Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain was a writer and poet, well-known for her strong socialist, pacifist, and feminist views. She joined World War I as a military nurse in 1915, and her experiences shaped much of the prose and poetry she subsequently produced. Let's look at Vera Brittain’s life and death, poetry, and books.

Vera Brittain Vera Brittain

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Table of contents

    Vera Brittain’s biography

    First, let us examine Vera Brittain’s life and experiences of war.

    Vera Brittain’s early life

    Vera Brittain was born in Staffordshire (England) on 29 December 1893 to parents Thomas and Edith. She also had a younger brother named Edward. Vera Brittain’s family were middle-class, and she grew up to enjoy an environment of wealth and comfort. Brittain attended a boarding school in Kingswood, Surrey, and then went on to study English Literature at Somerville College, a constituent of Oxford University. Brittain enjoyed writing from a young age, and she became renowned for her poems and books as she matured.

    Vera Brittain’s experiences of war

    Brittain joined the First World War as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in 1915, and experienced many of the grim realities of war whilst caring for wounded soldiers. She went on to write about these experiences in her memoir Testament of Youth. She found being a military nurse to be exhausting, both mentally and physically, and her experiences further cemented her pacifist views as time went on. Vera Brittain also faced the trauma of loss during her time as a nurse; her fiancé Roland was killed in 1915, and her younger brother just three years later. Her younger brother Edward received the military cross in 1916, and unfortunately died on 15 June 1918.

    Vera Brittain’s later life

    Vera Brittain married political scientist and philosopher George Edward Catlin in 1925. Shortly afterwards, her close friend Winifred Holtby moved in with them, though Catlin was not particularly happy with the friendship between Brittain and Holtby. Vera Brittain continued her writing career, and she wished to promote her political views in her writings. Brittain’s experiences and own personal philosophies led to her publicly declaring herself a pacifist by 1930, and she tried to encourage ideas of peace, and discourage anti-war ideals. Unfortunately, Brittain faced another loss in 1935, when her father committed suicide.

    A pacifist is an individual that is opposed to war and/or violence.

    Vera Brittain’s cause of death

    Brittain’s health had been declining for a long time, as she suffered from motor neurone disease. Vera Brittain dies on 29 of March 1970. Half of Vera Brittain's ashes are buried in the churchyard of St James the Great, in Warwickshire (England), and the other half are buried in Italy, at the Granezza British Cemetery.

    Vera Brittain’s poems

    What are some of Vera Brittain’s most famous poems?

    Vera Brittain’s ‘Perhaps’

    Vera Brittain's poem 'Perhaps' presents some of the emotions that can be felt after losing a loved one. The speaker in this poem has lost someone to whom they are close and is clearly experiencing feelings of sadness and grief.

    There is also the theme of uncertainty in the poem, as indicated by the title and the first line of the poem – the speaker does not know for sure if things will improve for them as time goes on, or if they will feel better in the future. In the poem, there is the feeling of missing someone, but also, that person's presence being missing from the speaker's life.

    The speaker also hints at the idea that nature's beauty is no longer clear or visible to the them, and that their grief has clouded their vision and perspective. There is, however, a feeling of hope in the poem, that one day the speaker will come to terms with their grief, and that things will look up again.

    Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,

    And I shall see that still the skies are blue.

    And feel once more I do not live in vain,

    Although bereft of You (l.1-4)

    Vera Brittain’s ‘The Lament of the Demobilised’

    Vera Brittain's poem 'The Lament of the Demobilised' explores the experience of soldiers who had been demobilised, in other words, taken out of active service after the War had ended, and returned home to find little of their old lives left for them.

    The poem also highlights a severe lack of understanding from some of the individuals on the home front, or those who did not themselves fight in the War. Many of the First World War survivors found they were no longer the same individuals they were upon first entering the War.

    The War was anything but a pleasing experience for these individuals. Many of those who did not fight in the War were given opportunities to improve their lives and circumstances, a stark contrast to the traumatised soldiers who returned to an unrecognisable home, sometimes with little to no prospects.

    'Four years,' some say consolingly. 'Oh well,

    What's that? You're young. And then it must have been

    A very fine experience for you!'

    And they forget

    How others stayed behind and just got on -

    Got on the better since we were away (l.1-6)

    Vera Brittain’s ‘Hospital Sanctuary’

    Vera Brittain's poem 'Hospital Sanctuary' is written from a nurse's perspective, perhaps even Brittain herself. The poem seems to be a source of motivation and encouragement for the military nurse of the First World War to remain strong and resilient in their trying experiences.

    This poem reminds them their purpose as nurses was to help wounded soldiers and that these soldiers desperately needed them. Brittain showcases the way in which many nurses may have felt alone in their experience of the War and perhaps even forgotten, because unlike the soldiers they did not directly fight in the War, and did not receive the same praise.

    However, Brittain highlights that although the nurses are not serving on the front line in the same way as the soldiers, they are just as important, and just as necessary.

    When you have lost your all in a world's upheaval,

    Suffered and prayed, and found your prayers were vain,

    When love is dead, and hope has no renewal -

    These need you still; come back to them again (l.1-4)

    Vera Brittain’s books

    Here are some additional Vera Brittain’s books that are worth mentioning.

    Vera Brittain: Testament of Youth

    First published in 1933, Vera Brittain's memoir Testament of Youth is the first in a series of autobiographical accounts. It details her nursing experiences in the War and her relationships with family and close friends. She expresses the pain of loss in Testament of Youth. Her fiance Roland and brother Edward were killed during the First World War, and her close friend Geoffrey was wounded in the War.

    There seemed to be nothing left in the world, for I felt that Roland had taken with him all my future and Edward all my past1 (ch.4)

    Vera Brittain: Testament of Friendship

    Published in 1940, Testament of Friendship is an account of Brittain's close friendship with Winifred Holtby, who helped Brittain through many of the challenging and trying experiences she faced during the War. Their friendship lasted all through Brittain's life and marriage, and right until Holtby's death on 29 September 1935.

    Her mind was like a spring-tide in full flood; rich, shining, vigorous, and capable of infinite variety2 (ch.17)

    Vera Brittain: Testament of Experience

    Published in 1957, Testament of Experience is a direct sequel to Testament of Youth, and chronicles her life between 1925 and 1950. In Testament of Experience, she provides insight into her life, family and marriage, alongside the aftermath of World War II.

    By enabling me to set down the sorrows of the First War and thus remove their bitterness, Testament of Youth became the final instrument of a return to life from the abyss of emotional death3 (ch.1)

    Vera Brittain: Key takeaways

    • Vera Brittain was born in Staffordshire (England) on 29 December 1893.
    • She was well-known for her strong socialist, pacifist, and feminist views.
    • Brittain joined the First World War as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in 1915.
    • Brittain faced a lot of losses in her life, including her fiance Roland in 1915, brother Edward in 1918, and her father in 1935.
    • Vera Brittain was also a writer and poet well-known today for her works, in particular, her memoir Testament of Youth.
    • Brittain died on 29 March 1970.
    • Half of Vera Brittain's ashes are buried in the churchyard of St James the Great in Warwickshire (England), and the other half is buried in Italy at the Granezza British Cemetery.

    ¹Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, 2014

    ²Vera Brittain, Testament of Friendship, 2012

    ³Victoria Stewart, Vera Brittain and the Lost Generation, Women’s Autobiography, 2003

    Frequently Asked Questions about Vera Brittain

    Who is Vera Brittain’s family?

    Vera Brittain was born to parents Thomas and Edith. She also had a younger brother named Edward. 

    Who is Vera Brittain?

    Vera Brittain was a writer and poet well-known for her strong socialist, pacifist, and feminist views. She joined World War I as a military nurse in 1915.

    Is Testament of Youth a true story? 

    Yes, Testament of Youth is a true story.

    What did Vera Brittain die of? 

    Brittain’s health had been declining for a long time, as she suffered from motor neurone disease. She died on 29 March 1970.  

    How did Vera Brittain feel about the war? 

    Vera Brittain was a pacifist, so she was opposed to war and/or violence.

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