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Vera Brittain

Vera Mary Brittain was born on December 29th 1893 at Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire. She was the oldest child of paper manufacturer Arthur Brittain and his wife Edith (née Bervon), who moved their young family to Macclesfield in Cheshire when Vera was eighteen months old, just a few months before her beloved brother Edward was born. In 1905, the family moved to Buxton in Derbyshire where Vera attended the Grange School. At the age of fourteen, she was sent to St Monica’s School at Kingswood in Surrey, from where she gained entrance to Somerville College, Oxford in 1914.

Meanwhile, in June 1913, Vera had met Roland Leighton, a close friend of Edward’s from his school, Uppingham, where these two and their friend Victor Richardson were known as “the three musketeers”. In the summer of 1914, when the First World War began, the three young men enlisted (in different regiments), leaving Vera to mourn their departure and also the fact that her own involvement in the conflict was so banal. In October, she went up to Oxford, but in June 1915, abandoned her studies and became a VAD nurse, training initially in Buxton before transferring to the 1st London General Hospital.

Throughout this time, Vera and Roland Leighton had been seeing more of each other and they became engaged to be married in August 1915. Vera was also introduced to Geoffrey Thurlow, another friend of Edward’s who was serving in the same regiment. Although Vera found her work as a VAD arduous, she consoled herself with the knowledge that Roland would be home for Christmas. Vera’s family planned to spend the holiday season at Brighton and Roland was due to arrive with them on Boxing Day. However, when she awoke on December 26th, Vera received a telephone call from Roland’s sister, Clare, informing her that Roland had died on 23rd December.

In order to help with her grief, Vera decided to apply for an overseas posting but while she was awaiting news of this, she heard that Geoffrey Thurlow had been wounded and was recovering in London, so that over the next few weeks, the two became friends. Edward Brittain was wounded at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme and was sent to Vera’s hospital in London, where he heard the news that he had been awarded the Military Cross. In September 1916, Vera finally received the news that she was being transferred to Malta and she departed on the 24th of the month. While abroad, Vera continued her correspondence with Edward, Victor and Geoffrey. In April 1917, Victor was badly wounded and blinded at Vimy Ridge and later that month, Geoffrey Thurlow was killed. Upon receiving this news, Vera decided that she should return to England, arriving at the end of May. She resolved to devote her life to caring for Victor, through marriage if necessary, and was relieved to find him initially in better health that she’d anticipated. She was, therefore, devastated when he deteriorated suddenly and died on 9th June.

After this loss, Vera requested a posting in France, sailing at the beginning of August 1917, whereupon she found herself nursing the wounded of the Passchendaele offensive. Edward was moved to the Italian front and Vera was kept busy until the end of March 1918, when her mother became ill and Vera was obliged to return to England. Once Mrs Brittain was better, Vera began to contemplate going up to Oxford again in the autumn and, in the meantime, she published a volume of poems entitled Verses of a VAD. On June 22nd came the news she had most dreaded: Edward had been killed one week earlier.

After the war, Vera returned to Oxford, where she completed her degree and, more importantly, met Winifred Holtby. Following their graduation, the two women rented a flat together in London, where they wrote novels. Winifred’s was successfully published quite quickly, but Vera took longer to find a publisher and it was 1923 before The Dark Tide reached the bookshelves. The novel was well received and Vera had many letters of praise including one from George Catlin, a Liverpool-born lecturer on philosophy and political science at Cornell University. They corresponded for a while and met in June 1924, whereupon Catlin proposed marriage. Vera delayed accepting until July 5th, when she made it clear that the terms of her acceptance were that she would sacrifice nothing for the sake of her work and ambitions and that her marriage would always come second to her writing.

The couple were married on June 27th 1925 with Vera taking the unusual decision at the time to retain her maiden name. For the first year of their marriage, Vera lived with Catlin at Cornell, although she found domesticity quite trying and left George to do most of the household chores, so that she could have more time to work. After this first year, however, Vera returned to England, giving George a stark choice of either staying alone in America or sacrificing his own position to be with her: he chose the latter and took up a part-time professorship, so that they would only be apart for a few months of each year.

Vera’s first child, John, was born in December 1927, by which time the family, including Winifred and the domestic staff, had moved to a large London house. When George returned to Cornell in January, it was Winifred to coped with everything including the new baby, writing her own novel, acting as Director of Time and Tide Magazine and helping Vera, who took the opportunity to throw herself into her work with renewed gusto.

In 1929, she began work on her own autobiographical account of the war (something already successfully undertaken by many other poets and authors), her book, Testament of Youth, taking four years to complete. There were several interruptions, including the birth of Vera’s second child, a daughter named Shirley in July 1930. Other obstacles in publication were even more of Vera’s own making, such as the fact that she neglected to obtain the permission of the Leighton family to include excerpts from Roland’s letters and, even more importantly, George objected to his wife’s portrayal of his character, thus requiring a re-write of the ending of the book and the removal of his name, to be replaced by the letter “G” in reference to him. When Testament of Youth was finally published, it met with great – but not universal – acclaim. There were those who felt that Vera had placed too much emphasis on her own losses and suffering, above and beyond those of anyone else.

George, by now frustrated with the continued separations from his wife, embarked on the first of a series of affairs. He confessed everything to Vera, who was concerned, but was equally bothered by the deterioration in Winifred’s health. Despite this, Vera travelled to America, not to see her husband, but to promote Testament of Youth, placing John and Shirley in a boarding nursery and leaving Winifred to take care of everything else, including Vera’s father, who had recently attempted suicide. While in America, Vera met and became infatuated with George Brett, the President of her US Publishers, Macmillan. Brett was happily married, however, and did not return Vera’s affections, but that did not prevent her from behaving like a love-lorn teenager and, eventually, turning herself into the victim of an unrequited love affair that had never existed.

In the summer of 1935, Arthur Brittain successfully committed suicide, after which George became unwell, although he soon recovered. Then Winifred’s health took a turn for the worse and, despite Vera remaining in denial and refusing to accept that her friend could ever leave her, Winifred died on 29th September. Vera was commissioned to write Winifred’s biography, which was not completed until January 1940 as Testament of Friendship, which sold well, but was criticised by many for being too much about Vera.

Before the Second World War, Vera had been among those who sought appeasement with Hitler and continued to strive for peace throughout the conflict. In June 1940, John and Shirley were sent to America, followed by George a few months later. Vera, however, was refused an exit permit due to her membership of the Peace Pledge Union. When the Blitz bombing of London started, Vera moved to Reading in Berkshire with fellow writer Margaret Storm Jameson and her husband Guy Chapman. As the bombings decreased and the chances of invasion looked less likely, the children returned to England in the summer of 1943.

After the Second World War, the cracks began to show in Vera and George’s relationship and they celebrated their silver wedding anniversary with separate parties. With John, Vera also had a difficult relationship, as he found it hard to settle to anything. Shirley, on the other hand, was growing up to be a fiercely independent and politically aware young woman. In 1957, Vera published Testament of Experience – a sequel to Testament of Youth – which covered the years 1925 to 1950. Again, she was criticised for being obsessed with her own importance and Roland Leighton’s sister Clare was so upset by Vera’s portrayal of the Leighton family that she severed their friendship entirely.

By 1966, Vera was beginning to show signs of ill health and continued to deteriorate over the next few years until her death on 29th March 1970. Later that year, George was knighted and remarried in 1971. Vera’s ashes were scattered on the grave of her brother, Edward, on the Asiago Plateau.

Despite her many efforts to be taken seriously as a feminist and campaigner, Vera Brittain is now best known for her writings on the First World War and its impact on her life. To many she remains the epitome of stoic female suffering, but it should be remembered that she is just one of the many women (and men) who lost loved ones and made great sacrifices during that terrible war, most of whom did so quietly, with humility and dignity.