Vera Brittain Essay - Critical Essays

Brittain, Vera (Mary)


Vera (Mary) Brittain 1893?–1970

English novelist, autobiographer, essayist, and poet.

As a young nurse during World War I, Brittain was outraged by the inhumanity of war. A staunch proponent of pacifism and feminism, she advocated those causes in her best-selling books and in her lectures.

Brittain's notability derives from an autobiographical account of World War I, The Testament of Youth, recently televised. Her later books are usually measured unfavorably against this poignant antiwar memoir.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary] and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)

The Times Literary Supplement

There was a time when autobiographies were only written by the old, who alone, it was supposed, had had experiences numerous and notable enough to make a book. After the War, however, that supposition, perhaps never wholly justifiable, became obviously untenable. So, perforce, there came an era of autobiographies written by those still young in years; and among such books Miss Vera Brittain's "Testament of Youth" must have a high place….

Few people could have brought themselves to write such a chronicle. The task must have been painful, in many of its aspects, to Miss Brittain. Yet it was well worth doing—as a record of spiritual growth, as a memorial to sacrifices nobly made, and as a testimony to the horror and waste of war. For Miss Brittain, active pacifist though she is, can see the real difficulty of the fight against war—the truth, which it is useless to deny, that war stirs men to thoughts and deeds that are as splendid as anything humanity knows…. [Indeed] the book is, as a whole, a wise one. There are certainly irritating things in it, but they are all in inessentials. In the important things of the story—tragic, noble, and in the end not without consolation—there is, in spite (or perhaps because) of its unshrinking frankness, no failure of taste, no irreverence for theatricality in the lifting of the veil from past sorrows.

"'Testament of Youth'," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1933; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 1648, August 31, 1933, p. 571.

Fred J. Ringel

During the lull after a literary deluge of experiences of the last war and rising warnings against the coming chemical extinction of mankind, books [of the sort of Testament of Youth] assume a greater significance. They are written by that "lost generation," invisibly marked with the shadow of death and destruction. The whole tragedy of a hoary youth without the exciting self-assurance of a "barbarian heroism," the bitterness of its sorrow and frustration, carry far more striking agitation against a new massacre than do the glowing tales of trench moles.

Vera Brittain's story is the average story of a million individuals during the war: the conventional middle-class home in rural England, a meager adolescence, a short period at Oxford, and then the beginning of the war. Her fiance is drafted and killed, her brother and their friends follow soon after, and Miss Brittain enlists as a nurse. Her hospital experiences in London, Malta, and France take up the greater part of the book.

For fifteen years Vera Brittain, poet and author of several novels, intended to write the story of her generation, fully exposing all the horrors which culminated in a sullen determination "never to forget." But time and distance had to be gained for an objectivity which released repressions and enabled her to relate her modest experiences to the great catastrophe. We can understand therefore the expansion of this human document into a...

(The entire section is 531 words.)

Mary M. Colum

The life that was lived in childhood and adolescence by that generation of boys and girls who grew into young manhood and womanhood just before the outbreak of the War is deader than the age of Queen Anne, yet it is all less than a quarter of a century ago, and the people who belonged to it are still young or, anyway, young-middle-aged. But it was a doomed generation, and few of those who survived the War and the revolutions consequent on the War were ever really at home in the world afterwards. (p. 340)

["Testament of Youth"] is a great help toward understanding that generation and toward understanding, not only why the young were so thoroughly sacrificed in a democratic age, but why they permitted themselves to be so sacrificed. "Testament of Youth" is the account of the life of a typical girl of that doomed generation, belonging to the classes that used to be called the middle in the islands that used to be called the British. (pp. 340-41)

Though the great value of Vera Brittain's book lies in the fact that the life she records was typical, she herself has not the detachment from that life, nor a sufficient insight into history, nor sufficient power properly to assess what was beyond doubt one of the most foolish ages in history. Probably nobody living has these qualifications, nor will have until that generation which fought the War and which is now making opinion and coming into the control of affairs is either...

(The entire section is 490 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

Miss Brittain deprecates the idea that [the poems in Poems of the War and After] have any special distinction. They are published, she tells us in her foreword, chiefly for those readers of Testament of Youth who have asked where they can obtain a little volume, "Verses of a V.A.D.," which has long been out of print. She has included here the best of the poems from that earlier collection composed during the War, together with a few of more recent years. The book begins and ends with a hail and farewell to the War generation, and its appeal will be primarily to those who belonged to that generation or who suffered unforgetable loss in "a world's upheaval." Literary criticism, indeed, is hardly applicable to such a personal record of loss as this. We could point to places where the rhythm falters or the form is fumbled; we could say of many of the verses that they were written rather to relieve a stricken heart than to wring truth out of anguish. But to any who have passed through the same desolation they will speak with an authentic voice. It is a voice of unconsolable regret, but it is a voice of comfort too. For it speaks of the undying beauty of youth as well as of its wounding and its death. And it rises eventually above any lingering self-pity to affirm [the strength of man]….

"Poetry: 'Poems of the War and After'," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1934; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 1685, May 17, 1934, p. 363.


The chief merit of [Poems of the War and After] is their simple sincerity. Miss Brittain, better known for her Testament of Youth, without any posing has let her honest singing be overheard. The lyrics which are traditional and modest in form, gain their strength from the cumulative effect of their lines. There is no detached brilliance of verse or phrase here. Though several pieces are clearly imitative and at times echoes of past phrases may be heard, the majority show individuality. Their burden mainly concerns those who kept their rendezvous with death. Sorrow, almost hopeless at times, and disillusion predominate, though lofty admiration is not missing. Quiet as they are, these emotions always ring true.

"Recent Non-Fiction: 'Poems of the War and After'," in America (reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc.; © 1934; all rights reserved), Vol. LI, No. 22, September 8, 1934, p. 524.

The Saturday Review Of Literature

Vera Brittain is a serious writer, and in a foreword she firmly states the purpose of ["Honorable Estate"] which "purports to show how the women's revolution—one of the greatest in all history—combined with the struggle for other democratic ideals and the cataclysm of the war to alter the private destinies of individuals." It is a very serious novel, and covers the period 1890–1930.

The first section is concerned with Janet Rutherston, married at nineteen to a clergyman much older than herself. Disliking vicarage life and the vicar, disliking the son she had not wanted, disliking domesticity, passionately interested in politics and women's rights, she was thwarted by her husband's angry...

(The entire section is 480 words.)

Georgiana G. Stevens

Intended as a companion volume to "Testament of Youth," Vera Brittain's ["Honourable Estate"] is, as might be expected, a novel of ideas. It tells the story of three marriages and covers the period between 1894 and 1930. Considered separately, each marriage represents a phase in the struggle of women for political and moral suffrage….

The title, "Honourable Estate," also has a symbolical meaning. It refers here not only to marriage but, in a wider sense, to the status of women and workers whose strivings for recognition and dignity are the real subject of this book. In a short foreword the author explains that her title has a still further significance. It represents for her that maturity of spirit...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

Gladys Davis

Miss Vera Brittain is a stirring person, and to stay with her through six hundred of her closely written, documented pages is a moving experience. In this first novel, Honourable Estate, she is trying deliberately to raise the status of woman, to record what has been achieved in the last four decades in her struggle for liberty and equality, throwing into question the whole notion of woman as inevitably domestic, and ending up with stressing as a last phase the married woman's need of a career. (p. 33)

Obviously Miss Brittain's gifts are not domestic—some day perhaps one of the 'new' women will appear in print as a glamorously good cook—but she can put herself intensely into her...

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Craig Thompson

Miss Brittain, an Englishwoman, has seen fit to offer for publication a series of letters to her 15-year-old son in America ["Humiliation with Honor"] which can have interest only to herself, her son and those among us who still have the strength and will to examine the position and arguments of pacifists in a time when more space must be found for casualty lists.

It may be that by writing these letters and publishing them Miss Brittain has found that certain ease which comes with getting a burden off the chest. It may even be that what Dr. Fosdick says [in the foreword] is also true—that in this slim book the "vast, unheralded, submerged meanings of war to the plain people of the world find a...

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Ben Ray Redman

The evil that wars do lives after them, in many shapes and kinds. It would be well, or rather best if man could destroy this evil at the root, so that it might never be seen on earth again; but, failing that, he must at least strive to mitigate the evil in every way he can, using all the techniques at his command, including the comparatively new science of psychotherapy. This, in brief, is what Vera Brittain says at length in "Account Rendered," a novel that should please those readers who like their fiction to be cast in tendentious mould.

To animate her thesis, Miss Britain tells the story of Francis Halkin, whose life was one of those left shattered by the War of 1914–18. In Halkin's case, as in...

(The entire section is 540 words.)

Mary Ross

Vera Brittain's "Testament of Youth" was the story of her own experiences through World War I and the post-war years till 1925. ["Born 1925"] ostensibly centers in the next generation, in Adrian Cadbury, born in 1925, and his younger sister Josephine. Actually, however, the clearer characters in the book are Adrian's parents who, having been hard hit by one world war in youth, had to undergo the second in company with their children twenty-odd years later….

The chief interest of this novel is as a report on the way some people in London lived through and felt in the inter-war and war years rather than as a story of individuals. At the same time, the circumstances of Adrian's life are too special to...

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Mary Scrutton

There are times when an author is injured by being persistently connected with an early best-seller. This is not one of them. Vera Brittain makes it plain in every line of [Testament of Experience], from the title onwards, that she is still the author of Testament of Youth…. Testament of Experience makes an effect of prolonged anti-climax. It is an amiable, miscellaneous sort of book, much, much too long and stuffed with dull quotations. It tells the story of her busy, distracted but on the whole satisfying life since her marriage, a life which has no particular form because it is merely a coda to her youth. It is mixed up with chatty extracts from world affairs…. There are flowers of shrewd...

(The entire section is 534 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

A quarter of a century ago there appeared Testament of Youth, one of those rare books which are a landmark for a whole generation. To young people, and more especially young women, who were in their twenties in 1933, the year of its publication, Miss Brittain's autobiography interpreted the puzzle of childhood recollections, things incomprehended at the time but of later years never to be forgotten. The First World War made a curiously deep and indelible mark on the generation who were just too young to be personally involved in its tragedy. They saw and to an extent far greater, probably, than their elders supposed, they understood with the mind, but they were not sufficiently adult to understand from the...

(The entire section is 737 words.)

Helen Beal Woodward

"Testament of Experience" retraces the frightening pattern of increasing tolerance to cruelty, beginning with the civilian air raids in Spain which once seemed so savage, and mounting through obliteration bombing to the "superlative atrocity" of Hiroshima.

I suppose there are many people who will loathe Vera Brittain's new book. Hers is a thorny and, as she admits, a combative personality. As a young woman she was a bit of a prig. In middle age she has a predilection for visiting graves that amounts almost to a hobby. The letters she and her husband exchange are so beautiful as to arouse the unworthy suspicion that they were written with one eye on posterity. And yet, though one may not be able to...

(The entire section is 216 words.)

Charles Curran

[Testament of Experience] is a unique compound of doom and domesticity. For as Miss Brittain surveys the world in flames, she sees pictures in the fire; pictures of herself writing books, receiving cheques, buttonholing statesmen, handing out advice like a universal aunt. She is Narcissus, Cassandra and Mrs. Caudle all in one. Her books are given parity of esteem with the bombs….

For the historian, the most significant part of this singular and revealing story is Miss Brittain's description of how she, in 1937, became a militant pacifist calling on Englishmen to refuse to fight….

When the war ended, Miss Brittain "said goodbye to frustration" and flew to Europe in order...

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Eve Auchincloss

Testament of Youth is an unflinching account of the early life of an Englishwoman whom circumstances and conscience made an eloquent witness to a war that in this century of horrors remains the most savage, futile, and incomprehensible of any. (p. 4)

Though a product of the '30s, Vera Brittain's "testament" is written in the rather fussy, periphrastic language of the world before the Great War that divided history, she believed, as decisively as B.C. and A.D., but it is no less affectingly honest and heartrending. It's now impossible to imagine the innocence with which her generation answered that they solemnly described as the call of God, King, and Country; but not impossible to envy them...

(The entire section is 144 words.)

Phillip Whitehead

The reader approaches [Chronicle of Youth] with some reservations. Vera Brittain made a number of unsuccessful attempts to have her war diaries published in her lifetime, after Testament of Youth, for which they had provided much of the raw material. The recent successful televising of that book, and its renewed appeal to a fresh generation haunted by the fear of the holocaust has led to a Vera Brittain revival…. Is this, perhaps, an attempt by the publishers … to cash in on the Brittain boom? The answer is that it is much more than that, more even than a companion volume for Testament of Youth. Every pang and pash of provincial girlhood, every burgeoning literary ambition, is here. Then it...

(The entire section is 204 words.)

Paul Delany

When Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth was published in 1933 it struck a deep chord among those in England who felt, as she did, that their youth had been 'smashed up' by the Great War. Nearly a million men of their generation lay buried in Flanders and Gallipoli; many of those who remained felt condemned to hollow lives, haunted by loss and grief. They believed that those sacrificed had been men of special grace, the irreplaceable flower of the nation's youth; and they blamed the post-war decline of Britain on their absence. The survivors—guilty, perhaps, simply of having survived—were left to bear the burden of a disappointing and mediocre peace.

Brittain became a leading spokeswoman...

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