British author, feminist, and pacifist. Born on 29 December 1893 in Newcastle under Lyme, Vera Brittain was the daughter of a prosperous paper manufacturer. Rejecting the conventional path of marriage and family in favor of feminist education and a writer’s career, in 1914 she overcame some parental skepticism and passed the entrance examination for Somerville College, Oxford.
Although Brittain went up to Oxford that autumn, the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 completely disrupted her studies and life. She had expected to enter Oxford simultaneously with her younger brother Edward and his closest school friend, Roland Leighton, to whom she was already much attracted. Instead, that autumn the two young men, together with a third schoolfellow, Victor Richardson, joined the army, a decision Brittain at that time romanticized and applauded. Within a few months all were sent to fight in France, and before Leighton left for the front he and Brittain became engaged.
In the summer of 1915 Brittain temporarily dropped her Oxford studies to join the Volunteer Aid Detachment (VAD) nursing wounded soldiers. In December 1915 Leighton, whom she expected home on Christmas leave, was killed in action. Over the next three years Geoffrey Thurlow, another young volunteer officer who had become Edward Brittain’s closest friend, Richardson, and finally, in June 1918, her brother were killed in action. Almost two decades later, she discovered that her brother might well have deliberately sought death in action rather than face a court-martial for homosexual relations with enlisted men.
Devastated by her successive losses, Brittain returned to Oxford where she finished her history degree in 1920 and formed a close friendship with Winifred Holtby, a fellow student who shared her goal of becoming a professional writer. In the 1920s both women lived in London, became well-known journalists, and published novels, including one by Brittain based on her war experiences. Brittain also became a staunch pacifist and a strong supporter of the League of Nations. It was, however, the publication in 1933 of the autobiographical Testament of Youth, based on her wartime diaries, that won her real fame as a prominent voice of the wartime “lost generation.”
In 1925 Brittain married George Catlin, an academic several years younger than herself with whom she had two children, one of them the future Labour Party politician Shirley Williams. Throughout her life Brittain remained a dedicated pacifist, opposing British and American intervention in World War II and publicly condemning the Allied wartime firebombing of German and Japanese cities. Brittain died in London on 29 March 1970.
Brooke, Rupert; Graves, Robert Ranke; Literature and the War; Pacifism; Sassoon, Siegfried.
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