Birthday: December 29, 1893
Died At Age: 76
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Also Known As: Vera Mary Brittain
Born Country: England
Born in: Newcastle Under Lyme, Staffordshire, England
Famous as: Writer
Spouse/Ex-: George Catlin (m. 1925)
father: Thomas Arthur Brittain
mother: Edith Bervon Brittain
siblings: Edward Brittain
children: John Brittain-Catlin, Shirley Williams
Died on: March 29, 1970
place of death: Wimbledon
education: Somerville College, Oxford
Who was Vera Brittain?
Vera Brittain was an English writer, pacifist, and feminist. Her most notable work was the ‘Testament of Youth,’ a memoir, which she wrote on account of her experiences during World War I. She worked as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse after dropping out of the Somerville College at Oxford during World War I. The war affected Brittain significantly. She lost her brother, fiancé, and two close friends to the conflict. The ‘Testament of Youth’ documented her experiences as a nurse during this period. It depicted how her idealism had started to fade after witnessing the realities of war. The jingoism, which was prevalent in both sides of the war, the condition of the wounded people, and the existence of a patriarchal society, all shaped Vera Brittain’s personality, and were reflected in her works. After the war, Brittain returned to Oxford but struggled to adjust to the normal life. Vera Brittain was also an active member of the Peace Pledge Union. During World War II, she spoke out against the saturation bombing conducted by the allies on Germany. She was widely criticized for this action, but she stood firm and decided to spread awareness about the evils of war.
Childhood & Early Life
Vera Brittain was born on 29th December 1893, at Newcastle-under-Lyme. She was the daughter of a wealthy paper manufacturer, Thomas Arthur Brittain, and his wife, Edith Bervon Brittain. She had a brother, Edward Brittain, with whom she had a close relationship.
In 1905, her family moved to the spa resort town, Buxton, in Derbyshire. She was educated at home by a governess and then at St. Monica’s, a girls’ boarding school in Kingswood. One of the teachers there introduced her to the ideas of Dorothea Beale and Emily Davies. She was also greatly influenced by reading ‘Woman and Labour,’ a fierce feminist polemic by the South African writer Olive Schreiner.
Vera wanted to attend university after school, but her father disapproved of it. He firmly believed that the primary role of education in a woman’s life is to prepare her for marriage. Despite his initial objections, in 1912, she started attending a course of Oxford University extension lectures given by the historian John Marriot.
Another influence in her early life was Roland Leighton, a school friend of Vera’s brother Edward Brittain, with whom she would eventually fall in love. He encouraged her to go to university and motivated her.
Vera persuaded her parents and started preparing for the entrance examination of Somerville, a women’s college in Oxford. In the summer of 1914, she won a scholarship to study English literature there.
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First World War
Following the start of the First World War, Vera’s fiancé, Roland Leighton, along with her brother and his two close friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, joined the British army.
In the summer of 1915, Vera Brittain decided to delay her degree and went to work as a VAD nurse, initially in Buxton and later in London and France.
Vera and Leighton became engaged while he was on leave in August 1915. But unfortunately, on the night of 22nd December, Roland Leighton was shot by a German sniper and passed away the following day.
Vera worked in a hospital in Camberwell in 1916. Witnessing the horrors of war was proving to be quite traumatic for her, and it became worse for her in the following years. After Roland’s death, she also lost her friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. A few months before the war ended, her brother also passed away.
After the war, Vera Brittain returned to Oxford. She decided to pursue history instead of English. She graduated from Oxford University in 1921, following which she moved to London along with her close friend Winifred Holtby, aspiring to find success in the London literary scene.
Vera Brittain had great success as a journalist. In the 1920s, she wrote for the feminist journal, ‘Time and Tide.’ Her first two novels, ‘The Dark Tide’ (1923) and ‘Not without Honour’ (1925) were severely criticized.
In the 1920s, she published two books that stressed the role of women in society – ‘Women’s Work in Modern Britain’ (1928) and ‘Halcyon or the Future of Monogamy’ (1929). Her most famous work came out in 1933; it was titled ‘Testament of Youth.’ It was followed by ‘Testament of Friendship’ in 1940 and ‘Testament of Experience’ in 1957.
The novel ‘Honourable Estate,’ which Vera Brittain wrote in 1936, dealt with her failed friendship with the novelist Phyllis Bentley, her feelings for the American publisher George Brett Jr., and her brother Edward’s sad demise in 1918. Her diaries from 1913 to 1917 were also published as the ‘Chronicle of Youth.’
In the 1920s, Vera Brittain regularly spoke on behalf of the League of Nations Union. During a peace rally at Dorchester in 1936, fellow speaker Dick Sheppard invited her to join the Peace Pledge Union – a non-governmental organization that promotes pacifism. After six months, in January 1937, she decided to join the organization.
She also joined the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, and during the Second World War, she began writing a series of ‘Letters to Peacelovers.’
In 1944, she spoke out against the saturation bombing of German cities in her booklet ‘Massacre by Bombing.’ She was greatly vilified for this and was included in the Nazi’s ‘Black Book.’
Vera Brittain also contributed regularly to the pacifist magazine ‘Peace News’ from the 1930s. During the 1950s and1960s, she became a member of the magazine's editorial board. She used to write articles against colonialism and apartheid, and in favor of nuclear disarmament.
Family & Personal Life
In 1925, Vera Brittain married George Catlin, a political scientist. They had two children John Brittain-Catlin and Shirley Williams. Vera had a difficult relationship with their son John, who was an artist, businessman, and author of the autobiography ‘Family Quartet.’ Her daughter Shirley Williams is a former Labour cabinet minister, now a Liberal Democrat peer.
Death & Legacy
In 1966, Vera Brittain suffered a serious fall on a poorly lit London Street. The injuries from this fall led to her physical decline. At the age of 76, on 29th March 1970, she passed away in Wimbledon.
She had one final wish - to spread her ashes over her brother Edward’s grave in the Asiago Plateau in Italy. Her daughter honored this request in September 1970.
The television adaptation of ‘Testament of Youth’ came out in 1979. Cheryl Campbell portrayed Vera Brittain.
In 2009, BBC films decided to adapt her memoir, and it was released in late 2014 as a part of the World War I commemorations. Swedish actress Alicia Vikander played Brittain and ‘Game of Thrones’ star Kit Harington played the character of her fiancé, Roland Leighton.