Pacifist on the offensive

VERA BRITTAIN: A Life by Paul Berry & Mark Bostridge Chatto pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
VERA BRITTAIN's literary output was prolific yet she is remembered for just one book, her autobiography Testament of Youth. Published in 1933, it captured the emotions of a nation still traumatised by the First World War and clinging to diminishing hopes of peace. Few failed to be moved by her disturbing accounts of nursing casualties from the war and her deep sorrow at the death of her fiance Roland Leighton, followed swiftly by the deaths of her only sibling Edward and of his two closest friends. "Others have borne witness to the wastage, the pity and the heroism of modern war," wrote Winifred Holtby, "none has yet so convincingly conveyed its grief."

Yet the First World War was far more of an intellectual and emotional watershed than her classic autobiography suggests. She was a persuasive and passionate speaker with a quasi-religious dedication to the creed of pacifism throughout the Second World War. Such was her horror of war that she never rejected pacifism, openly criticising Britain's saturation- bombing of Germany and damaging her own literary reputation. Although she never excused the Holocaust, she rationalised her continuing pacifist stand by arguing that German Gentiles had also suffered greatly and that the war had not been fought to save European Jewry.

While Testament of Youth rings with passion, Brittain appears to have been cold, humourless, egocentric and occasionally cruel. She married George Caitlin, political scientist and author of her first fan letter because he was so persistent in his enthusiasm that she should, and because she knew that as a professed feminist he would allow her to work as well as have children. But once married she refused to compromise, insisting on a semi-detached marriage so that she could stay in England, write, and be near her beloved friend Winifred Holtby while Caitlin took up a professorship in America. Her work always took priority: "Much as I love my husband I would not sacrifice one successful article to a night of physical relationship," she wrote to Winifred.

While there is no evidence to suggest that she and Winifred were lesbians, their relationship was as close to a lesbian love as there can be without sex. "Darling Sweet, I do love you," she wrote to Winifred, soon after she married. "I have my suspicions, that though others are capable of being loved in ways that you are not, the something in you that I love I shall always love best." Holtby remained her emotional and intellectual crutch until her death. Each was the other's most valued critic. They lived and travelled together for much of Holtby's short life and Holtby became an "aunt" to Brittain's children, often taking responsibility for them when Vera went abroad. Then, as her health began to deteriorate with kidney disease, Holtby either failed to divulge the full seriousness of her condition or Brittain blinkered herself to the truth, for it became a deep source of regret to Vera that she hadn't been there to nurse her more through her illness.

Berry and Bostridge have focused primarily on her writing, and their evocation of literary bitchery is deeply entertaining. Vera modelled many of her fictional characters on real people who were often deeply offended. She aroused jealousy and animosity in those who resented her monopoly on personal grief, and when the critics turned on her it was with a vengeance. Her relationship with her children and experiences of motherhood are only partially explained, perhaps in order not to offend those still living. Her children - Shirley Williams and her brother John - are barely mentioned until the Second World War, when Vera sends them off alone to stay with her American publisher. When she tries to join them she is refused an entry visa because of her pacifist activities and they are separated for three years, another source of emotional turmoil.

After the publication of Testament of Youth, a colleague of her brother's revealed that an exchange of letters had been uncovered just before Edward's death indicating that he was involved in a homosexual relationship with another officer and that it was just possible that he shot himself in order to avoid further embarrassment. Edward had been her sole companion in an isolated nursery until she was nine years old. His loss was devastating; "I ended the First World War with my deepest emotions paralysed if not dead" she wrote many years later, and that paralysis fed her egocentricity and compromised her relationships with those she cared for most. While Vera Brittain was clever, dedicated and well-intentioned, one is left with a resounding sense that she was also a rather sad and lonely woman. She grew old with profound regrets about letting others down, and while she knew herself to be a good writer she could never feel quite certain that she had been a good friend, a good wife or a good mother. This riveting and authoritative account fills in the gaps left by her own autobiographical writings.