Miss Vera Brittain

Vera-BrittanMiss Vera Brittain, 39, (1893-1970), a writer and pacifist, still well known for her autobiographical work Testament of Youth which also features Clare Leighton and Clare’s brother, Vera’s fiancé Roland Leighton. A close friend of Winifred Holtby, her next book Testament of Friendship was a tribute to her. Married with two children, her youngest, Shirley Williams, the politician, was three years old at the time of the dinner.[1] [2] [3]


Vera could be seated with anyone on this table. If the hostess she might seat herself beside either Sarah MacDonald Sheridan or Sarah Millin, the two visitors to London. On her other side could be one of the Heald sisters, Nora, or Edith, followed by the other Sarah, Violet Scott-James and the other Heald sister. That way the sisters would not sit together and no-one is seated between them. It also allows Violet Scott-James to be seated with one of the guests from overseas.


The progress of Testament of Youth may be occupying much of her time and thoughts (e.g. if in final editing/writing or proofing stages) or maybe the bulk of the effort was over. She had been getting some positive reactions, not least from St. John Ervine in the summer of 1932 when he admitted growing respect for her and reversing his previously low opinion he had had of her.[4] The comment of her biographers Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge “In the remaining few weeks before publication, for the first time in more than three years, Vera felt able to relax.” suggests that the work was nearly but not wholly finished.[5] It also suggests a writer who was pretty exhausted (not uncommon in the run up to finishing a book!). She may have been getting enquiries from fellow guests as to how things were going. Of course she does not yet know what reception it will get. She also has two young children to think about – though for the evening perhaps she feels they are safely in someone else’s care. Events in Germany would not have been far from her mind.

The other thoughts in her mind may have been with respect to Lady Rhondda, on the latter’s big night. Vera and Margaret “had history” – they had fallen out in 1931 when Vera thought Margaret was overworking Winifred Holtby, and when Margaret went for a break in late 1932 for health reasons, passing over editorial responsibilities for Time and Tide to Winifred added coal to that fire. They seem to have been politely complimentary about each other’s autobiographies. Angela V. John, Lady Rhondda’s biographer, writes “Brittain had never accepted Margaret’s friendship with Winifred”.[6] Vera wrote regularly for Time and Tide in the 1920s but that did not last. Which suggests that This Was My World may not have been a major topic of conversation at the table.


Vera Mary Brittain (later Catlin) was born on 29th December 1893 at Atherstone House, Sidmouth Avenue, Newcastle under Lyme, Staffordshire, the elder of the two children of Edith Mary, née Bervon (1868–1948), daughter of John Bervon, musician and church organist and of Thomas Arthur Brittain (1864–1935), paper manufacturer. In 1895 the family moved to Macclesfield, Cheshire. Vera’s younger brother, Edward Harold Brittain was born on 30th November 1895. As Alan Bishop wrote in his ODNB essay:” tended by a governess and servants, in an environment of conservative middle-class values, close supervision, and comparative isolation, brother and sister formed a companionship that was to be a dominant force in Vera’s life”.[7] Her career was set out at an early age – she wrote in 1947:”As a child I wrote because it was as natural to me to write as to breathe, and before I could write I invented stories”.[8]

Educated in Buxton and then at a Surrey boarding school which offered a well-rounded education (as opposed to social feminine attainments) and where an aunt was co-principal, her literary talents were encouraged. She worked hard to get into Somerville, Oxford, by which time she had met her future fiancé Roland Leighton, the closest school friend of her brother Edward, and the brother of Clare Leighton. His death in the Great War was the focus of her soon-to-be-published most well-known work, “Testament of Youth: an Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900–1925”.

Vera and Roland became engaged during his first leave from the Front and she left Somerville in 1915 (delaying her studies) to nurse, first in Buxton and then in London, Malta and France with the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment). But by the end of the war Roland had been killed, her brother Edward had been killed (she had even nursed him through one injury) and another very close friend also died of his wounds. All this, and nursing gassed German soldiers, strengthened her evolving pacifism. She continued nursing for a while, returned to Somerville, persisted with her writing and developed a close friendship with Winifred Holtby. In 1921 she and Winifred set up a joint household in London.

Vera Brittain V.A.D.

In 1925 Vera married a young socialist and political scientist George Edward Gordon Catlin (1896–1979). Marriage was complicated by him becoming a professor at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, but they stayed together, having two children: John Edward Brittain-Catlin (1927–1987), and Shirley Vivien (born 1930), later the politician Shirley Williams.


After the August publication of “Testament of Youth” Vera’s star was shooting high. Though she had already been a regular speaker at League of Nations Union meetings, publication gave her a wider platform for voicing her opinions on war and peace, as this newspaper report on a meeting at Friends House London shows:

Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette 22.11.1933

WOMEN AND ARMS ” Dead Mass Not Organized For Peace “

“Women are not playing the part they should in the fight for disarmament is the view of Miss Vera Brittain, author of Testament of Youth,” who spoke at Friends House, London, on how war affects women. “There is a terrible dead mass of women in this country,” she said, “who are not organized for peace and are not interested. Even the women Members of Parliament are not conspicuous in work for disarmament. I cannot understand why during the recent disarmament debate the women M.P.s did not rise up and cry out that the engines of war must be abolished.” The woman of the country must be half asleep, Miss Brittain added, because they were inactive in a lunatic and suicidal state of society in which nothing was thought of human life and money was spent without hesitation on engines of death”.[9]

Vera in 1936 by Howard Coster, chlorobromide lustre print, 1936, National Portrait Gallery NPG P712

Also on the near horizon was to be the suicide of her father (in 1935) and the early death of Winifred Holtby. Vera became her literary executor, publishing “Testament of Friendship: the story of Winifred Holtby” in 1940.  She also was key to getting Winifred’s own major work “South Riding” published, despite the resistance of Winifred’s mother Alice Holtby. A long career as writer and pacifist was still to come.  In 1937 she joined the Peace Pledge Union.

Vera died on 29th March 1970 in a nursing home at 15 Oakwood Road, Wimbledon, London.




[1] Vera Brittain, Wikipedia

[2] Vera Brittain Peace Pledge Union website accessed 12.1.2018

[3] Bishop, Alan (2017), Brittain (married name Catlin), Vera Mary (1893–1970), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 1st September 2017, accessed online 17.1.2018

[4] Paul Berry, Mark Bostridge, Vera Brittain: A Life, Hachette UK, 2016

[5] Paul Berry, Mark Bostridge, Vera Brittain: A Life, Hachette UK, 2016

[6] Angela V. John, Turning the Tide, Parthian, 2013, p357

[7] Alan Bishop, Brittain (married name Catlin), Vera Mary (1893–1970) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 1st September 2017, accessed online 17.1.2018

[8] Vera Brittain, On Becoming a Writer, 1947, 172.

[9] Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette 22.11.1933

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