History Remarkable Women

Vera Brittain (Remarkable Women #50)

Early life

Born on December 29, 1893, in Newcastle-under-Lyme, England, Vera Mary Brittain was the daughter of Arthur, a well-to-do paper manufacturer, and his wife, Edith Mary Brittain. Her father was a director of family-owned paper mills in Hanley and Cheddleton. Her mother was born in Aberystwyth, Wales, the daughter of impoverished musician John Inglis Bervon.

When Vera was 18 months old, her family moved to Macclesfield, Cheshire, and 10 years later, in 1905, they moved again, to the spa town of Buxton in Derbyshire. As Vera was growing up, her only sibling, her brother Edward, nearly two years her junior, was her closest companion.

From the age of 13, she attended boarding-school at St Monica’s, Kingswood, Surrey where her mother’s sister, Florence (Miss Bervon), was co-principal with Louise Heath-Jones.


After two years as a “provincial debutante”, Vera overcame her father’s objections and went up to Somerville College, Oxford, to read English Literature. By this time, war had broken out and Vera had become close to Roland Leighton, one of her brother’s friends from Uppingham School. Finding her Oxford studies increasingly an irrelevance as her male contemporaries volunteered for war, Vera delayed her degree after one year in the summer of 1915 to work as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse for much of the First World War.

Vera served initially at the Devonshire Hospital in Buxton, and later in London, Malta and in France, where she was stationed close to the front at Etaples and where she nursed German prisoners of war, a significant staging post on her journey towards internationalism and onto pacifism.

Roland Leighton, who became her fiancé in August 1915, close friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, and finally her brother Edward were all killed in the war. Many of their letters to each other are reproduced in the book Letters from a Lost Generation. In one letter, Leighton speaks for his generation of public-school volunteers when he writes that he feels the need to play an “active part” in the war.

Returning to Oxford in 1919 to read history, Vera found it difficult as “a war survivor” to adjust to life in postwar society. She met Winifred Holtby at Somerville and a close friendship developed. They both aspired to become established on the London literary scene and shared various London flats after coming down from Oxford.

Eventually Holtby would become part of the Brittain-Catlin household after Vera‘s marriage. The bond lasted until Holtby‘s death from kidney failure in 1935. Other literary contemporaries at Somerville included Dorothy L. Sayers, Hilda Reid, Margaret Kennedy and Sylvia Thompson.

In 1925, Vera married George Catlin, a political scientist. Their son, John Brittain-Catlin, born in 1927–1987), was an artist, painter, businessman and the author of the posthumously published autobiography Family Quartet. He had a steadily deteriorated relationship with his mother as he got older. Their daughter, born 1930, was the former Labour Cabinet Minister, later Liberal Democrat peer, Shirley Williams, one of the “Gang of Four” rebels on the Social Democratic wing of the Labour Party who founded the SDP in 1981.

Like Vera, George Catlin was raised Anglican, as his father was an Anglican clergyman, but unlike her, George had converted to the Catholic Church.

Vera‘s first published novel, The Dark Tide (1923), created scandal as it caricatured dons at Oxford, especially at Somerville. In 1933, she published the work for which she became famous, Testament of Youth, followed in 1940 by Testament of Friendship— 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 based many of her novels on actual experiences and actual people. In this regard, her novel Honourable Estate (1936) was autobiographical, dealing with her failed friendship with the novelist Phyllis Bentley, her romantic feelings for her American publisher George Brett Jr, and her brother Edward‘s death in action on the Italian Front in 1918.

Vera‘s diaries from 1913 to 1917 were published in 1981 as Chronicle of Youth. Some critics have argued that Testament of Youth often differs markedly from Vera‘s writings during the war, especially in respect of her attitudes towards the war, which were more conventional in 1914–18.

In the 1920s, Vera was a widely published journalist, in Time and Tide and many other newspapers and journals. At this time, she also became a regular speaker on behalf of the League of Nations Union, supporting the idea of collective security.

However, in June 1936, in the wake of the bestsellerdom of Testament of Youth on both sides of the Atlantic, Vera was invited to speak at a vast peace rally at Maumbury Rings in Dorchester, where she shared a platform with various pacifists, including sponsors of the Peace Pledge Union, the largest pacifist organisation in Britain: Dick Sheppard, George Lansbury, Laurence Housman, and Donald Soper.

Afterwards, Sheppard invited her to join the Peace Pledge Union as sponsor. Following a six month careful reflection, Vera replied in January 1937 to say she would. Later that year, Vera also joined the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship. Her newly found pacifism, increasingly Christian in inspiration, came to the fore during the Second World War, when she began the series of Letters to Peacelovers.

Vera 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, published as Seed of Chaos in Britain and as Massacre by Bombing in the United States.

In 1945, the Nazis’ Black Book of nearly 3,000 people to be immediately arrested in Britain after a German invasion was shown to include her name.

From the 1930s onwards, Vera was a regular contributor to the pacifist magazine Peace News. She eventually became a member of the magazine’s editorial board and during the 1950s and 1960s was “writing articles against apartheid and colonialism and in favour of nuclear disarmament”.

Later life & death

In November 1966, Vera suffered a fall in a badly lit London street en route to a speaking engagement at St Martin-in-the-Fields. She attended the engagement, but afterwards found she had fractured her left arm and broken the little finger of her right hand. These injuries began a physical decline in which her mind became more confused and withdrawn.

Around this time, the BBC interviewed her; when asked of her memories of Roland Leighton, she replied: “Who is Roland”?

Vera never fully got over the death in June 1918 of her beloved brother, Edward. 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”. Her recuest was honoured by her daughter in September 1970.

Some of Vera‘s ashes were buried in 1979 in the grave of her husband Sir George Catlin in the churchyard of St James the Great, at Old Milverton in Warwickshire.


  • 1923 – The Dark Tide
  • 1929 – Halcyon: Or, The Future of Monogamy (To-day and To-morrow pamphlet series)
  • 1933 – Testament of Youth
  • 1936 – Honourable Estate
  • 1938 – Thrice a stranger. New chapters of autobiography
  • 1940 – Testament of friendship, the story of Winifred Holtby
  • 1940 – England’s Hour
  • 1942 – Humiliation With Honour
  • 1944 – Seed of Chaos (Massacre by Bombing: U.S. title)
  • 1947 – On becoming a writer
  • 1948 – Born 1925, A novel of youth
  • 1950 – In the steps of John Bunyan. An excursion into Puritan England
  • 1951 – Search after sunrise
  • 1953 – Lady into woman. A history of women from Victoria to Elisabeth II
  • 1957 – * 1957 – Testament of experience. An autobiographical story of the years 1925-1950. Sequel to: Testament of youth, 1933
  • 1960 – The women at Oxford : a fragment of history
  • 1963 – Pethick-Lawrence, A portrait
  • 1968 – Radclyffe Hall. A Case of Obscenity?
  • 1981 – Chronicle of youth, War diary 1913-1917, edited by Alan Bishop with Terry Smart
  • 1985 – Testament of a Generation. The Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, edited by Paul Berry and Alan Bishop
  • 1986 – Chronicle of friendship. Diary of the Thirties, 1932-1939/ Sequel to: Chronicle of youth, War diary 1913-1917, 1981
  • 1989 – Diary 1939-1945. War time chronicle
  • 1998 – Letters from a Lost Generation, edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge
  • 2008 – Because You Died. Poetry and Prose of the First World War and After, edited and introduced by Mark Bostridge

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