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Vera Brittain
Born 29 December 1893(1893-12-29)
Newcastle Under Lyme
Died 29 March 1970 (aged 76)
Occupation Writer, author, journalist
Nationality English
Genres Feminism, pacifism
Notable work(s) Testament of Youth
Spouse(s) George Catlin
Children John Brittain-Catlin, Shirley Williams

Vera Mary Brittain (29 December 1893 – 29 March 1970) was an English writer, feminist and pacifist, best remembered as the author of the best-selling 1933 memoir Testament of Youth, recounting her experiences during World War I and the beginning of her journey towards pacifism.



Born in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Brittain was the daughter of a well-to-do family that owned paper mills in Hanley and Cheddleton. She had an uneventful childhood with her only brother her closest companion. At 18 months her family moved to Macclesfield, Cheshire and when she was 11 they moved again, to Buxton in Derbyshire. From the age of thirteen she attended boarding school at St Monica's, Kingswood in Surrey where her aunt was principal. Studying English Literature at Somerville College, Oxford, she delayed her degree after one year in the summer of 1915 in order to work as a V.A.D. nurse for much of the First World War. Her fiancé Roland Leighton, two other close friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, and her brother Edward Brittain MC were all killed during the war. Their letters to each other are documented in the book Letters from a Lost Generation.

Returning to Oxford after the war to read History, Brittain found it difficult to adjust to life among the postwar generation. It was at this time she met Winifred Holtby, and a close friendship developed with both aspiring to become established on the London literary scene. The bond lasted until Holtby's death in 1935.

In 1925 Brittain married George Catlin, a political scientist and philosopher. Their son, John Brittain-Catlin (1927-1987), was an artist painter, businessman, and the author of the autobiography Family Quartet, which appeared in 1987. Their daughter, born in 1930, is the former Labour Cabinet Minister, now Liberal Democrat peer, Shirley Williams.

Brittain's first published novel was The Dark Tide (1923). It was not until 1933 that she published Testament of Youth, which was followed by the sequels, 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 and 1950. Vera Brittain wrote from the heart and based many of her novels on actual experiences and actual people. In this regard her novel Honourable Estate (1936) was in part more of a memoir.

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, and 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. Her principled pacifist position was vindicated somewhat when, in 1945, the Nazis' Black Book of 2000 people to be immediately arrested in Britain after a German invasion was shown to include her name.

In November 1966 she suffered a fall in a badly lit London street while on the way to a speaking engagement. She fulfilled 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.[1]

Vera Brittain never fully got over the death of her brother Edward. When 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".[2] Her daughter honoured this request in September 1970.[3]

Cultural legacy

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

Songwriter and fellow Anglican Pacifist Fellowship member Sue Gilmurray wrote a song in Brittain's memory, titled "Vera".[4]

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.[5]

In February 2009, it was reported that BBC Films is to adapt Brittain's memoir, Testament of Youth, for the cinema.[6]


  • 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.


  1. ^ Paul Berry in the foreword to Testament of Experience, 1980 Virago edition
  2. ^ Berry and Bostridge, Vera Brittain: A Life, 1995
  3. ^ "Prose & Poetry – Vera Brittain". First World August 2001. Retrieved 2008-05-27.  
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ "Vera Brittain to be subject of film"; Daily Telegraph 13 Feb 2009


External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Vera Mary Brittain (December 29, 1893March 29, 1970) was an English writer, feminist and pacifist, best remembered as the author of the best-selling 1933 memoir Testament of Youth, recounting her experiences during World War I and the growth of her ideology of pacifism.


  • We should never be at the mercy of Providence if only we understood that we ourselves are Providence.
    • Testament of Youth (1933), Chapter 10
  • For a woman as for a man, marriage might enormously help or devastatingly hinder the growth of her power to contribute something impersonally valuable to the community in which she lived, but it was not that power, and could not be regarded as an end in itself. Nor, even, were children ends in themselves; it was useless to go on producing human beings merely in order that they, in their sequence, might produce others, and never turn from this business of continuous procreation to the accomplishment of some definite and lasting piece of work.
    • Testament of Youth (1933), Chapter 11
  • I don't think victory over death... is anything so superficial as a person fulfilling their normal span of life. It can be twofold; a victory over death by the man who faces it for himself without fear, and a victory by those who, loving him, know that death is but a little thing compared with the fact that he lived and was the kind of person he was.
    • Testament of Youth (1933), Chapter 12 [quoting a 1924 letter]
  • Meek wifehood is no part of my profession; / I am your friend, but never your possession.
    • "Married Love", Poems of the War and After (1934)
  • All that a pacifist can undertake—but it is a very great deal—is to refuse to kill, injure or otherwise cause suffering to another human creature, and untiringly to order his life by the rule of love though others may be captured by hate.
    • "What Can We Do In Wartime?", in Forward (Scotland, September 9, 1939)
  • It is probably true to say that the largest scope for change still lies in men’s attitude to women, and in women’s attitude to themselves.
    • Lady into Woman (1953), Chapter 15
  • Politics are usually the executive expression of human immaturity.
    • The Rebel Passion (1964), Chapter 1
  • I know one husband and wife who, whatever the official reasons given to the court for the break up of their marriage, were really divorced because the husband believed that nobody ought to read while he was talking and the wife that nobody ought to talk while she was reading.
    • Quoted in Jilly Cooper and Tom Hartman, Violets and Vinegar, "The Battle Done," (1980)

External links

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