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Vera Brittain




1893  Born Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffs - eldest child of Edith and
Thomas Brittain, a wealthy paper manufacturer

1895  Younger brother, Edward, born

1904  Brittain family move to Buxton, Derbyshire, VB goes to school

1907-11 VB attends St. Monica’s School, Surrey

1912-13   VB ‘debutante’ in provincial Buxton society

1913-14 VB studying with private tutors for Oxford entrance exams

1914  VB wins Exhibition to Somerville College, Oxford

spring 1914 meets Roland Leighton, a school friend of her brother

  August 1914 outbreak of WWI

October 1914 VB becomes student at Somerville College

December 1914 Edward Brittain and Roland Leighton are commissioned

1915     VB and RL in love, unofficially engaged

April 1915 Roland Leighton leaves for the ‘Front’;

June 1915 VB gives up her studies for duration of war and takes up
nursing, enrols as VAD
, and works in London

December 1915 Roland Leighton dies of his war wounds

1916     Edward Brittain awarded Military Cross at the Battle of the Somme

1916-17 VB works as military nurse in Malta

1917-18 VB works as military nurse in France

1918  June 1918 Edward Brittain killed in action

1918-19 VB nursing in London

1919  VB returns to Somerville College to resume her degree studies

1920  VB meets Winifred Holtby (1898-1935) at Somerville College;
spend summer vacation together in Cornwall

1921  VB and Holtby graduate from Oxford (degrees at Oxford first
awarded to women in 1920); spend six-week holiday together
in France and Italy

1922  VB and Holtby move to London, share flats in Bloomsbury and Maida Vale

begin careers as journalists, lecturers and writers; VB joins the Six Point Group

VB becomes lecturer for the League of Nations Union

Holtby publishes her first novel,   Anderby Wold

1923  VB publishes her first novel, The Dark Tide

1924  VB publishes her second novel, Not Without Honour; joins Labour Party

1925  VB marries George Catlin

1925-26 VB and George Catlin live in US, where Catlin teaches at Cornell University

1927  John Edward Catlin, their first child, is born

1927-35 Winifred Holtby joins the Catlin household and lives with them until her death

1930  Shirley Catlin born

1933  VB publishes Testament of Youth; best-seller

1934  VB undertakes book tour of US to publicise Testament of Youth

1935  Thomas Brittain dies; Winifred Holtby dies

1936    VB and George Catlin visit Germany to report on German elections;
VB attends Peace Rally in Dorchester

1937  VB joins Peace Pledge Union - pacifism now her major campaigning focus

1938  VB resigns from League of Nations Union

1939  VB publishes Testament of Friendship (memoir of Winifred Holtby)

1940  John and Shirley Catlin evacuated to US

1939-45 VB continues to support PPU throughout WWII; publishes pamphlet,
Seed of Chaos, criticising saturation bombing of
Germany (1944)

1950s  VB publishes Testament of Experience

joins Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and remains active in it until her death

1953  VB publishes Lady into Woman: A History of Women from Victoria to Elizabeth II

1970  VB dies

Early years before 1914

VB born into a provincial middle-class family

VB education – experience similar to many other early 20c feminists - mixture of private tuition and formal schooling – followed by non-working life at home – marriage = assumed eventual objective

VB’s winning scholarship to Oxford = a feminist dream


Experience of WWI

Post WWI

VB’s typical of new directions in feminist thinking in the 1920s – women had vote and right to higher

education – now needed to capitalise on these gains to obtain legal and social reform

VB novels of the 1930s became increasingly more feminist and pacifist


Testament of Youth

Published nearly two decades after outbreak of WWI

By 1933 VB realised that another major war was imminent

Purpose of the book

To warn the young generation of the early 1930s not to be duped by British propaganda, as hers had been

To show how women had experienced WWI

Comparison between ToY  and VB’s diaries is illuminating

ToY  - picture of a young woman rejecting the feminine values of her mother’s generation

VB diaires – pre-WWI young woman enjoying dancing, parties, clothes – real intimacy with her mother

But also met with family resistance to her ambitions for higher education


VB’s feminism

ToY – VB maintains that her nursing work made her more comfortable with sexuality

WWI gave women more liberty to be alone with men

VB’s experiences of war led her to rebel against patriarchal values of her pre-war life

VB’s feminism post WWI – wanted

  Changes in human attitudes – men’s belief in women’s inferiority

  New concept of marriage – equal partners – had a ‘semi-detached’ marriage with Catlin

Professional and economic equality for women – equal pay for equal work, maternity leave, part-time work for mothers, refresher courses for women returners, state nursery schools

Better social services for women – maternalist focus – family planning clinics, national maternity service, state nurseries

New attitudes to sexual morality – end sexual double standard, better understandings of homosexuality – defence witness in obscenity trial of R. Hall’s The Well of Loneliness

New understandings of women’s psychology and capacities – women’s capacity for friendship, loyalty, and instinct for peace made their psychology different from men’s – see Testament of Friendship

Before WWI, VB’s closest friends were male; post-war her closest friend was Winifred Holtby


VB pacificism

VB diaries show that initially she was influenced by wartime propaganda

Her excitement about WWI reflected her pre-war boredom and stifled ambitions

Felt frustration about the predominant masculine model of heroism and suffering

BUT after casualty reports started to come in, VB’s attitude much more ambivalent –

Tensions between belief in rightness of the cause and despair at deaths and casualities

Early pro-war views and desire for war work seem part of her expressed desire to be a man – articulated a masculine rhetoric of patriotism and heroism

BUT nursing work brought out her suppressed female identity

VB often seen as a born pacifist and her writings encouraged the view that women were natural pacifists but her diaries of the WWI period indicate tensions she felt between patriotism and pacifism

VB’s career between 1914-1950 – no straight line to feminism and pacifism – rather a series of advances and retreats

VB became a revolutionary pacifist in 1936 – met Canon Dick Sheppard, head of the PPU

Realised that the peace organisations that she had been working with had political respectability because they were prepared to compromise with war

Remained a pacifist from then onwards, through WWII, until her death

1939 VB wrote to Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, requesting that Britain refrain from bombing civilian non-combatants

in WWII helped arrange emigration of British children (her own went to North America) and cared for civilian victims of bombing