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
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.
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