British writer, feminist and pacifist Vera Brittain is remembered mainly for her haunting autobiography Testament of Youth, first published in 1933. Currently in its l9th edition and inspiration for a 1979 BBC production and PBS "Masterpiece Theater" presentation, it remains the best-known book of a woman's World War I experience, heartbreaking in its account of love, wrenching loss, and ultimate renewal from the ashes.
T of Y, which helped set a new standard for autobiography in its accessible style and established Brittain's literary reputation, was her answer to the prevalently male memoirs by Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Ernest Hemingway, and others. "Didn't women have their war as well?" she asked (Testament of Experience, p 77). The book was Brittain's attempt "to tell history in terms of personal life" (T of Y p, 11) and to come to terms with the past.
T of Y begins with Brittain's sheltered upbringing in Buxton in Derbyshire, and her chafing at Victorian restrictions that took her younger brother Edward's attendance at Oxford entirely for granted, and treated her own intellectual aspirations with scorn. Nevertheless, she won an exhibition (a type of scholarship) to Somerville College, Oxford in 1914. About that time, she re-met Edward's school friend, Roland Leighton. Despite conventions that dictated a constant chaperone, they fell in love. With the outbreak of World War I, Roland was called to the front, followed by Edward and his two friends, Geoffrey Thurlow and Victor Richardson. Fearing that the war would leave "a barrier of indescribable experience" between her and Roland, Brittain left Oxford to volunteer as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D.), nurse, first in England and then in Malta and France. While Roland was on leave from France, he and Brittain became engaged. He was killed by a sniper's bullet in December 1915; his death was followed by Thurlow's death in April 1917, and Richardson's blinding at Arras. Brittain returned from Malta intending to marry him but was forestalled by Richardson's death in June 1917. The final blow was her brother Edward's death in action in June 1918.
After the war, suffering from what is now recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder, Brittain returned to Oxford. As a result of her war experiences, she decided to read history instead of English. "It's my job, now, to find out all about it," she wrote in T of Y, "and try to prevent it, in so far as one person can, from happening to other people in the days to come" (p 471). After graduation, Brittain took up journalism and lecturing work. T of Y ends with her approaching marriage to political scientist George Gordon Catlin in 1925. Brittain, who retained her maiden name, and Catlin had two children, John Brittain-Catlin (1927-87) and the politician Shirley (now Baroness) Williams (1930-).
Brittain became a steadfast pacifist, active in the Peace Pledge Union and other groups. During World War II, she wrote England's Hour (about England during the Blitz) and a staggering 10,000 words in three days for a pamphlet, "One of These Little Ones," to publicize the plight of starving children in Europe. She published a fortnightly Letter to Peace Lovers to over 1,000 subscribers and was attacked in the press on both sides of the Atlantic, including a diatribe by George Orwell, for her opposition to saturation bombing. Although considered "suspect" by the British government because of her pacifist beliefs, Brittain's name appeared on the Nazi "hit list" discovered by the Allies of people to be arrested and probably executed on Hitler's invasion of Britain.
Brittain also wrote novels, several of which drew on her World War I experiences, including Honorable Estate (1936). Although she most often identified herself publicly as a novelist and was a frequent and popular speaker on the lecture circuit, her real strength lay as observer in her autobiographies. Although she was to write three others, the 1940 Testament of Friendship (about the short life of her great friend, the novelist Winifred Holtby), the 1957 Testament of Experience, and the unpublished Testament of Faith. Testament of Youth is generally regarded as her best and most universal work.
In 1966, she suffered a fall over some building debris and from then on her health steadily deteriorated. Despite her statement in Testament of Experience that T of Y got World War I "out of her system," her private feelings made it clear that it had never left her. She wrote poignantly to novelist Phyllis Bentley a few years before her death, "I shall welcome death when it comes because it will release me from remembering the things I still have to remember." She died on March 29, 1970 and was cremated. According to her wishes, her ashes were scattered over her brother Edward's grave on Italy's Asiago Plateau.
Berry, Paul and Mark Bostridge. Vera Brittain: A Life. London: Chatto & Windus, 1995.
Brittain, Vera. Chronicle of Youth: The War Diary 1913-1917. Ed. Alan Bishop. New York: Morrow, 1982.
---. Honourable Estate. London: Victor Gollancz, 1936.
---. Testament of Experience. London: Victor Gollancz, 1957.
---. Testament of Youth. London: Victor Gollancz, 1933.
---. "War Service in Perspective." Promise of Greatness: The War of 1914-1918. Ed. George A. Panichas. New York: John Day, Co., 1968, 363-376.
---. Wartime Chronicle: Vera Brittain's Diary 1939-1945. Ed. Alan Bishop and Y. Aleksandra Bennett. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1989.
Foxwell, Elizabeth. "Testament of Youth: Vera Brittain's Quest for Literary and Personal Peace" in, Women's Lifewriting: Lives Considered and Reconsidered Day by Day, Ed. Linda Coleman. Popular Press. In press.(1997)
---. Fighting Words: Women Pacifists in World War II. M.A. thesis, Georgetown University, 1990.
Gorham, Deborah. Vera Brittain: A Feminist Life. London: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.