U.S. Women’s historians point to World War II as the catalyst for both the Civil Rights Movement and Second Wave Feminism, as well as ushering in significant economic and social changes, but as anyone who has travelled in England can’t fail but notice, World War I seems to loom much larger in British society; drive through any English, Welsh or Scottish town, and there is a memorial to the men who fell in the Great War of 1914-1918. Evidence of the British public’s interest in that conflagration can also be seen through a new film production of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, released in 2014.
So far, I’ve watched it twice, and followed up by reading Mark Bostridge’s Vera Brittain and the First World War. Brittain was a fascinating figure, and one can learn a great deal about women’s experience with war by examining her life.
Brittain was born in 1893 to a wealthy middle class couple; her younger brother, Andrew, followed two years later. The two children were always close, although very different in temperament and talents. Andrew was easy-going, musically inclined, and easily made friends, while Vera was stubborn, bookish, and found little in common with other girls. From his birth, it was assumed Andrew would attend Oxford and then enter business or law, while Vera would be educated to make a good marriage. But Vera had other ideas, and in 1914 defied her parents by taking the Oxford entrance examination. She passed, and entered the prestigious university in October 1914.
But, of course, the events of Vera’s life have to be set into context. In August of 1914, the Great War began, and brother Andrew and his friends were eager to get involved before the war was over (all the combatants assumed it would end by Christmas). Andrew’s best friend,a gifted poet named Roland Leighton, enlisted and went to France, while Andrew and two other friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, stayed behind to train in England.When Roland returned on leave in the spring of 1915, he proposed to Vera, and she assented, but tragically, he was killed in France shortly before Christmas of 1915.
The desolation Vera felt is recorded in her diaries; stunned with grief, she spent weeks trying to ascertain the details of his death. Ultimately, she responded to her sorrow by volunteering as a nurse for the VAD – Voluntary Aid Detachment, an organization that recruited hundreds of British women. By the end of the war, Vera had served in London, Malta, and just behind the trenches in France. In the last assignment, she spent weeks nursing captured German soldiers, and it seems that this experience turned her bitterness into the understanding of the destructive effects of war on all combatants and civilians.
But the devastating effects of the Great War remained personal as well. Andrew’s two friends, Victor and Geoffrey also died fighting, and, in June of 1918, Vera’s beloved brother Andrew was shot by a sniper while fighting in northern Italy.
By the Armistice, November 11, 1918, Vera seemed to have lost everyone dear to her. Her mother had suffered a nervous breakdown even before her only son’s death, and Vera’s father was prostate with grief upon the news of Andrew’s loss (he never recovered, committing suicide some 15 years later).
Yet, somehow, Vera endured. She returned to Oxford, finishing a degree in history in 1921, but was determined to pursue a career as a writer. She wrote novels, poetry, at least one play, and memoirs.Like others of her generation, she seemed to be “living among ghosts”, and her writing from the 1920s and early 1930s pulled extensively from her war experiences. She married political scientist George Catlin, and they had two children. Both Vera and her husband were committed pacifists, first as supporters of the League of Nations, later as political activists in the 1930s.
She published her most famous book, Testament of Youth in 1933, and it was a huge success (she followed it up later with two additional books), and Vera developed quite a following by people who feared the effects of another world war. However, when World War II broke out, Vera became what she called a “practical pacifist”: she refused to flee Britain, sending her two adolescent children to America with George, who was teaching at Cornell University while she stayed behind as a Fire Warden in London. The separation from her children and husband took a toll on the family relationship, however; Vera and George later divorced, and Vera’s son never forgave his mother for choosing England over her children.
Vera continued to write, lecture, and give interviews until 1966, when she suffered a bad fall on a London street. She suffered a concussion, which led to mental decline, and she died in 1970. Her daughter, British politician Shirley Williams, continued toh to honor her mother’s memory, particularly in the media.
Even 100 years later, the bitter effects of war can be felt through Brittain’s words in Testament of Youth. How a young woman could endure the loss of so much – friends, family, a future with her fiance – but go on to forge a career in an age when most middle class British women were expected to stay within the confines of home and family is awe-inspiring, even today. Until the 1970s, Vera Brittain was the only woman to have work included in British anthologies of “war writing,” but that is gradually changing as historians recognize the experiences and contributions of women to war.