(1893-1970) – Writer and campaigner
Vera Brittain was born in Staffordshire. She won an exhibition to read English at Somerville. In 1915, after just one year, she left the college to work as a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). Brittain’s fiancé, her brother and two close friends all died during the War. When she returned to Somerville, she changed her degree course to Modern History, hoping to understand the causes of the conflict.
Brittain became a committed pacifist and in a 1930 Armistice Day article in the Manchester Guardian she framed the challenge for her generation: ‘How to preserve the memory of our suffering in such a way that our successors may understand it and refrain from the temptations offered by glamour and glory – that is the problem which we, the war generation, still have to solve before the darkness covers it.’ Her elegiac memoir Testament of Youth is one of the greatest portraits of life in the First World War. When it was published in 1933 its first print-run sold out within a day.
Although Brittain’s pacifism fell out of favour with the onset of the Second World War, her reputation was restored when Testament of Youth was reprinted by Virago in 1978. In 2013, the Guardian described it ‘one of the most powerful and widely read war memoirs of all time’. Brittain’s daughter (and fellow Somervillian), the politician Shirley Williams, said her mother ‘had no idea that she was going to be a permanent figure in the literary canon’.
Did you know? Virginia Woolf stayed up all night so that she could finish reading Testament of Youth. She wrote to a friend saying that it was ‘A very good book of its sort. The new sort, the hard anguished sort, that the young write; that I could never write. Nor has anyone written that kind of book before.’