Saturday, 24 October 2009

The Dark Tide by Vera Brittain

This was Brittain's first published novel, appearing in 1923 a couple of years after she had left Oxford. It had a difficult route to publication, rejected by many publishers before Grant Richards took a calculated risk with it - calculated because Brittain contributed £50 towards the costs of its publication. The book tells the story of two young women. Virginia Dennison has returned to Drayton College (a thinly disguised Somerville) after several years of war service as a nurse, mostly overseas. Daphne Lethbridge, a little younger, contributed to the war effort in the more genteel role of naval officers' driver in Portsmouth. They are physical opposites: Virginia is small, dark and immaculately dressed, while Daphne is tall, fair and has disastrous taste in clothes. Both are intelligent, but Virginia is more devoted to her work. Forced into proximity by shared history tutorials, their initial opposition develops into frank dislike. Virginia, scarred by her war service, finds the College atmosphere frivolous and its students immature; Daphne despises Virginia's superior attitudes, and colludes with a College plot to humiliate Virginia at a debate. She is successful, but unsurprisingly their friendship does not prosper as a result.

Both are coached by Mr Sylvester, a youngish don, who conceives a passion for Virginia. She rejects him, and later that day he proposes to Daphne, who has been in love with him for some time, on the rebound. Virginia does not tell Daphne about his earlier proposal. They marry, but Sylvester has no real love for Daphne and their marriage founders very quickly. By chance, Daphne, tired and pregnant, meets Virginia outside Marshall and Snelgrove, and they begin to rebuild their relationship, both seeking to make amends for earlier cruelty and vindictiveness.

The book divides into two halves. The first part, dealing with Oxford life, is acidly witty, with the reader privy to many of Virginia's bitchy opinions of her fellow students, the light banter between the younger dons, and the general air of lightheartedness prevailing among the younger students. It is strongly reminiscent of other Oxford novels, in the tradition that probably began with Zuleika Dobson, and the descriptions of Drayton life are echoed in Making Conversation, especially the undergraduates' interest in cocoa, flirtation and hats (Christine Longford, at Somerville between 1918 and 1921, must have been a contemporary of Vera's when she returned to her studies after the war. Perhaps she was one of the trivial undergraduates who drove Vera mad). Class is important, and we are never allowed to forget the humble origins of Daphne's mother; Daphne comforts herself with the knowledge that Virginia is "only" the daughter of a china manufacturer. Farce erupts occasionally, usually because large-fingered Daphne has been embarrassingly clumsy.

Daphne's wedding, a moment of snobbish high comedy, marks the turn of the book towards the serious matter of personal relations and into melodrama. Daphne suffers greatly for her impulsive marriage; Virginia is tormented with guilt for not telling what she knew of Sylvester; and Sylvester's treatment of his wife descends from cruel remarks through humiliation and into outright violence which leaves Daphne and her son permanently damaged. Daphne considers divorce, but eventually sacrifices her freedom so that Sylvester's career will not be hindered (apparently the press will not find out that he is separated from his wife and disabled child, but a divorce will be disastrous). Her self-abnegation is praised at length by Virginia, pursuing a nursing career despite her First, as an act of self-realisation: "You'll always be able to believe in yourself now, because you've done a good thing and a great thing, whatever people may say about it" (228). Daphne's sacrifice is all the more powerful, Virginia believes, because Sylvester is not worth it.

Brittain's stylistic shift from comedy to melodrama underlines the narrative arc, allowing her characters to atone for their earlier mistakes, purified by suffering. As Mark Bostridge points out in his introduction, the end of the novel is curiously wedded to retrogressive ideals of self-sacrifice as the high point of any woman's life, which undermines any feminist point the novel might hope to make. I would go further and suggest that the tone of the novel is generally anti-feminist. The narrative views most of Drayton's students as trivial and unacademic; male characters assert that women are not worth educating without contradiction or even ironic criticism from the narrative. Value and worth are ascribed to women based on their physical appearance; the narrative is much kinder to Daphne once she has learned to dress well. At Drayton, Daphne and Virginia have potentially bright futures ahead of them; both are viewed as intelligent students by their tutors, and they may go on to challenge male bastions, as Ruth Alleyndene does in Honourable Estate. By the end of the novel, both have been subsumed into traditional female roles, (abandoned) wife and mother and nurse.

Even the professedly anti-marriage Patricia O'Neill, a Drayton don, has been married off by the end of the novel, and Brittain's preface recounts how she met the man who was to become her husband because he sent her a fan letter about The Dark Tide, linking the story of the novel's production and reception to the narrative itself. Both the preface and the Patricia O'Neill sub-plot work to emphasise that marriage itself is one of the proper ends of women's lives; Daphne's marriage fails because of the shortcomings of those participating in it, not because marriage itself is in any way problematic. It is perhaps fair to read Patricia O'Neill's story as an assertion of a feminist approach to a marriage of equals, blending love and work and mutually beneficial, but as she and her husband Stephanoff are minor (and sometimes humorous) characters, they provide a limited challenge to the overwhelming trend towards female self-denial. One other possible feminist reading of the text would be to consider its endorsement of self-sacrifice as n the type of feminism that argued for women's worth and value to be recognised as equivalent to that of men, rather than pursing legal and economic equality - "different but equal", if you like.

The novel is enlivened by a (probably unintentional) subtext of same-sex desire. Daphne and Virginia's physical opposition is described in gendered terms. Daphne is tall, broad-shouldered, slightly masculine about the nose and chin, large-handed; Virginia is small, fragile, "as light as thistledown", fragile and feminine. Their differences are underlined by their clothing; Daphne's is usually characterised as garish, while Virginia chooses darker and more tasteful clothes. Virginia is more sexually successful, attracting male attention at dances and tea-parties as well as inspiring Sylvester's passion; Daphne is better at attracting female friends within Drayton society. Their initial mutual loathing, Daphne's humiliation of Virginia, and Virginia's revenge and atonement, are clichés of romantic fiction and can be read as a simultaneous sexual attraction and social repulsion. Daphne's face and wardrobe are changed by later grief, and she begins to resemble Virginia more, wearing black and developing hard lines around her mouth. This physical change is accompanied by their growing affection; once they resemble another a little more, they can move from initial sexual attraction into romantic love.

The Dark Tide is an odd but fascinating book, likely to suit anyone interested in women's lives in the inter-war period, women's education or with an addiction to Oxbridge novels. It's still in print, published by Virago, so more accessible than a lot of the books I seem to have written about lately.


  1. I am finishing Vera Brittain's "Testament of Youth" and considering next "The Dark Tide." I am thankful for this seemingly conscientious and thoughtful review. It is enough, I think, to push me towards getting a copy.

    It is, however, left out here that Daphne is certainly some approximation of Brittain's real life friend Winifred Holtby. This is of some importance because the humiliating debate of the novel actually happened involving Vera and Winifred in real life. Which fact upends the suggestion here that Daphne's humiliation of Virginia is a cliché of romantic fiction. (If it actually happened it really isn't a cliché of fiction, is it?) This, in turn, puts in some doubt the linked notion that such events "can be read as a simultaneous sexual attraction and social repulsion."

    If you are interested in Brittain as a feminist you should read, at least, the first part of "Testament of Youth." It may help in the reading of "The Dark Tide" which here seems disappointed that the novel isn't a feminist fantasy from today's perspective. The notion that the novel is a fair representation of some women of the time, even those with a feminist consciousness and untraditional aspirations, should be suggested. The fact that it may be disappointing as a current day feminist tract is irrelevant.

    If you read thru to the end of "Testament" I believe you will begin to doubt the suggestion here that Brittain in any way endorses the notion of "self-sacrifice as the high point of any woman's life." She makes plain there that self-sacrafice was no mere high point of any woman's life, it was the point and she wanted none of it.

    The feminist appreciation of Brittain here, frankly, seems too dismissive of the fact that 85 years have passed since she virtually unaided was doing her damndest to self-realize in the face of an entrenched empire's centuries of hardened practice so overwhelmingly skewed to the absolute favor of the males of her time and place.

    Brittain simply deserves better treatment from today's feminists than what is offered here.

  2. Thanks for damning my review with faint praise, it's a critical mode I'm very fond of myself.

    Be a little surer of your facts before you insist someone reads a book. I'm lucky enough to have read already not only Testament of Youth, but also VB's other biographical writings, her published diary, and collected journalism. I'm also an admirer of VB's commitment to feminism in her political work and as expressed in the other published work of hers that I have read.

    I'm not "disappointed" that The Dark Tide is not more feminist, but I believe it does promote an ideal of female self-sacrifice, which seems to me at odds with Brittain's life and other writings. I should perhaps have made this clearer in my post - it is the dissonance between the themes and tone of The Dark Tide and Brittain's other writings which makes the novel interesting.

    Incidentally, I disagree that real events, once incorporated into fiction, cannot then operate as clichés. The literary use Brittain makes of autobiographical events in The Dark Tide is, to my mind, reminiscent of romantic fiction, a form heavily reliant on cliché. The progress of Daphne and Virginia's friendship (initial mutual dislike, crisis and estrangement, eventual reconciliation and mutual admiration) could come out of a Mills and Boon. I should, however, have made more clear the autobiographical links for readers less familiar with Brittain's life story.

    VB is rather a heroine of mine, and I'm pleased to see that her fans and supporters are still out there. I hope you enjoy the book.