Saturday, 24 October 2009

Vera Brittain: a life by Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge

This excellent biography expands on the best-known aspects of Vera Brittain's life, taking us beyond the more familiar stories Brittain told us in Testament of Youth and Testament of Friendship on to her later life as a writer, pacifist, campaigner, mother and wife. Paul Berry was a friend of Vera Brittain from their first meeting in 1942 until the end of her life, and the affectionate tone of friendship illuminates this book but does not detract from the rigour and thoroughness of Mark Bostridge's research. Despite having two authors, the writing of the book is smooth and its style and tone consistent; I'd love to know how they achieved that.

It would be easy to make Vera Brittain into an icon of victimhood or of bereavement. Berry and Bostridge avoid this by ensuring the tragedies of World War 1, and the loss of her closest friend Winifred Holtby, do not take up more than the reasonable amount of space in the narrative of Brittain's life. It would also be easy to make her sound very unattractive. Rather conventional in early youth, repeatedly martyred during the war, self-righteously disapproving of her fellow students when she returned to Oxford; utterly determined to put her work ahead of all personal connections except her friendship with Holtby, littering her life with abandoned friendships, unable to sustain a good relationship with her son; clinging obstinately to unpopular views, causing discord even among groups of like-minded people.

But this is a simplistic reading of Brittain's personality, and the authors skilfully avoid it without evading the difficulties that Brittain's dogmatism brought to herself as well as to others. Her generous care for her parents and for Holtby, her struggle to establish a new kind of marriage which would not require traditional wifely self-abnegation, her hard work to support her family, her great drive and determination to document her experiences of the Great War, and her unswerving commitment to pacifism all seem to me worthy of admiration, and this biography evokes all aspects of her complex character.

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