Vera Brittain


Vera Brittain (1893–1970)

Vera Mary Brittain was born 29th December 1893 in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, the elder of two children of Thomas Arthur Brittain, a paper manufacturer, and his wife Edith, née Bervon. In 1895 the family moved to the manufacturing town of Macclesfield, Cheshire, where Edward Brittain was born at the end of the year. With her younger brother, Vera formed a close relationship that was to last throughout various separations until Edward’s death in 1918. In 1905 the Brittains moved to Buxton in Derbyshire, the fashionable spa resort town. Increasingly, as she was growing up, Buxton was to exemplify a ‘mean, fault-finding spirit’ which she identified with the narrow outlook of the small provincial town. After two years at the Grange School, Buxton, Vera was sent, in 1907, to St. Monica’s School at Kingswood in Surrey. There she came under the influence of one of the school’s headmistresses, Louise Heath-Jones, who encouraged Vera to study current events, and took her to a women’s suffrage meeting, an experience which contributed to Vera’s burgeoning feminism. Back in Buxton in 1912 and 1913, Vera attended a course of Oxford University extension lectures given by the historian John Marriot. Studying largely on her own, she was awarded an exhibition to Somerville College, Oxford, to study English Literature, in March 1914. In the summer of that year, she gained entrance to the university itself by passing the Oxford Senior Local exam.

When war broke out in August 1914, Edward and Roland Leighton, Edward’s closest friend from Uppingham School, along with Victor Richardson, another school friend, all immediately applied for commissions in the British army. Roland was sent to the Western Front with the 7th Worcestershire regiment in the spring of 1915. He and Vera became engaged while he was on leave in August of that year. Relatively isolated from the war in her first year at Somerville, Vera had meanwhile decided to leave Oxford for the duration of the war in order to become a VAD nurse. She began nursing, in June 1915, at the Devonshire Hospital, Buxton, and, in November, transferred to a military hospital, the 1st London General Hospital in Camberwell, south-east London.

On 26 December 1915, while waiting at Brighton for Roland to arrive home on leave, Vera learned that he had been killed in France by a German sniper. She was working in the hospital in Camberwell when Edward, who had received his long-awaited commission in 1916, arrived to recover from wounds received on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. In September Vera was given her first foreign posting in Malta. While there she learned of the death of another close friend, Geoffrey Thurlow, and of the blinding of Victor Richardson at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Vera decided to return to England to marry and care for Richardson, but he died two weeks after she arrived home, in June 1917. She requested VAD service in France, and was sent to 24 General Hospital at Étaples, where for a time she nursed German prisoners of war. At the height of the Spring Offensive of 1918, Vera was called home to London to look after her parents. While there she learned of Edward’s death in action on the Austro-Italian front, on 15th June 1918. In August 1918 Vera published Verses of a V. A. D. Serving briefly in a civilian hospital in September 1918, Vera was then transferred in October to Queen Alexandra's Military Hospital in Millbank, where she remained until April 1919.

In April 1919 Vera returned to Somerville College, changing her course to read modern history. There she met and was befriended by Winifred Holtby. After going down from Oxford in 1921, the two women set up household together in London, encouraging each other’s literary and journalistic careers, and sharing a commitment to feminism and peace. Both contributed to various left-wing journals, lectured and campaigned for the League of Nations Union, and traveled together in post-war Europe. Vera’s first novel, The Dark Tide, a thinly disguised portrait of life at the women’s colleges at Oxford, appeared in 1923, arousing much controversy at Somerville. This was followed by a second novel, Not Without Honour, in 1924. On 27th June 1925, Vera married George Gordon Catlin (1896-1979), a political scientist of feminist and socialist sympathies. The couple settled initially in Ithaca, New York, where Catlin was a professor at Cornell University, but Vera resented the restrictions that living in the United States imposed on the development of her own career, and over the next decade the couple were to spend part of every year living apart, Catlin at Cornell, Vera back in London with Winifred Holtby. The Catlins had two children: John Edward, born in December 1927, and Shirley Vivien, born in July 1930.

In 1933, Vera published her most important and lasting book, Testament of Youth, a memoir of her war experience, and a literary memorial to her brother, fiancé, and their friends. The book was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, and in the autumn of 1934 Vera embarked on a successful lecture-tour of the United States. In 1935 her father committed suicide, and Winifred Holtby died from Bright’s disease. Vera’s ambitious novel, Honourable Estate, dramatising the recent history of the women’s movement, was published in 1936. As another world war threatened, Vera’s focused her attention on campaigning for peace. In 1937 she converted to pacifism and became a sponsor of Dick Sheppard’s Peace Pledge Union. During the Second World War, Vera wrote a fortnightly Letter to Peace-Lovers, and jeopardized her literary standing by making a courageous protest against the Allies’ policy of the saturation bombing of German cities. In her final decades, she continued to publish historical and biographical works, and to be a significant figure in the peace movement in Britain. In November 1966 she suffered a fall after giving a talk at St Martin-in-the-Fields, in Trafalgar Square, and, following several years’ illness, died in Wimbledon on 29 March 1970. In accordance with her last wishes, her ashes were scattered over Edward’s grave at the cemetery of Granezza in Italy, in September 1970.

Vera Brittain's wartime experiences consisted of almost four years’ service as a VAD nurse. In a sense, though, Brittain’s war was a war without end, as her sense of loss at the deaths of those dearest to her remained with her all her life, and formed the inspiration for a large proportion of her published writings.

Author Alisa Miller. Edited by Mark Bostridge.
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • (Ed.) Bishop, A. and Bostridge, M. Letters from a Lost Generation (London: Abacus, 2002)
  • Berry, P., and Brostridge, M., Vera Brittain: A Life. (London: Virago, 2001)

The Vera Brittain Collection

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