Testament of truth

She was the public face of the First World War generation, but her story had its secret tragedies, now revealed for the first time. Sue Gaisford on Vera Brittain; Vera Brittain: A Life by Paul Berry & Mark Bostridge, Chatto, pounds 25

When Vera Brittain married George Catlin in 1925, she caused a minor stir by refusing to change her name - not because it was her writing name, but just because it was her name: so there. The climax of their honeymoon was a visit to Italy where she insisted on "introducing" her husband to her brother Edward. Clutching two faded roses from her wedding bouquet, she dragged George up to the heights of the Asiago Plateau to her brother's grave. At sunset, gazing out from the Monte Berico war memorial, she entered an entranced state of emotional detachment: George, on the other hand, "had become, as he always becomes at the richest and most colourful moments, silent and stiff and conventional".

Poor George. Their unusual "semi-detached" marriage was, for him, prompted by infatuated love. She had undertaken it partly because he and her brother would have been New College contemporaries; partly because she wanted to have a child to replace Edward; partly because George, like her long- dead first love Roland Leighton, was a convert to Roman Catholicism. These ideas were all chimeras. George's ambitions were later to frustrate her own; the son she bore proved to be a thorn in the flesh, while her Catholic daughter (Shirley Williams) became her lasting comfort and source of pride; worst of all, she was to discover that Edward had not been the hero she had cherished.

Yet the marriage endured and mellowed wonderfully towards her death in 1970, when George was the last person to visit her in her nursing-home. By then, she had long despaired of being considered a great writer and was content to settle for the idea that she might achieve "some kind of permanent minor reputation" among later generations.

That new reputation began on an Australian beach in 1978, when the famously tough Carmen Callil found herself weeping over Testament of Youth and decided to republish it for Virago, introducing thousands more readers to this extraordinary masterpiece of autobiography, the book that epitomises the suffering of women in the First World War. We might ask why a further account of her life is needed, when she did the job so well herself. Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge, two men writing with rare sympathy about an ardent feminist, offer several answers.

First, their book is beautifully written and fastidiously researched. The Brittain archive is vast, and these biographers have been able to reveal facts that their subject either ignored or distorted. The saddest concerns Edward Brittain. Long after the event, his Colonel, feeling "grossly traduced" by Vera's public suggestion that Edward had died in some act of unrecognised heroic valour, told her that he had, in fact, been under threat of court-martial for homosexual activities with men of lesser rank: he probably killed himself. Appalled, she told her mother, who said that Edward had been in the same kind of trouble at school. So much of her life had by then been devoted to glorifying his memory that she was quite unequal to setting the record straight.

Secondly, this book puts into perspective a life of remarkable consistency. Vera Brittain was a highly intelligent girl from a strait-jacketed, bourgeois background, who fought hard for her university scholarship. After a year at Oxford, she enlisted as a VAD, and it was while nursing wounded German soldiers that her idealistic pacifism was born. "A dying man", she wrote, memorably, "has no nationality". Back at Oxford after the war, she met Winifred Holtby and their close friendship lasted alongside her marriage until Winifred's early death, whereupon she wrote Testament of Friendship as a tribute both to Winifred herself and to the previously unsung strength of powerful, supportive female friendships - there is, incidentally, no doubt at all that theirs was an entirely asexual relationship. Her zealous feminism derives from these years, too. "My great object is to prove that work and maternity are not mutually exclusive" she wrote, but despite a staff of nursemaid, housekeeper, charwoman and secretary, she found it very hard.

Brittain's mature years coincided with the Second World War, during which, true to her principles, she maintained a strong, unpopular pacifism. Speaking at public meetings at home and in America, she fought for the resumption of food-relief to the starving people of German-occupied countries and she inveighed against saturation bombing, insisting that civilised values must be maintained whatever the circumstances. Although at the time she was denounced for giving comfort to the enemy, to read again about the wholesale destruction of Dresden, Hamburg, Lubeck and Cologne is to appreciate the strength of her stand. She was elated to discover that Hitler had realised whose side she was on: her name was on his infamous hit-list.

Later, she bravely spoke out against apartheid in South Africa and supported CND, though her activities were limited so as not to cause embarrassment to George who longed to be elected to Parliament, or to Shirley, who was. One of the incidental pleasures of this book is to catch glimpses of the child Shirley: untidy, unpunctual, naughty, ebullient and endearing. Evacuated to America for part of the war, she was repatriated at 13, coming home via Lisbon where she had to stay for some days: she used this time riotously, climbing up on the roof of her hotel and drinking large quantities of Madeira.

Such behaviour was alien to her chic, serious, self-important mother: the words Brittain and jollity go together like chiffon and chips. Though stuffy Beatrice Webb found her charming, and Virginia Woolf admired her "stringy metallic mind", St John Irvine was exercising restraint when he wrote "your sense of humour is not, I should say, your strong point". This is a handicap to any biographer, even to such elegant stylists as Berry and Bostridge. They resist - generally - the temptation to poke fun at their solemn subject, but we sense their incredulous gasp when they quote a honeymoon letter to Winifred. Probably just one sexual encounter "would go as far as you ever needed," she surmised loftily, "which would make you in this direction an even more unsatisfactory wife than I feel myself to be".

But who can blame her. By 1918, having lost her first great love, her two other dearest friends and that tragic brother, she felt that her "deepest emotions were paralysed, if not dead". That she survived to achieve, at the very least, one marvellous book and a magnificent daughter is itself to be commended. This is the biography she deserves.

Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Jess Glynne is UK number 1

music

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor