Vera Brittain, the only daughter of Thomas Brittain, a wealthy paper manufacturer, and Edith Bervon, was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1893.
Vera was educated at home by a governess and then at a boarding school in Surrey, where one of the teachers introduced her to the ideas of Dorothea Beale and Emily Davies. "Miss Heath Jones was an ardent though always discreet feminist. She often spoke to me of Dorothea Beale and Emily Davies, lent me books on the woman's movement, and even took me with one or two of the other senior girls in 1911 to what must have been a very mild and constitutional suffrage meeting at Tadworth village." Brittain was also deeply influence by reading Women and Labour by Olive Schreiner.
Vera wanted to go to university but her father believed that the main role of education was to prepare women for marriage. Eventually her father relented and Vera was allowed to go to Somerville College, Oxford.
In 1914 Vera met and fell in love with Roland Leighton, a friend of her only brother, Edward Brittain. On the outbreak of the First World War Roland and Edward joined the British Army. Vera also wanted to become involved in the war effort and decided to leave Somerville College and become a nurse. She joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment and served in England and in France.
Vera Brittain wrote in her diary: "Sometimes in the middle of the night we have to turn people out of bed and make them sleep on the floor to make room for the more seriously ill ones who have come down from the line. We have heaps of gassed cases at present: there are 10 in this ward alone. I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war, and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the war lasts and what it may mean, could see a case - to say nothing of 10 cases of mustard gas in its early stages - could see the poor things all burnt and blistered all over with great suppurating blisters, with blind eyes - sometimes temporally, some times permanently - all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, their voices a whisper, saying their throats are closing and they know they are going to choke."
Vera became engaged to Roland Leighton, in August, 1915 but the following year he was killed on the Western Front. So also was her brother, Edward Brittain, and several of her close friends. In her autobiography she recalled visiting Roland's family home in Hassocks. "I arrived at the cottage that morning to find his mother and sister standing in helpless distress in the midst of his returned kit, which was lying, just opened, all over the floor. The garments sent back included the outfit that he had been wearing when he was hit. I wondered, and I wonder still, why it was thought necessary to return such relics - the tunic torn back and front by the bullet, a khaki vest dark and stiff with blood, and a pair of blood-stained breeches slit open at the top by someone obviously in a violent hurry. Those gruesome rages made me realize, as I had never realized before, all that France really meant."
After the Armistice Vera returned to Somerville College where she met Winifred Holtby. The two women graduated together in 1921 and they moved to London where they hoped to establish themselves as writers. Vera's daughter, Shirley Williams, later wrote: "Some critics and commentators have suggested that their relationship must have been a lesbian one. My mother deeply resented this. She felt that it was inspired by a subtle anti-feminism to the effect that women could never be real friends unless there was a sexual motivation, while the friendships of men had been celebrated in literature from classical times. My mother was instinctively heterosexual. But as a famous woman author holding progressive opinions, she became an icon to feminists and in particular to lesbian feminists."
Vera's first two novels, The Dark Tide (1923) and Not Without Honour (1925) sold badly and were ignored by the critics. Vera had more success with her journalism and in 1920s wrote for the feminist journal, Time and Tide. Vera also published two books on the role of women, Women's Work in Modern Britain (1928) and Halcyon or the Future of Monogamy (1929).
Source: Spartacus Educational: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Jbrittain.htm.
To My Brother (In Memory of July 1st, 1916)*
Your battle-wounds are scars upon my heart,
Received when in that grand and tragic 'show'
You played your part,
Two years ago,
And silver in the summer morning sun
I see the symbol of your courage glow --
That Cross you won
Two years ago.
Though now again you watch the shrapnel fly,
And hear the guns that daily louder grow,
As in July
Two years ago.
May you endure to lead the Last Advance
And with your men pursue the flying foe
As once in France
Two years ago.
*Vera’s brother, Captain E.H. Brittain was killed in action in the Austrian offensive on the Italian front.
The Lament of the Demobilised
'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.
And we came home and found
They had achieved, and men revered their names,
But never mentioned ours;
And no-one talked heroics now, and we
Must just go back and start again once more.
'You threw four years into the melting-pot -
Did you indeed !' these others cry. 'Oh well,
The more fool you!'
And we're beginning to agree with them.