Vera Brittain

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Vera Brittain
Born (1893-12-29)29 December 1893
Newcastle Under Lyme, United Kingdom
Died 29 March 1970(1970-03-29) (aged 76)
Wimbledon, London, United Kingdom
Occupation Writer, author, journalist
Nationality English
Genre Feminism, pacifism
Notable works Testament of Youth
Spouse Sir George Catlin
Children John Brittain-Catlin, Shirley Williams

Vera Mary Brittain (29 December 1893 – 29 March 1970) was a British writer and pacifist, best remembered as the author of the best-selling 1933 memoir Testament of Youth, recounting her experiences during World War I and the beginning of her journey towards pacifism.

Life and work[edit]

Born in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Brittain was the daughter of a well-to-do family who owned paper mills in Hanley and Cheddleton. She had an uneventful childhood with her only brother her closest companion. At 18 months her family moved to Macclesfield, Cheshire and when she was 11 they moved again, to Buxton in Derbyshire. From the age of thirteen she attended boarding school at St Monica's, Kingswood in Surrey where her aunt was principal. Studying English Literature at Somerville College, Oxford, she delayed her degree after one year in the summer of 1915 to work as a V.A.D. nurse for much of the First World War. Her fiancé Roland Leighton, two other close friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, and her brother Edward Brittain MC were all killed during the war.[1] Their letters to each other are documented in the book Letters from a Lost Generation.

Returning to Oxford after the war to read History, Brittain found it difficult to adjust to life among the postwar generation. It was at this time she met Winifred Holtby, and a close friendship developed with both aspiring to become established on the London literary scene. The bond lasted until Holtby's death in 1935.[2]

In 1925 Brittain married George Catlin, a political scientist and philosopher. Their son, John Brittain-Catlin (1927–1987), was an artist painter, businessman, and the author of the autobiography Family Quartet, which appeared in 1987. Their daughter, born in 1930, is the former Labour Cabinet Minister, now Liberal Democrat peer, Shirley Williams.

Brittain's first published novel was The Dark Tide (1923). It was not until 1933 that she published Testament of Youth, which was followed by the sequels Testament of Friendship (1940) – her tribute to and biography of Winifred Holtby – and Testament of Experience (1957), the continuation of her own story, which spanned the years between 1925 and 1950. Vera Brittain wrote from the heart and based many of her novels on actual experiences and actual people. In this regard her novel Honourable Estate (1936) was in part more of a memoir. Brittain's diaries 1913–17 were published in 1981 in Chronicle of Youth.

In the 1920s she became a regular speaker on behalf of the League of Nations Union, but in June 1936 she was invited to speak at a peace rally in Dorchester, where she shared a platform with Dick Sheppard, George Lansbury, Laurence Housman and Donald Soper. Afterwards Sheppard invited her to join the Peace Pledge Union, and following six months' careful reflection she replied in January 1937 to say she would. Later that year Brittain also joined the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship. Her newly found pacifism came to the fore during World War II, when she began the series of Letters to Peacelovers.

She was a practical pacifist in the sense that she helped the war effort by working as a fire warden and by travelling around the country raising funds for the Peace Pledge Union's food relief campaign. She was vilified for speaking out against saturation bombing of German cities through her 1944 booklet Massacre by Bombing. Her principled pacifist position was vindicated somewhat when, in 1945, the Nazis' Black Book of 2000 people to be immediately arrested in Britain after a German invasion was shown to include her name.[3]

From the 1930s onward, Brittain was a regular contributor to the pacifist magazine Peace News. 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 favour of nuclear disarmament".[4]

In November 1966 she suffered a fall in a badly lit London street while on the way to a speaking engagement. She fulfilled the engagement but afterwards found she had suffered a fractured left arm and broken little finger of her right hand. These injuries began a physical decline in which her mind became more confused and withdrawn.[5] Vera Brittain never fully got over the death of her brother Edward. When she died in Wimbledon on 29 March 1970, aged 76, her will requested that her ashes be scattered on Edward's grave on the Asiago Plateau in Italy – "...for nearly 50 years much of my heart has been in that Italian village cemetery".[6] Her daughter honoured this request in September 1970.[7]

Cultural legacy[edit]

She was portrayed by Cheryl Campbell in the 1979 BBC2 television adaptation of Testament of Youth.

Songwriter and fellow Anglican Pacifist Fellowship member Sue Gilmurray wrote a song in Brittain's memory, titled "Vera".[8]

In 1998 Brittain's First World War letters were edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge and published under the title Letters from a Lost Generation. They were also adapted by Bostridge for a Radio Four series starring Amanda Root and Rupert Graves.

Because You Died, a new selection of Brittain's First World War poetry and prose, edited by Mark Bostridge was published by Virago in 2008 to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of the Armistice.

On 9 November 2008, BBC One broadcast an hour-length documentary on Brittain as part of its Remembrance Day programmes hosted by Jo Brand.[9]

In February 2009, it was reported that BBC Films was to adapt Brittain's memoir, Testament of Youth into a feature film.[10] Irish actress Saoirse Ronan was cast to play Brittain at first.[11] However, in December 2013 it was announced that Alicia Vikander would be playing Brittain in the film, now to be released in late 2014 as part of the First World War commemorations.[12] The film will also star Kit Harington,[13] Colin Morgan, Taron Egerton, Alexandra Roach,[14] Dominic West, Emily Watson, Joanna Scanlan, Hayley Atwell, Jonathan Bailey and Anna Chancellor.[15] David Heyman, producer of the Harry Potter films, is set to produce.

Plaques marking Brittain's former homes can be seen at 151 Park Road, Buxton;[16] Doughty Street, Bloomsbury; and at 117 Wymering Mansions, Maida Vale.[17] There is also a plaque in the Pavilion gardens, Buxton, commemorating Brittain's residence in the town, though the dates shown on the plaque for her time there are incorrect.

Vera Brittain's archive was sold in 1971 to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. A further collection of papers, amassed during the writing of the authorised biography of Brittain, was donated to Somerville College, Oxford, by Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge.

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • 1923 – The Dark Tide
  • 1929 – Halcyon: Or, The Future of Monogamy (To-day and To-morrow pamphlet series)
  • 1933 – Testament of Youth
  • 1936 – Honorable Estate
  • 1940 – Testament of Friendship
  • 1944 – Massacre by Bombing
  • 1957 – Testament of Experience
  • 1981 – Chronicle of Youth: The War Diary, 1913–1917

Biographies[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Mark Bostridge (21 May 2012). "Vera's Testament is young again". The Daily Telegraph. 
  2. ^ Mark Bostridge (15 March 2012). "The story of the friendship between Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain". The Daily Telegraph. 
  3. ^ Berry, Paul and Bostridge,Mark, Vera Brittain: A Life, 1995, ISBN 0-7011-2679-5 (p. 445).
  4. ^ Loretta Stec, "Pacifism, Vera Brittain, and India". Peace Review , vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 237–44, 2001.
  5. ^ Paul Berry in the foreword to Testament of Experience, 1980 Virago edition.
  6. ^ Berry and Bostridge, Vera Brittain: A Life, 1995 (p. 523).
  7. ^ "Prose & Poetry – Vera Brittain". Firstworldwar.com. August 2001. Retrieved 27 May 2008. 
  8. ^ [1][dead link]
  9. ^ "BBC Two – A Woman in Love and War: Vera Brittain". Bbc.co.uk. 23 March 2010. Retrieved 16 March 2013. 
  10. ^ Film. "Vera Brittain to be subject of film". The Daily Telegraph, 13 February 2009. Retrieved 16 March 2013. 
  11. ^ Anita Singh (20 May 2012). "Cannes 2012: BBC to dramatise life of WW1 writer Vera Brittain". The Daily Telegraph. 
  12. ^ BamigboYye, Baz (19 December 2013). "Chiwetel in the danger zone: Star tells of the 'dark moment' he had to 'whip' actress in new film 12 Years A Slave". dailymail.co.uk. Retrieved 16 March 2014. 
  13. ^ Kit, Borys (4 February 2014). "'Game of Thrones' Star Kit Harington to Headline 'Testament of Youth'". hollywoodreporter.com. Retrieved 16 March 2014. 
  14. ^ Ge, Linda (13 February 2014). "Taron Egerton, Colin Morgan and Alexandra Roach Join Alicia Vikander in 'Testament of Youth'". upandcomers.net. Retrieved 16 March 2014. 
  15. ^ Bullock, Dan (16 March 2014). "Filming Begins On 'Testament of Youth' Starring Alicia Vikander & Kit Harington". thehollywoodnews.com. Retrieved 16 March 2014. 
  16. ^ "Vera Brittain author of "Testament of Youth" lived here 1907–1914". openplaques.org. Retrieved 9 November 2012. 
  17. ^ City of Westminster green plaques.

References[edit]

External links[edit]