Vera Brittain 1893-1970

Vera Brittain was born in Newcastle-under Lyme in 1893, the daughter of a paper manufacturer. She grew up in Macclesfield, Cheshire, and from the age of 11 in Buxton, Derbyshire. She was educated as a boarder at Kingswood School in Surrey where an aunt was the headmistress. She went on to Somerville College, Oxford, to read English Literature in 1914 but left after one year to support the war effort by working as a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) in the UK, Malta, and France.

She was devastated by the death of her fiancé, the writer Roland Leighton, whom she had met on a visit to her brother’s school, Uppingham, in 1913. He was killed in action in December 1915 and her sadness at his loss is expressed in her poem Perhaps. She received a further blow towards the end of the war when her only brother Edward was killed in Italy in 1918, a loss from which she never completely recovered. Ironically, her poem To My Brother was written just four days before his death.

When Vera returned to Oxford after the war to resume her studies, it must have been with a heavy heart, but in 1925 she married George Catlin, a political scientist. They had two children, the youngest of whom was Shirley Williams, the former Labour minister and later a member of the House of Lords. In 1923 she published her first novel, The Dark Tide, and ten years later Testament of Youth, for which she is best known. This was followed by Testament of Friendship (1940) and Testament of Experience (1957). She also wrote several novels Chronicle of Youth, the diaries she had kept during WWI, published posthumously, and a few noteworthy poems, through which she had found some solace.

She was persuaded to become a pacifist prior to the outbreak of WWII but this did not stop her becoming a fire warden during the war, although she was highly critical of Britain’s carpet bombing of German cities in the latter part of the war. She became a contributor to the pacifist magazine Peace News and later became a member of its editorial board, writing articles in favour of nuclear disarmament and railing against apartheid. She died in Wimbledon in 1970, aged 76.

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