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.
Roland and Vera had become unofficially engaged (Vera refused to wear a ring) while he was on leave in August that year: they had both evidently decided that this was to be the next step in their relationship and went ahead despite the fact that their meetings were distinguished by an inability to recapture the intimacy of their letters. As she said to him afterwards: ‘Reverence – reserve – indifference – in their actual manifestation they are so alike.’
His letters got shorter and more irregular after he returned to France and he apologised that ‘I am getting absorbed in my little world here ... It is the only way to stifle boredom and regrets.’ Berry and Bostridge describe his last letters to Brittain as having ‘an oddly dispassionate quality, as if he were looking in at their relationship from the outside’. In one of these letters he wonders what she is doing: ‘Asleep, I hope – or sitting in front of a fire in blue and white pyjamas. I should so like to see you in blue and white pyjamas. You are always correctly dressed when I find you, and usually somewhere near a railway station, n’est-ce pas.’ This could be construed as looking in on her life but it doesn’t seem very dispassionate.
Roland wrote to tell her that he had been allowed leave over Christmas and Vera spent Christmas Day in Brighton waiting for a phone call. The next morning she was called to the telephone to be told that he had died of wounds on 23 December. He had been about to repair the barbed wire in front of the trenches on a clear, moonlit night and had gone ahead of his men to make sure all was well. When he emerged from cover he was shot by a German sniper and died the next evening without leaving any message for his family or for Vera. He had died for no military reason, one of only three officers to die in that sector of the line between April and December 1915. He was 20. Almost twenty years later in Testament of Youth she admitted that his death was ‘unnecessary, so grimly devoid of that heroic limelight’.
After his death Brittain seems to have needed all the more, as Deborah Gorham stresses, to see Leighton as a saint-like figure, and she took to writing of Him, with a Christ-like capital letter. Told by Roland’s sister Clare that she had idealised him whereas Clare had ‘loved him for his faults’, Vera wrote: ‘so do I – but I see now how small they were in comparison to his essential greatness.’ She is judged rather harshly by Berry and Bostridge for her need to see ‘greatness’ in those close to her, but her reliance on heroic abstractions and her attempt to see the war as a chivalric battle of good against evil was understandable given her background – as well as her romantic and morbid inclinations. After Roland’s death she described her brother and his friend Victor Richardson as looking ‘tall and fine and knightly ... like courtiers without a king’. As Gorham points out, during the war Brittain lost much of her earlier spiky assertiveness and was content to play the more traditional self-sacrificing role of the hero’s beloved. Leighton’s discontent had been difficult to deal with in part because the betrayal and disillusion of war, like the earlier heroism, was still something shared by men, by initiates.
Latterly, as Brittain described in Testament of Youth, her belief in the righteousness of the war was hard to sustain. ‘When suspicion and doubt began to creep in, the more ardent and frequent was the periodic rededication, the more deliberate the self-induced conviction that our efforts were disinterested and our cause was just.’ She wrote Testament of Youth in an attempt to forewarn the next generation, but she was conscious of the attractions of conflict: while war’s ‘honour is dishonest and its glory meretricious ... the challenge to spiritual endurance, the intense sharpening of all the senses, the vitalising consciousness of common peril for a common end remain compelling.’ There was in any case little way out and, as Victor Richardson wrote to her, ‘very few men are suitable ... One has therefore to convince oneself ... that one is at any rate a decent imitation of a soldier.’ Edward Brittain’s friend Geoffrey Thurlow, who described himself as ‘disgustingly windy’ and ‘no earthly use as an officer’, continued to rely on Rupert Brooke and ended his last letter to Vera in April 1917 by quoting him and saying that he would ‘like to do well for the School’s sake’.
Before Brittain received this letter two cables had arrived: the first told her that Victor Richardson had been blinded; the second that Geoffrey Thurlow had been killed. She decided to return to Britain from Malta where she had been nursing and to ‘devote my life to the service of Victor, the only one (apart from Edward, who is different) left of the three men I loved’. Two weeks after her return Victor felt something click in his head, like a ‘miniature explosion’, became delirious and died the following day. In June 1918 Edward Brittain was killed in a counter-attack against the Austrians high in the Italian mountains, and it is his death, or rather the circumstances surrounding it, that provides Berry and Bostridge’s biography with its scoop.
In Testament of Youth Brittain describes visiting her brother’s 26-year-old colonel, wounded in the same action, in a ‘luxurious’ hospital, in the belief that he could tell her more about her brother’s death, ‘if he chose’. She says there that Colonel Hudson had found in the war ‘the fulfilment of his baffled longing for military distinction’ and is rather scathing about the VC Hudson had been awarded, as she never was about her brother’s MC. He didn’t tell her what she wanted to hear – that her brother’s part in the counter-attack had been distinguished by ‘some special act of heroism’ – and she believed that he had been keeping something from her. After the publication of Testament of Youth Hudson wrote to Vera, confirming that there was something he had withheld, and suggested that they meet. When they did he told her that a letter written to Edward Brittain by another officer in his battalion had been censored by the Military Police and that its contents had made it plain that both men had been ‘involved with men of their company in homosexuality’. The day before Brittain’s death Hudson had tried indirectly to warn him that he was under investigation and believed that as a result of this Edward might have shot himself, or at least made himself an easy target, knowing that he would be court-martialled. As Berry and Bostridge write, Vera found it hard to accept that Edward had behaved in a way that was ‘accounted discreditable’ – by having relationships with men in his company in an army which, as A.J.P. Taylor said, ‘kept its antique class structure inviolate’ – or that his homosexuality was more than a phase, ‘an outgrowth of his Uppingham education’. She claimed that he was ‘just deeply romantic about his friends, as musicians are’.
While Brittain had continued to believe in her brother’s heroism, she no longer thought that the war was being fought for any noble ideal. It had become an endurance test, and with no one else to wait for, she felt she had to see through ‘her small weary part’ in it to the end. Her experiences nursing on the Western Front in the months before Edward’s death were pivotal to the development of this subdued out look. In Etaples, working on the German ward, she saw ‘how ridiculous’ it was that she was trying to save men who ‘only a week or two earlier, Edward up at Ypres had been doing his best to kill ... These shattered, dying boys and I were paying alike for a situation that none of us had desired.’ This disenchantment increased on her transfer to an acute medical ward where she treated victims of mustard gas. ‘I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war,’ she wrote to her mother, ‘could see these poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-coloured suppurating blisters, with blind eyes ... all sticky and stuck together and always fighting for breath ... The only thing one can say is that such severe cases don’t last long.’
She didn’t immediately draw any pacifist conclusions from these experiences, but later said that it was on the German ward that she had ‘begun to think on definitely pacifist lines – though I did not then recognise them as such.’ At the time, however, she decided to switch from English to history when she returned to Oxford, hoping she would discover why the war had happened and how another could be prevented. After she left university, believing she had a duty to disseminate ‘those internationalist ideas the teaching of which, I still felt, alone justified my survival of the war,’ she did a great deal of lecturing for the League of Nations Union, ‘glad to do anything ... to make people care for the peace of the world. It’s better than railing at the present state of Europe, or always weeping in darkness for the dead.’ She visited Germany, Austria and Hungary and saw ‘the ruin and devastation wrought by international conflict in a world of mutually dependent nations’. By the time Testament of Youth appeared in 1933 the world again seemed ‘grey and tragic’ and the League of Nations ‘a mere French-dominated instrument for continuing the unjust status quo set up at Versailles, of which Hitler was the appalling consequence’. Pressed by the ‘reading public’ she became a ‘kind of minor prophetess of peace’. In 1936 she accepted an invitation to speak at an open-air peace rally near Dorchester with Donald Soper, George Lansbury and Dick Sheppard. Having listened to their speeches in support of Christian pacifism, she felt unable to deliver her usual speech about collective security and seven months later became a Sponsor of the Peace Pledge Union. In Testament of Experience, which covers her life until 1950 and is dominated by this issue, she compared 20th-century pacifists with the early Christians, who had kept the flame alight although they had no reason to believe that the Roman Empire would be converted ‘in measurable time’. Late in 1937, when Left Review sent out a questionnaire on the Spanish Civil War, she responded ‘as an uncompromising pacifist’: ‘I hold war to be a crime against humanity whoever fights it, and against whomever it is fought. I believe in liberty, democracy, free thought and free speech. I detest Fascism and all that it stands for but I do not believe we will destroy it by fighting it.’
Other members of the PPU gave more emollient answers to the questionnaire and many renounced pacifism when the war finally began. Brittain didn’t waver, writing to Storm Jameson: ‘I don’t think Hitler’s victory would be worse for humanity in the long run ... than recur rent war.’ After one visit to the USA, during which she obediently reported back to the Ministry of Information, earning the grudging comment that ‘Miss Brittain is quite sensible in this letter,’ she was refused any further exit visas. This greatly reduced her income – much of which derived from lecture tours of the USA – and also prevented her from seeing her two children, who spent three years there, returning only when the threat of invasion appeared to be over. In her fortnightly Letter to Peace-Lovers she campaigned for food relief and against saturation bombing. After the war she wondered whether the publicity about concentration camps was a ruse to prevent a ‘growing sense of guilt for Germany’s razed cities’ and asked where the moral difference lay between the two. Many pacifists had been shaken by the revelations of genocide, so terrible that they seemed to invalidate the concept of a reasonable peace, but Brittain argued that the war had not been fought to save the Jews and that its prolongation had led to an increase in their persecution.
She remained active in the PPU and later supported CND and then the breakaway Committee of 100, not joining it because, she told Bertrand Russell, it ‘would inevitably mean that other members of my family ... would be penalised for opinions they do not share’. Brittain’s daughter, Shirley Williams, had become a Labour MP in 1964 and her mother wrote to a friend that, although she wished ‘Shirley were more revolutionary in her politics ... really she never has been! She takes after George discreet, sage, judicial, an ideal minister.’
Brittain’s husband George Catlin was a political scientist who felt that he had never been properly appreciated either in academia – blaming Harold Laski for stopping him getting influential jobs – or in the Labour Party, and for this he felt his wife’s extreme beliefs were partly responsible. When they married, Catlin was teaching at Cornell; hating life as a faculty wife and having found no American interest in her journalism or in her book about marriage (one publisher’s reader said that no one would ever care what happened to this muddle headed egotist and her invertebrate professor’), Brittain returned to London after a year, persuading her husband to change his post to a part-time one so they could be based principally in London. Brittain had wanted to prove by example that ‘marriage and motherhood need never tame the mind’ and believed that her success mattered ‘to the world, to society, to feminism’. But Catlin’s tolerance of this ‘semi-detached’ marriage didn’t last long and he pleaded with her to return to the USA. She responded: ‘Why is it “massive selfishness” for me to want to do the work I love under the conditions best for it and not so for you to want to do exactly the same thing?’ Believing the success of her work to depend ‘not only upon the fact that we are ideally happy together, but that we are known to be so’ she was dismayed when, wanting a more conventional and compliant wife and unwilling to accept long periods of celibacy, Catlin threatened and then began to have affairs. They were both disappointed in each other, but they stayed together – for many years in the same ‘semi-detached’ mode – until Brittain’s death in 1970. As she grew older she became more dependent on Catlin, more tolerant of his girlfriends (her own extra-marital adventures seem to have been confined to a largely unrequited passion for her American publisher) and felt that she had been an ‘unsatisfactory’ wife. The question of adultery had become central to their marriage: she felt it should not matter too much, but it made her feel a failure and in some ways she thought the worse of Catlin for being preoccupied with sex. This, she said to him, made men ‘rather poor things’ and explained why she had ‘never expected quite the same standard of loyalty and honour and consideration from you as I should take for granted from Winifred’.
Winifred Holtby and Vera had lived together in London until Brittain’s marriage in 1925, picturing for themselves ‘a vague but wholly alluring existence of novel-writing and journalism’. They both succeeded in having their first novels published: Winifred’s was the first to be accepted and the better received (although Vera’s portrait of a thinly disguised Somerville made a bigger splash), setting a precedent that Vera, older and anxious to be known as a novelist, found it hard to accept gracefully. They shared a house again – now with George Catlin, too – from 1927 until Winifred’s early death from kidney disease in 1935. Holtby had been desolate at the prospect of Brittain’s marriage. ‘No one can tell what she has meant to me these four years,’ she told a friend. ‘But I covet for her this richer life.’ On her honeymoon Vera wrote to Winifred that ‘you alone were not enough; yet this by no means implies that he alone is enough.’ This serene assumption of her primacy in the relationship was typical and caused much annoyance to Holtby’s friends, who couldn’t understand why she indulged Brittain. Winifred the tall, Yorkshire Viking was thought to be the robust one of the pair, whereas the fragile Vera – ‘a person whom life has battered’, as Winifred said in her defence – was allowed to be demanding and difficult. Holtby was everybody’s friend, and everybody ‘exploited’ her: as Gorham says, she assumed something of the role of the ‘model spinster’ who ‘learned to cultivate selflessness as a duty’. Brittain’s guilt at this – although she didn’t feel she was the sole offender – is evident in her biography of Holtby, Testament of Friendship.
After Holtby’s death Catlin had written to his wife: ‘You preferred her to me ... It humiliated me and ate me up ... The point is, not sex but preference is what matters.’ In her biography of Holtby, Brittain hoped to show that the friendship of women is a ‘noble relationship’, while refuting ‘suspicions habitual among the over-sophisticated’ that the two women had had a lesbian relationship. Holtby, less earnest than her friend, had been less worried by the imputation, saying of the infant Shirley Williams: ‘Look, she’s got my hair.’ Brittain’s friendships with other women had met with less success. That with the novelist Phyllis Bentley began well (‘I think about you almost hourly,’ Bentley wrote. ‘I know all your frocks by heart’) but soon came to a bad end when she wrote an unenthusiastic cover blurb for Testament of Youth and Brittain responded: ‘you are a colossal egoist, Phyllis ... you have charity and compassion and understanding only for the creatures that you yourself invent.’
Brittain’s novels, on the other hand, were distinguished by the inadequate fictionalisation of characters who remained all too recognisable – as George Catlin discovered when his parents’ unhappy relationship figured largely in Honourable Estate – and by the heavy-handed touch which Bentley had clearly noticed. Journalism and autobiography – at the time thought of as a rather presumptuous form for a relatively unknown and female writer to choose – suited what Virginia Woolf called Brittain’s ‘stringy, metallic mind’ better, enabling her lucidly to combine the personal and the political. ‘She feels that these facts must be made known,’ Woolf wrote in her diary after reading Testament of Youth, ‘in order to help – what? Herself partly I suppose. And she has the social conscience. But I give her credit for having lit up a dark passage for me at least. I read and read and read.’
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