Vera Brittain (1893-1970)
“There is an abiding beauty which may be appreciated by those who will see things as they are and who will ask for no reward except to see”
The British writer Vera Brittain (1893-1970) is most known for her distressing World War I memoir Testament of Youth, published in 1933. Lesser known is that she also was a committed feminist and pacifist, as the latter particularly active during the Interwar period and World War II.
Brittain was born in Newcastle, England on December 29, 1893 as the daughter of the wealthy paper manufacturer, Thomas Arthur Brittain and his wife, Edith Bervon Brittain. Her only brother Edward was her closest companion. A rebellious spirit, she felt that being a woman held her back from her educational aspirations. She wanted to be recognized as an independent individual with an education and a career and she envied her brother who had access to these things. To pursue these goals, in 1913 she began to study English literature at Somerville College, Oxford University.
When World War I started, at first she sincerely believed the recruiting propaganda that described a soldier’s job as heroic and manly, she thus encouraged her brother to enlist in the British military, which needed volunteers, because it was until 1916 not based on universal conscription. In 1915, she left college, because she wanted to help sick and wounded soldiers and hoped to be closer to her brother, his friends and her fiancé, who all had volunteered one year before. She joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) as a nurse assistant and experienced the First World War as such, first in Buxton and later in London, Malta and France. Her fiancé Roland Leighton, her close friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, and her brother Edward Brittain were all killed in the war. Their death and the brutal experiences as a war nurse were very traumatic for her. Already during the war she realized that war wasn’t a glorious adventure as she and many young men and women had thought it was; an insight that eventually lead her into a life of pacifist activism and advocacy.
After the war, Brittain went back to Oxford to finish her education. However, she struggled with her studies, still traumatized and disturbed by her experience in the war. In 1923, she published her first book, The Dark Tide, which was about a woman who returned to Oxford after doing volunteer work in World War I. The book created scandal as it caricatured dons at Oxford, especially at her won College Somerville. In 1925, she married to George Catlin, a political scientist and philosopher. They had a son and a daughter together, born in 1927 and 1930. Brittain continued to write after marriage.
In 1933 she published her memoire, Testament of Youth, which described in detail her experiences as a VAD nurse assistant during World War I. It detailed not only her early enthusiasm, but also the poor working conditions and long hours of young VAD nurses. According to the book, she eventually became used to the low pay and the long hours of her job, but struggled to treat soldiers who had been badly injured in the war. In the book she describes how her views towards war changed and became more critical during the duration if the conflict. Her war idealism and patriotism eventually faded after witnessing the brutal reality of war. The Testament of Youth was followed by Testament of Friendship (1940)—her tribute to and biography of her friend Winifred Holtby (1898-1935)—and Testament of Experience (1957), the continuation of her own story, which spanned the years between 1925-1950.
During the 1920s Brittain increasingly turned towards feminism and pacifism. She became a regular speaker for the League of Nations society, founded in 1919 to preemptively solve disputes between countries before they developed into warfare. In 1937, she joined the Peace Pledge Union, a secular pacifist organization, and later also the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, a group of people from Anglican faith who rejected war.
Brittain’s work as a pacifist continued into the Second World War. She toured the United States when it was still neutral and spoke against an American involvement in the conflict. In Britain he was active in Peace Pledge Union’s food relief campaign. She also advocated against the bombings of German cities, and in 1944 published Massacre by Bombing (published in London as Seed of Chaos), in which she outlined the violent effects of the British-American bombings of German cities. She faced a lot of criticism and pushback for this book and for her pacifism in wartime, which was deemed “unpatriotic.”
After World War II she continued to write for the pacifist magazine Peace News, to which she had contributed articles since the 1930s. She eventually became a member of the magazine’s editorial board and during the 1950s and 1960s was writing articles against apartheid and colonialism and in favor of nuclear disarmament for this and other magazines and newspapers. In 1970, at seventy-six, she died in Wimbledon. Her ashes were spread over her brother’s grave in Italy.
Women’s stories are often left out of history, especially when it comes to wars. However, it’s important to remember that they played important roles as both war supporters and anti-war advocates. Wartime nursing was a hard job with long hours, so it’s important to learn about and remember the contribution of war nurse like women like Brittain. It’s also important to remember the work of women in pacifist organizations and their contributions to their campaigns. Women’s stories are often left out of the story of World War I, World War II, and the efforts to stop war, but it’s important to realize that women played an important role in war, not just men.
Bailey Aldridge. Journalism and Political Science major, Women’s and Gender studies minor, Class of 2019.
Literature and Websites
- “Peace Pledge Union.” Peace Pledge Union, at: http://www.ppu.org.uk/indexa.html (Accessed 19 April 2018).
- “The Dark Tide.” Goodreads, at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/835497.The_Dark_Tide (Accessed 18 April, 2018).
- “Vera Brittain Biography.” Biography Online, at: https://www.biographyonline.net/poets/vera-brittain.html (Accessed 18 April, 2018).
- “Vera Brittain: A Short Biography.” Learn Peace, at: http://www.ppu.org.uk/vera/. (Accessed 18 April, 2018).
- ”Who We Are.” Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, at: http://www.anglicanpeacemaker.org.uk/ (Accessed 19 April, 2018).
- Bostridge, Mark. Vera Brittain and the First World War. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.
- Gorham, Deborah, Vera Brittain: A Feminist Life. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.