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Brittain [married name Catlin], Vera Maryfree

(1893–1970)
  • Alan Bishop

Vera Mary Brittain (1893–1970)

by Howard Coster, 1936

Brittain [married name Catlin], Vera Mary (1893–1970), writer, was born on 29 December 1893 at Atherstone House, Sidmouth Avenue, Newcastle under Lyme, Staffordshire, the elder of the two children of (Thomas) Arthur Brittain (1864–1935), a paper manufacturer, and his wife, Edith Mary, née Bervon (1868–1948), daughter of John Bervon, a musician and church organist. In 1895 the Brittains moved from Newcastle under Lyme to the manufacturing town of Macclesfield, Cheshire. Vera's brother, Edward Harold Brittain (1895–1918), was born on 30 November 1895. As they grew up, tended by a governess and servants, in an environment of conservative middle-class values, close supervision, and comparative isolation, brother and sister formed a companionship that was to be a dominant force in Vera's life. Her main vocation was established early: 'As a child I wrote because it was as natural to me to write as to breathe, and before I could write I invented stories' (V. Brittain, On Becoming a Writer, 1947, 172).

Early years of a feminist

The Brittains moved again in 1905 to Buxton, Derbyshire, 10 miles away, in the Peak District. In that fashionable spa resort town, the Brittains lived in a large house, High Leigh, for two years; then an even larger house, Melrose, near the park. While she enjoyed physical activities like tennis, and walking in the country surrounding Buxton, Vera felt suffocated by the town's smug provincial mores and rigid social life. Pretty and diminutive, with dark hair and striking eyes, she was lively, highly intelligent, and ambitious. Shy, but also demanding and volatile, she repeatedly clashed with her conventionally patriarchal father and rejected her mother's acceptance of the traditional female roles of subservient wife and housekeeper. Her calmer brother gave her support and advice through this stormy period; but his companionship was diminished by educational separation. After two years at the Grange School in Buxton, Vera was sent to boarding-school in 1907. She was fortunate to be sent to St Monica's, a recently established girls' school in Kingswood, Surrey, that offered a solid, well-rounded education rather than stressing purely social ‘feminine’ attainments. She went there because one of the school's two principals was an aunt, Florence Bervon. The other, Louise Heath-Jones, the school's formidable founder, exerted a powerful influence, as did Edith Fry, a teacher who strongly encouraged Brittain's literary talent and ambition. Her younger, less intellectual brother was sent to Uppingham School in 1908.

Back in Buxton during 1912 and 1913 Brittain attended a course of Oxford University extension lectures given by the historian John Marriott, who encouraged her academic ambition. Inspired also by a nearby vicar, Joseph Ward, and his socialist ideals, Brittain set about qualifying herself for admission to one of the recently established women's colleges at Oxford. Coaching at a local crammer enabled her to pass the university and college entrance examinations, and she was awarded a Somerville College exhibition to study English literature. By then she had met Edward's closest schoolfriend, Roland Leighton, elder son of the two popular novelists Robert Leighton and Marie Connor Leighton, and brother of the artist Clare Leighton. Vera was impressed by Roland's intellectual and literary brilliance; and their relationship deepened when he introduced her to Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm and informed her that she strongly resembled the novel's feminist heroine, Lyndall.

War and pacifism

When war broke out in August 1914 Edward and Roland, together with their close friend Victor Richardson, immediately applied for commissions in the British army. While Edward had to wait until 1916 for his commission, and Victor's hopes were postponed by a severe illness, Roland was dispatched to the western front as an officer in the 7th Worcestershire regiment early in 1915. He and Vera corresponded frequently and voluminously. They had now declared their love; and that August, during his first leave, became engaged. By the end of her first year at Somerville (1914–15) she decided it was her duty to abandon her academic career to serve her country. During the long summer vacation she worked at the Devonshire Hospital, Buxton, as a nursing assistant, tending wounded soldiers; then applied to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) as a nurse and in November 1915 was posted to the First London General Hospital at Camberwell, London. On 27 December she learned that Roland had been killed by a sniper. He was the first of the four young men close to her whom the war destroyed.

The second, Geoffrey Thurlow, had become Edward's closest friend while the two were training in England. Vera's friendship with him burgeoned after he was invalided home from France in February 1916. She was still nursing at Camberwell when Edward arrived at the hospital, wounded on the first day of the battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. (He was awarded the Military Cross later that year.) In September she was sent to Malta. There she heard of Geoffrey's death in April 1917, just two weeks after Victor Richardson (who helped sustain Vera in the months after Roland's death) was badly wounded in the battle of Vimy Ridge. Learning that Victor was blind, she decided to return to England, intending to marry him and devote herself to his comfort; but he died two weeks after her arrival in May 1917.

Brittain now requested VAD service in France and was sent to 24 General Hospital, Étaples; but her hope of seeing Edward in France was frustrated. In November his regiment, the 11th Sherwood Foresters, was abruptly transferred to the Austrian–Italian front. Nursing gassed German prisoners strengthened Vera's evolving pacifism. During the final German offensive of the war, a period of strain and danger for the hospital, Vera was summoned home to look after her parents. Resentfully she obeyed, and she was in her parents' flat in Kensington when a telegram arrived to inform them that Edward had been killed on 15 June 1918.

After such traumatic losses, rebuilding her life was a severe challenge: Brittain returned to nursing, in a London hospital, so as to continue tending her parents; but writing was her main source of psychological strength. In August 1918 Verses of a V.A.D. was published. She also struggled to write a novel based on her nursing experiences in France, with a heroine who reflected an admired matron, Faith Moulson. Her fiction continued to be both autobiographical and earnestly moral. She had kept a ‘reflective record’ of her life for many years and this diary, itself an important literary and historical work, became a resource for her later writing. Sharp observation, unvarnished truth, and a potent direct style make Brittain's diaries, as well as Testament of Youth (which was largely based on her First World War diary), together with her best journalism and letters, arguably her highest achievement as a writer, though she yearned throughout her career for acclaim as a novelist.

In April 1919 Brittain returned to Somerville College, now to read modern history, in order, as she explained in Testament of Youth, 'to understand how the whole calamity [of the war] had happened, to know why it had been possible for me and my contemporaries, through our own ignorance and others' ingenuity, to be used, hypnotised and slaughtered' (V. Brittain, Testament of Youth, 1978 edn, 471). She was close to a breakdown, and her first encounters with the fellow student who was soon her closest friend, Winifred Holtby, were competitive and resentful. But their similar northern origins, service in the war, and literary and social ambitions, together with ‘opposite’ temperaments and appearance, drew them into a lasting partnership which to some extent replaced Brittain's lost comradeship with Edward. Leaving Oxford for London in 1921 with second-class degrees, the two young women set up a joint household whose influence on their personal lives and their careers was entirely positive. In that period they encouraged and helped each other constantly while establishing successful parallel careers as journalists, lecturers, social activists, and novelists.

Holtby's and Brittain's journalism and lecturing centred in advancing the causes they both held dear: feminism, socialism, and the achievement of peace. They wrote prolifically for left-wing journals like Lady Rhondda's Time and Tide, lectured for the League of Nations, advocated in both articles and lectures the feminist agenda of the Six Point Group, and travelled together in post-war Europe observing and commenting on political and social realities. Brittain's first novel brought her notoriety as well as praise: melodramatic and naïve, The Dark Tide (1923) was seen as an attack on Somerville College. Her second novel, Not without Honour (1924), drew extensively on early entries in her ‘reflective record’, lightly fictionalizing the relationship between the adolescent Vera and the Revd Joseph Ward, and attacking Buxton and its parochial values. Both novels attempted to connect feminist, socialist, and pacifist themes; these were synthesized much more effectively in her third novel, Honourable Estate.

Marriage and fame

On 27 June 1925 Brittain married George Edward Gordon Catlin (1896–1979). He was a very young political scientist with socialist ideals who served briefly in the army as the war ended, read history at New College, Oxford, and then, after lecturing at Sheffield University, became a professor at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. After honeymooning in Europe, they settled in Ithaca. Vera quickly reacted against the isolation and petty routine of a ‘university wife’, pining for her vivid London life and its literary opportunities. To save the marriage Catlin agreed to a future of alternating separation (while he taught at Cornell) and family life (when he returned for the summer to London). Despite marital and other complications flowing from this ‘semi-detached marriage’, they did succeed, at first together with Winifred Holtby, in creating a family home in which they could find contentment and fulfil their common urges to write, entertain, and converse.

Their first child, John Edward Brittain-Catlin (1927–1987), was born on 21 December 1927. In that same month Brittain completed a book based on a series of articles, Women's Work in Modern England (1928), and went on to publish a short satirical jab at conventional marriage, Halcyon (1929). Her resumed career as a journalist had prospered, with regular publication of articles and reviews, but she felt impelled to publish her war memories and struggled intermittently to find a suitable mode. By the time her second child, Shirley Vivien (who became the politician Shirley Williams), was born on 27 July 1930, Brittain had found that mode in autobiographical books like Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That, recently published to popular acclaim. Testament of Youth: an Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900–1925 (1933) was a best-seller on publication and earned Vera Brittain instant international fame. Based on her diary and research notes, it quoted poems and letters by Roland Leighton and others, to represent both personal and collective experience. The book argued strongly and realistically for peace, in the face of the coming war, while respecting the bravery of those who had sacrificed their lives in the First World War. The book was dedicated to Roland Leighton and Edward Brittain. During the period between the great international success of Testament of Youth and the outbreak of the Second World War, she twice completed exhausting and highly successful lecture tours in the United States, where she made several close friends.

In 1935 Brittain's father committed suicide; and then Winifred Holtby—who had kept her severe illness secret for two years while concentrating on completing South Riding, her last and finest novel—died in a London nursing home. Grief-stricken, Vera Brittain struggled to complete her own finest novel, Honourable Estate: a Novel of Transition (1936)—long, ambitious, feminist, pacifist, a family saga based on the recent history of the Brittain and Catlin families. It greatly disturbed George for it drew particularly on the diary of his mother, who had abandoned son and husband. Meanwhile Brittain's onerous tasks as Holtby's literary executor were extended into the writing of Testament of Friendship: the Story of Winifred Holtby (1940), which she completed on the eve of the outbreak of war.

In 1937, under the influence of Canon Dick Sheppard, Brittain proclaimed herself a pacifist and joined his Peace Pledge Union (PPU) as a sponsor. During the Second World War she held firmly to pacifist principles, working unceasingly to help prepare a peaceful future. She inaugurated a biweekly Letter to Peace-Lovers and, with only secretarial help, produced and disseminated it throughout the war. She also published two books which put the pacifist's case: England's Hour: an Autobiography, 1939–41 (1941) and Humiliation with Honour (1942). Two campaigns dominated her committee work and journalism: against the blockade of German ports and against the mass bombing of German cities. She published ‘One of these little ones …’: a Plea of Parents and Others for Europe's Children in 1943 and Seed of Chaos: What Mass Bombing Really Means in 1944—the latter, when published in reduced form in the USA, provoked a furore which, Brittain was convinced, subsequently diminished her reputation and sales there. News that an atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945 justified her worst forebodings about war's destructiveness for civilians. She was now—having spent all the war in England, most of it in London—exhausted and close to a breakdown. She later learned that her name was among those listed in the Gestapo's notorious ‘black book’.

Later years and reputation

Her final two novels, Account Rendered (1945) and Born 1925: a Novel of Youth (1948), were both essentially anti-war works; they were based, respectively, on the experiences of a doctor, Leonard Lockhart, whose murder trial Brittain had attended (he had been traumatized by his experience in the First World War), and of Dick Sheppard, the priest who had converted her to full pacifism. Neither of these novels achieved the success for which Brittain had hoped, and she turned away from fiction. Among the numerous biographies and historical studies she published in her last years are Testament of Experience: an Autobiographical Story of the Years 1925–1950 (1957), Lady into Woman: a History of Women from Victoria to Elizabeth II (1960), Women at Oxford: a Fragment of History (1960), Pethick-Lawrence: a Portrait (1963), The Rebel Passion: a Short History of some Pioneer Peacemakers (1964) and Radclyffe Hall: a Case of Obscenity? (1968).

Almost to the end Vera Brittain was a prolific writer and indefatigable activist. She continued her work for the PPU and similar organizations, now greatly sought after for delegations, committees, public speeches. She was chairman of the PPU, chairman of the Peace News board, became an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and supported the Committee of 100. After the Second World War she fulfilled old ambitions in visiting India (1949) and South Africa (1960), with their potent reminders of Mahatma Gandhi and Winifred Holtby respectively. Seen by the establishment as a rebel and outsider (her wartime pacifist activism had included public attacks on Winston Churchill's personality and leadership), she feared her reputation had hurt even her husband's political aspirations in the Labour Party, of which she was a long-time member. There were honours, like election as fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an honorary doctorate from Mills College, California, in 1946, but not the high national recognition her achievements appear to have deserved. However, in her later years she greatly enjoyed the pleasures of her private life—friendship and family (she now had grandchildren); and to the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London, of which Dick Sheppard had been rector, she gave strong support. It was while walking there to give a talk in November 1966 that she fell—an accident that initiated the slow decline that ended in her death on 29 March 1970 in a nursing home at 15 Oakwood Road, Wimbledon, London. She was survived by her husband (who was knighted in the queen's birthday honours list later that year) and their two children. In accordance with her last wishes, Vera Brittain's ashes were scattered over Edward's grave at the cemetery of Granezza on the Asiago plateau, Italy, in September 1970.

Vera Brittain's life was dedicated above all to furthering two noble causes, pacifism and feminism, and to an intense yearning to fulfil her literary talent and ambition. Testament of Youth has never been out of print and was adapted for television by Elaine Morgan in 1979, following the republication of the memoir by Virago the previous year. Both helped to secure a place for Testament of Youth in the canon of First World War literature. The publication in 1981 of Brittain's First World War diary as Chronicle of Youth further illuminated her experiences, while the vitality of Brittain's and Holtby's journalism was vividly documented in Testament of a Generation, published in 1985. Shortly before his death in 1987 John Brittain-Catlin completed the final draft of his memoir, Family Quartet, which in part chronicled his often tempestuous relationship with his mother. Both he and Shirley—whom Brittain called 'my brilliant and beloved' daughter (Berry and Bostridge, 510)—seemed ultimately much closer to their father than their mother. Her dedication to causes and her career as writer often made her seem remote. As a boy John called his mother, disparagingly, 'the novelist' (J. Catlin, Family Quartet, 1987, 1). He also commented that—slim, diminutive, pretty—'she looked young for her age until she was nearing fifty' (ibid., 3), and was always carefully and fashionably groomed; the perceived discrepancy between this attractive, ‘conventional’ appearance and her very unconventional opinions and behaviour occasioned uneasiness and sometimes hostility.

The centenary of Brittain's birth (1993) was celebrated with an international conference at McMaster University and commemorated in London with a plaque, unveiled by Shirley Williams, in the Dick Sheppard Memorial Chapel at St Martin-in-the-Fields. Her reputation as First World War, feminist, and pacifist icon shows no signs of diminishing, and she continues to be the focus of research with her papers in McMaster University Library, Hamilton, Ontario, being much consulted. In 1995 the Imperial War Museum published a facsimile edition of Verses of a V.A.D., while two fine biographies were also published in the mid-1990s: Vera Brittain: a Life (1995) by Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge, and Vera Brittain: a Feminist Life (1996) by Deborah Gorham. In 1998 a selection of letters by Brittain and her four young friends who died in the First World War appeared as Letters from a Lost Generation, edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge, while four of her novels, The Dark Tide, Honourable Estate, Account Rendered, and Born 1925 have been reissued in paperback. Her achievement as a pacifist is also attracting renewed attention. It seems clear that Vera Brittain's social, political, and literary importance, very well acknowledged now, some thirty years after her death, will continue to grow.

Sources

  • McMaster University Library, Hamilton, Ontario, William Ready division of archives and research collections, Vera Brittain archive
  • P. Berry and M. Bostridge, Vera Brittain: a life (1995)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • Bodl. Oxf., Indian notebooks
  • McMaster University Library, Hamilton, Ontario, William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections, corresp., journals, and papers
  • NRA, corresp. and papers
  • Somerville College, Oxford, corresp., diaries, and papers
  • BL, letters to J. Brunius, Add. MS 61893
  • Commonwealth Collection, Bradford, corresp. with Hugh Brock
  • Hull Central Library, corresp. with Winifred Holtby
  • University of Cape Town, corresp. with W. G. Ballinger

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1918, Hult. Arch.
  • W. Rothenstein, oils, 1930–1939, priv. coll.
  • H. Coster, photograph, 1936, NPG [see illus.]
  • K. Hulton and M. Magee, group photograph, 1949, Hult. Arch.
  • M. Gerson, photograph, 1954, NPG
  • group photograph, 1961, Hult. Arch.

Wealth at Death

£27,796: probate, 24 July 1970, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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