace Lovers and Humiliation with Honour, a rationale for her war views, which takes the form of letters to her fifteen-year-old son, John, who had been evacuated to the United States with his sister for safety. The war years also saw the publication of Testament of Friendship, Brittain’s tribute to her friend Holtby, who had died in 1936; Testament of Experience rounds out her trilogy of autobiographical testaments.
During the postwar years, Brittain returned to feminist themes in Lady into Woman, which traces the evolution of women begun in her earlier Women’s Work in Modern Britain. She also wrote a biography of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (the sister of the Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru), Envoy Extraordinary, and Radclyffe Hall: A Case of Obscenity, an explication of her defense of the lesbian writer Hall during the latter’s trial for obscenity in the 1920’s.
Brittain died on March 29, 1970, in London. Her work underwent a renaissance in the 1980’s after Masterpiece Theatre produced an excellent television series based on Testament of Youth and both feminists and pacifists rediscovered her writings. Brittain is best remembered for her autobiographical books and for her works of social criticism rather than for her novels and poetry. Testament of Youth, especially, brilliantly captures the tragedy of World War I through the acute sensibility of a brilliant and empathetic young woman. Brittain was at her best when her pen reflected the hand that held it.
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