Poor Darling

Jean McNicol

  • Vera Brittain: A Life by Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge
    Chatto, 581 pp, £25.00, October 1995, ISBN 0 7011 2679 5
  • Vera Brittain: A Feminist Life by Deborah Gorham
    Blackwell, 330 pp, £20.00, February 1996, ISBN 0 631 14715 2

Soon after Vera Brittain returned to continue her interrupted studies at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1919, she began to avoid mirrors, believing that there was a dark shadow, like the beginnings of a beard, on her chin. A strikingly pretty woman with a concomitant interest in clothes she was thoughtfully given a college room containing five large mirrors: ‘I avoided it from breakfast till bedtime and if ever I had to go in to change my clothes or fetch a book, I pressed my hands desperately against my eyes lest five identical witches’ faces should suddenly stare at me from the cold remorseless mirrors.’ Her delusion appears to have been occasioned by guilt that she had survived the war and its nature underlines the degree to which she identified with the dead young men she wrote about in her autobiography Testament of Youth, which covers the years from her birth in 1893 until her marriage in 1925, but is centrally concerned with her experiences during the Great War, after which she felt herself ‘a haphazard survivor from another life’.

Her resentment towards those who had not taken part or suffered in the war and her obsession with the dead did not make her popular in postwar Somerville, and it was decided to invite her to propose the motion ‘that four years’ travel are a better education than four years at University’ in a college debate held with the intention of using the subsequent discussion to take her ‘down a peg or two’, as one participant said. Brittain, who had served as a nurse in France and Malta, dwelt on the narrowness of student life. Winifred Holtby, the only other woman to have served during the war and returned to the college, responded ‘in the words of Rosalind in As You Like It’ that ‘I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad; and to travel for it too!’ The motion was unanimously rejected and Vera returned to her room, ‘lay on the cold floor and wept with childish abandonment’.

Brittain’s first year at Oxford hadn’t been much more satisfactory. She had believed that university would be an escape from provincial life. ‘Oxford I trust may lead to something,’ she had written in her diary, ‘but Buxton never will.’ It was a place where she hoped to do as men did, ‘no longer the angel set up on a pedestal, and shut out of everything, and no longer the toy, the sort of soft cushion or hot-water bottle for the husband to soothe himself with after having spent the day seriously’. But by the time she arrived in Oxford, in October 1914, the men had found a more exciting way to spend their days. Her attempt to get to the centre of things had failed. Her brother Edward and his friend Roland Leighton had enlisted instead of going to Oxford. Leighton, with whom she had already begun an intense, and mainly epistolary, relationship, wrote to her saying that he could not ‘easily bring myself to endure a secluded life of scholarly vegetation’. At the end of her first year she decided to become a VAD: nursing was the closest a woman could get to the male experience of war; and if her days were filled with hard physical work she would have less time to spend imagining the terrible fates which could befall Roland and her brother.

In July 1914 Brittain and her mother had attended the speech day at Uppingham School; Edward hadn’t won any prizes but Roland Leighton won seven, breaking the school record, Uppingham had a large OTC, of which both boys were members, and no one was allowed to win an academic prize or take part in a sporting contest unless he had passed a shooting test. The headmaster ended his speech that day by saying that a man who could not be useful to his country was better dead. When war began a month later her brother was anxious to follow his headmaster’s injunction and enlist, but their father’s permission was needed and he was reluctant to give it. In her diary Vera ascribed Arthur Brittain’s opposition to his lack of a public school education, accusing him of ‘unmanliness ... especially after we read in the Times of a mother who said to her hesitating son: “My boy, I don’t want you to go, but if I were you I should.” ’

Vera was equally keen for her brother to join up and Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge believe that her reliance on what they describe as a ‘sentimentalised conception’ of war affected her relationship with Roland Leighton, who was sent to the Front in March 1915. Leighton had claimed that his purpose in fighting was ‘the worship and indefinite pursuit of heroism in the abstract’, but soon discovered that there was ‘nothing glorious in trench warfare ... a waiting and a waiting and a taking of petty advantages’. Berry and Bostridge use the pair’s reactions to Rupert Brooke’s 1914 sonnets to illustrate ‘how little Vera understood what Roland was telling her’. Leighton quotes indirectly from Brooke’s third sonnet in what Vera described in her diary as a ‘fine if somewhat morbid description of the charnel-house condition of his present trenches – poor darling!’ In an old German trench he had come upon the ‘fleshless, blackened bones of simple men who poured out their red, sweet wine of youth unknowing, for nothing more tangible than Honour or their Country’s Glory or another’s Lust of Power’. Three days later, on receiving a coded message from him warning that he was about to take part in an attack, Vera responded with another quotation from Brooke: ‘Remember, She knows not the word “forget”. Death cannot conquer some things, & over them “War knows no power.” ’ This may be a ‘disappointing’ response, but it’s hard to see what other language was available to her. It is also rather predictable on the part of the biographers to use Rupert Brooke – who had his own reasons for wanting to believe in the cleansing power of war – as an example of a shallow response to the conflict.

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