Sunday, 30 May 2010

Vera Brittain

I read books probably more than I do anything else, except perhaps sleep.  If you use the library, this is a very frugal hobby.  I’ve really been into biographies of interesting women for a while now and, as with the television programmes I enjoy telling about, I'm going to share with you some of the fascinating women I've come to 'know'.   

Vera Brittain – (1893 – 1970). I have to confess to having selected this biography because she lived during the inter-war period about which Bill and I are enthusiastic. I did get to read a little about her clothing and hairstyle, as she was an attractive woman and rather a clothes horse in her early years. As to the style and substance of her life and her experience, it is grim, shockingly so.  When I picked up this book I'd just discovered the fictional character of Phryne Fisher.  The contrast between the fictional flapper and this serious writer couldn't be more extreme. Both characters are contemporaries of my grandmothers, who also couldn’t have been more opposite to one another, and I enjoy trying to better understand what the world was like when they were young.

Vera Brittain as an author is most known for having written Testament of Experience, a book I want to find and read. It relates her own experience as a young person during WWI. In that war she lost her fiancée, her brother, and their closest friends, the two young men she might have considered marrying after the loss of her first choice. Now an only child, and also a feminist who longed to be a writer, she fought against the expectations for a young woman of her time to claim a career. She married late and had two children, but still maintained her independence even at great cost to herself. 

Her husband’s career took him to America 6 months out of the year and in return for being separated he managed to make her bear the primary financial burden for the family, spending all his money on himself and his mistresses. He complained that Vera’s career and her causes prevented him from getting a title.  He did manage to finagle a 'Sir' soon after her death. She was prepared to ‘entertain’ but was embarrassed by his choice of guests as it revealed his ambitious social climbing. He was generally though to be pretentious, arrogant and showy. In America, he got used to being appreciated for his British-ness and expected to be just as ‘special’ when he returned home (a cautionary tale for me, no doubt).  He sounded a complete jerk.

Vera maintained her family, his father and looked after her own parents while continuing to write and do public speaking. Her very closest friend (but not in that way, she insisted) was Winifred Holtby, whose last and best known work was a book that came to us from Bill’s mother’s collection and I realized I had read, South Riding, and can recommend. This woman died at only age 37 from kidney disease. 

In the latter part of her life, Vera became a sponsor for the Peach Pledge Union and did much travel and speaking for pacifism. Her beliefs were deeply challenged with the advent of WWII and whilst many fell away from their pacifist beliefs  in the threat of Hitler’s invasion, she stuck to it  and found a new direction for her organization during war, something akin to the beliefs of the Quakers. After much consideration, Vera and George sent their children to America to keep them safe. Her views, being contrary to government policy, made her unpopular in high places and for the latter part of the second war her requests for exit visas were denied, consequently she was unable to fulfill speaking commitments abroad or to visit her children, which she found very difficult. It later transpired that no one felt her to be any serious threat, but rather these denials were traceable to a petty and spiteful civil servant, who enjoyed rather too much power, I’m thinking.

As with many of the children sent, their return to Britain was traumatic; Vera’s son in particular never seemed to have recovered from his experience. In short, he was a spoiled brat who never achieved financial independence from his mother even after marrying and producing children. He died only 8 years after his mother and, being very uncharitable, it was no great loss. His sister, was also very independent in spirit, but in a different way. She grew up and became Shirley Williams, a prominent Labour politician who eventually left the Labour Party and formed the Social Democratic Party which eventually merged with Liberal Democrats, now part of the UK's coalition government.

Vera Brittain doesn’t come across as someone I would like.  She was intensely determined to have what she wanted and she upset a lot of people.  To be fair, in order to fight against the expectations placed upon a woman in her day, she had to be quite selfish and this selfishness made her a difficult person.  Except for with Winifred, who was apparently a very understanding woman, Vera fell out with virtually every friend she ever had. She acknowledged having this difficult personality. It may have been this trait that kept her from ever being more than an author of more than mediocre acclaim; she was disappointed at never having been able to duplicate the success of Testament of Experience.   As it turned out, her public speaking skills, her clarity of thought and her faithful commitment and dedication to promulgating the ideals of pacifism gained her far more fame in the end. It wasn’t until I finished the book, and I nearly didn’t, that I came to appreciate why her biography was written. I wouldn’t have liked her, but I came to respect Vera Brittain.

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