Vera Brittain

Vera Mary Brittain (29 December 1893 – 29 March 1970) was an English Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse, writer, feminist, socialist[1], and pacifist. Her best-selling 1933 memoir Testament of Youth recounted her experiences during the First World War and the beginning of her journey towards pacifism.

Vera Brittain
Brittain shortly after World War I
Born(1893-12-29)29 December 1893
Newcastle Under Lyme, Staffordshire, England
Died29 March 1970(1970-03-29) (aged 76)
Wimbledon, London, England
  • Writer
  • Author
  • Journalist
Alma materSomerville College, Oxford
Notable worksTestament of Youth
SpouseSir George Catlin
ChildrenJohn Brittain-Catlin
Shirley Williams

Life and work

Born in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Brittain was the daughter of a well-to-do paper manufacturer, Thomas Arthur Brittain (1864–1935) and his wife, Edith Bervon Brittain (1868–1948), who owned paper mills in Hanley and Cheddleton.

When she was 18 months old, her family moved to Macclesfield, Cheshire, and when she was 11 years old, they moved again; to the spa town of Buxton in Derbyshire. Growing up, her only brother Edward was her closest companion. From the age of 13, she attended boarding school at St Monica's, Kingswood, Surrey where her aunt was the principal.

Overcoming her father's initial objections, she read English Literature at Somerville College, Oxford, delaying her degree after one year in the summer of 1915 to work as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse for much of the First World War, initially in Buxton and later in London, Malta and France. Her fiancé Roland Leighton, close friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, and her brother Edward, were all killed in the war.[2] Their letters to each other are documented in the book Letters from a Lost Generation. In one letter Leighton speaks for his generation of public school volunteers when he writes that he feels the need to play an "active part" in the war.[3]

Returning to Oxford after the war to read history, Brittain found it difficult to adjust to life in postwar England. She met Winifred Holtby, and a close friendship developed, both aspiring to become established on the London literary scene. The bond lasted until Holtby's death from renal failure in 1935.[4] Other literary contemporaries at Somerville included: Dorothy L. Sayers, Hilda Reid, Margaret Kennedy, and Sylvia Thompson.

In 1925, Brittain married George Catlin, a political scientist (1896–1979). Their son, John Brittain-Catlin (1927–1987), with whom Vera had a difficult relationship, was an artist, painter, businessman, and the author of the autobiography Family Quartet, which appeared in 1987. Their daughter, born 1930, is the former Labour Cabinet Minister, now Liberal Democrat peer, Shirley Williams, one of the "Gang of Four" rebels on the right-wing of the Labour Party who defected to found the SDP in 1981.

Brittain's first published novel, The Dark Tide (1923), created scandal as it caricatured dons at Oxford, especially at Somerville. In 1933, she published the work for which she became famous, Testament of Youth, followed by Testament of Friendship (1940)—her tribute to and biography of Winifred Holtby—and Testament of Experience (1957), the continuation of her own story, which spanned the years between 1925-1950. Vera Brittain wrote from the heart, basing many of her novels on actual experiences and actual people. In this regard, her novel Honourable Estate (1936) was autobiographical, dealing with Brittain's failed friendship with the novelist Phyllis Bentley, her romantic feelings for her American publisher George Brett Jr, and her brother Edward's death in action on the Italian Front in 1918. Brittain's diaries from 1913–17 were published in 1981 as Chronicle of Youth. Some critics have argued that Testament of Youth differs greatly from Brittain's writings during the war, suggesting she was more in control when writing retrospectively.[5]

In the 1920s, she became a regular speaker on behalf of the League of Nations Union, but in June 1936 she was invited to speak at a peace rally in Dorchester, where she shared a platform with Dick Sheppard, George Lansbury, Laurence Housman, and Donald Soper. Afterwards, Sheppard invited her to join the Peace Pledge Union. Following six months' careful reflection, she replied in January 1937 to say she would. Later that year, Brittain also joined the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship. Her newly found pacifism came to the fore during World War II, when she began the series of Letters to Peacelovers.

She was a practical pacifist in the sense that she helped the war effort by working as a fire warden and by travelling around the country raising funds for the Peace Pledge Union's food relief campaign. She was vilified for speaking out against saturation bombing of German cities through her 1944 booklet Massacre by Bombing. In 1945, the Nazis' Black Book of nearly 3,000 people to be immediately arrested in Britain after a German invasion was shown to include her name.[6]

From the 1930s onwards, Brittain was a regular contributor to the pacifist magazine Peace News. She eventually became a member of the magazine's editorial board and during the 1950s and 1960s was "writing articles against apartheid and colonialism and in favour of nuclear disarmament".[7]

In November 1966, she suffered a fall in a badly lit London street en route to a speaking engagement. She attended the engagement, but afterwards found she had suffered a fractured left arm and broken little finger of her right hand. These injuries began a physical decline in which her mind became more confused and withdrawn.[8] Around this time the BBC interviewed her; when asked of her memories of Roland Leighton, she replied "who is Roland"?

Brittain never fully got over the death in June 1918 of her beloved brother, Edward. She died in Wimbledon on 29 March 1970, aged 76. Her will requested that her ashes be scattered on Edward's grave on the Asiago Plateau in Italy – "...for nearly 50 years much of my heart has been in that Italian village cemetery"[9]— and her daughter honoured this request in September 1970.[10]

Cultural legacy

She was portrayed by Cheryl Campbell in the 1979 BBC2 television adaptation of Testament of Youth.

Songwriter and fellow Anglican Pacifist Fellowship member Sue Gilmurray wrote a song in Brittain's memory, titled "Vera".[11]

In 1998, Brittain's First World War letters were edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge and published under the title Letters from a Lost Generation. They were also adapted by Bostridge for a Radio Four series starring Amanda Root and Rupert Graves.

Because You Died, a new selection of Brittain's First World War poetry and prose, edited by Mark Bostridge, was published by Virago in 2008 to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of the Armistice.

On 9 November 2008, BBC One broadcast an hour-length documentary on Brittain as part of its Remembrance Day programmes hosted by Jo Brand.[12]

In February 2009, it was reported that BBC Films was to adapt Brittain's memoir, Testament of Youth, into a feature film.[13] Irish actress Saoirse Ronan was cast to play Brittain at first.[14] However, in December 2013, it was announced that Swedish actress Alicia Vikander would be playing Brittain in the film, which was released at the end of 2014 as part of the First World War commemorations.[15] The film also starred Kit Harington,[16] Colin Morgan, Taron Egerton, Alexandra Roach,[17] Dominic West, Emily Watson, Joanna Scanlan, Hayley Atwell, Jonathan Bailey and Anna Chancellor.[18] David Heyman, producer of the Harry Potter films, and Rosie Alison were the producers.

On 9 November 2018, a Wall Street Journal opinion commentary by Aaron Schnoor honored the poetry of World War I, including Brittain's poem "Perhaps".[19]

Plaques marking Brittain's former homes can be seen at 9 Sidmouth Avenue, Newcastle-under-Lyme;[20] 151 Park Road, Buxton;[21] Doughty Street, Bloomsbury; and 117 Wymering Mansions, Maida Vale, west London.[22] There is also a plaque in the Pavilion gardens, Buxton, commemorating Brittain's residence in the town, though the dates shown on the plaque for her time there are incorrect.

Vera Brittain's archive was sold in 1971 to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. A further collection of papers, amassed during the writing of the authorised biography of Brittain, was donated to Somerville College Library, Oxford, by Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge.[23]

Selected bibliography

  • 1923 – The Dark Tide
  • 1929 – Halcyon: Or, The Future of Monogamy (To-day and To-morrow pamphlet series)
  • 1933 – Testament of Youth
  • 1936 – Honourable Estate
  • 1940 – Testament of Friendship
  • 1944 – Seed of Chaos (Massacre by Bombing: U.S. title)
  • 1957 – Testament of Experience
  • 1981 – Chronicle of Youth: The War Diary, 1913–1917, edited by Alan Bishop with Terry Smart
  • 1998 – Letters from a Lost Generation, edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge


  • Vera Brittain by Hilary Bailey. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1987. ISBN 0140080031
  • Vera Brittain: A Life, by Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge, Chatto & Windus, 1995, Pimlico, 1996, Virago 2001, 2008 ISBN 1-86049-872-8.
  • Vera Brittain: A Feminist Life, by Deborah Gorham, University of Toronto Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8020-8339-0.
  • Vera Brittain and the First World War, by Mark Bostridge, Bloomsbury, 2014. ISBN 9781408188446 OCLC 902612485

See also


  1. Higonnet, Margaret R. (1987). Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars. Yale University Press. p. 70.
  2. Mark Bostridge (21 May 2012). "Vera's Testament is young again". The Daily Telegraph.
  3. Brittain, Vera (1998). Letters from a Lost Generation. London: Little, Brown and Company. p. 30.
  4. Mark Bostridge (15 March 2012). "The story of the friendship between Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain". The Daily Telegraph.
  5. Ouditt, Sharon (1994). Fighting Forces, Writing Women: Identity and Ideology in the First World War. London: Routledge. p. 33.
  6. Berry, Paul and Bostridge,Mark, Vera Brittain: A Life, 1995, ISBN 0-7011-2679-5 (p. 445).
  7. Loretta Stec, "Pacifism, Vera Brittain, and India". Peace Review , vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 237–44, 2001.
  8. Paul Berry in the foreword to Testament of Experience, 1980 Virago edition.
  9. Berry and Bostridge, Vera Brittain: A Life, 1995 (p. 523)
  10. "Prose & Poetry – Vera Brittain". August 2001. Retrieved 27 May 2008.
  11. Archived 2 July 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  12. "BBC Two – A Woman in Love and War: Vera Brittain". 23 March 2010. Retrieved 16 March 2013.
  13. Film. "Vera Brittain to be subject of film". The Daily Telegraph, 13 February 2009. Retrieved 16 March 2013.
  14. Anita Singh (20 May 2012). "Cannes 2012: BBC to dramatise life of WW1 writer Vera Brittain". The Daily Telegraph.
  15. BamigboYye, Baz (19 December 2013). "Chiwetel in the danger zone: Star tells of the 'dark moment' he had to 'whip' actress in new film 12 Years A Slave". Retrieved 16 March 2014.
  16. Kit, Borys (4 February 2014). "'Game of Thrones' Star Kit Harington to Headline 'Testament of Youth'". Retrieved 16 March 2014.
  17. Ge, Linda (13 February 2014). "Taron Egerton, Colin Morgan and Alexandra Roach Join Alicia Vikander in 'Testament of Youth'". Retrieved 16 March 2014.
  18. Bullock, Dan (16 March 2014). "Filming Begins On 'Testament of Youth' Starring Alicia Vikander & Kit Harington". Retrieved 16 March 2014.
  19. "WSJ – The Great War Produced Some Great Poetry". 9 November 2018. Retrieved 28 April 2019.
  20. Newcastle-under-Lyme Civic Society (15 August 2010). "LOCAL COMMEMORATIVE BLUE PLAQUE SCHEME". Newcastle-under-Lyme Civic Society. Retrieved 22 September 2016.
  21. "Vera Brittain author of "Testament of Youth" lived here 1907–1914". Retrieved 9 November 2012.
  22. City of Westminster green plaques. Archived 16 July 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  23. "Special Collections". Retrieved 28 August 2018.


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