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...
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