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RITA MIRIAM KISSEN, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Vera Brittain (1893-1970), English writer, feminist and pacifist, wrote the story of her life in many forms: diaries, memoirs, novels, and travel accounts. These works, along with unpublished letters and Brittain's voluminous journalism, reveal that her girlhood was dominated by her close relationship with her brother Edward, 18 months her junior, whose masculine privileges aroused envy which whe did not feel free to articulate. Brittain's early religious life was marked by intense idealism and the desire for "service" and "sacrifice," impulses which found realization during her service as a V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse) in the Great War. Nursing wounded German prisoners in France convinced Brittain that war was folly and that she and the Germans had all been betrayed by religious leaders and politicians. The death of her fiance, Roland Leighton, of two close friends, and then of Edward, threw her into a numb paralysis in which life itself seemed meaningless. These feelings are reflected in Brittain's first two novels, published shortly after her graduation from Oxford in 1921. Vera Brittain's recovery came about in several ways. Her friendship with Winifred Holtby, whom she met at Oxford, gave her a companion who was, unlike Edward, a woman and an equal. Political work for feminist causes during the 1920's was a positive step towards empowerment. And her marriage to political philosopher George Catlin, along with the birth of their two children, reconnected her to the world and the future. Finally, writing her war memoir, Testament of Youth, enabled Brittain to memorialize her dead and to objectify her losses and move beyond them. Brittain's conversion to pacifism in 1936, inspired by her association with Canon H. R. L. Sheppard and his Peace Pledge Union, restored her religious faith and freed her from her association with her dead heroes. Her later work, especially her 1936 novel Honourable Estate, reveals this greater sense of empowerment, presenting feminist women heroes who are scarred by their losses in the Great War but manage, like their creator, to act independently and meaningfully in the world.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Womens studies|Biographies

Recommended Citation

KISSEN, RITA MIRIAM, "VERA BRITTAIN: WRITING A LIFE (PACIFISM)" (1986). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI8622687.