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Advent series: A duty to hope against hope

22 December 2023

Rod Garner concludes our Advent anniversary series with a profile of Vera Brittain, born on 29 December 1893

At a CND Ban the Bomb demonstration in London, in 1961, seated at the base of Nelson’s Column are Diana Collins, Constance Cummings, Mrs Anthony Greenwood, Mrs Joseph McCulloch, and the author Vera Brittain

At a CND Ban the Bomb demonstration in London, in 1961, seated at the base of Nelson’s Column are Diana Collins, Constance Cummings, Mrs Anthony Green...

SHORTLY before midnight on 16 February 1933, Vera Brittain wrote the final sentence of Testament of Youth. It represented the fulfilment of her longstanding resolve to immortalise, in a personal memoir, the story of her generation: the women and men who grew up just before 1914 and the Great War. She wanted it to be a truthful and abiding elegy for the dead, and — above all — an indictment of modern warfare and its legacy of suffering and grief.

The book was inscribed with verses from Ecclesiasticus: “And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born. . . The people will tell of their wisdom, and the congregation will show forth their praise” (44.9, 15).

It had taken her three years of toil — disciplined hours, carved out of a crowded daily schedule that included managing a household, caring for her family, and campaigning vigorously for peace and women’s rights. At 39, she was married to a political scientist, George Caitlin, and the mother of two children. Her relationship with her son, John, would always prove difficult; her daughter, Shirley (Williams), would eventually become a Labour Cabinet Minister.

THE book completed, there remained only the daunting question of how it would be received by her publisher. The reply came five days later. It read: “Dear Miss Brittain, I have read Testament of Youth with the greatest admiration. It is a book of great beauty, and even greater courage, and I shall be very pleased to publish it. In places, I confess, it moved me intolerably. . .”

Readers and critics came to the same conclusion. Virginia Woolf stayed up all night to finish it. The New York Times reviewer described it as “hauntingly beautiful”. There were a few carping critics, but by the end of the decade it had sold 120,000 copies.

ITS emotional impact owed much to Brittain’s personal history. As war broke out in 1914, she had already gained a place at Oxford to read English. What appeared at first to be a temporary lull in her ambition to pursue a literary career soon changed her life completely. Unashamedly patriotic, and inspired by a sermon from the Bishop of Oxford urging his listeners to uphold the nation’s “righteous and honourable ideals” so that soldiers might feel that England was worth fighting for, she deferred her studies and dedicated herself to nursing the wounded and dying.

For the next four years, she worked at hospitals in London, Malta, and northern France. Routine domestic duties sat alongside 12-hour shifts, often without a break, as she coped with the “butcher’s shop” — bodies that had been gassed, burned, and maimed. Grotesque wounds could overwhelm even the most experienced and professional nurses, but there was little time for pity or tears. She was expected to carry on, appearing “punctually on duty looking clean, tidy and cheerful”. During the same period, the war took from her the four people she had loved most: her fiancé, Roland; her brother, Edward; and two of her closest male friends.

BY THE end of the war, Brittain was exhausted, and still consumed by grief. Disillusioned by the terrible human cost of conflict, she was enabled to hold on to life only by her fierce ambition. Returning to Oxford, she pursued her calling to be a writer. Graduation was made possible with the aid of a large dose of brandy before she faced the examiners. An extended holiday in France and Italy proved restorative, after which she returned to England to establish a career as a freelance journalist, novelist, and campaigner.

She joined the Labour Party and the increasingly influential League of Nations Union, formed in 1918 to promote collective security and permanent peace between countries. She had travelled extensively through Europe, and found distressing evidence of hunger, humiliation, hatred, and fear. Words from Ecclesiastes spoke to her experiences: “So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter” (4.1).

What Brittain had witnessed marked the beginning of her journey towards the radical pacifism that would immerse her in international lecture tours, large peace rallies, and fund-raising for food relief on behalf of the Peace Pledge Union. She spoke out uncompromisingly against the saturation bombing of German cities, and was frequently vilified or mocked as giving encouragement to the enemy, or being out of touch with public opinion. She accepted the abuse and derision without complaint, although, with an obsessive fear of insects and dirt, she was distressed at the sight of dog faeces pushed through her door.

In the 1950s, she joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, challenging with incredulity the evil of a bomb that “could entail the wholesale destruction of millions”.

BRITTAIN’s moral courage, compassion, and assured manner of public speaking masked a shy, uncertain, and sensitive disposition. Rarely given to laughter — almost certainly as an understandable consequence of too many appalling experiences — she contended with bouts of melancholy and, by her own admission, was “difficult to live with”.

As the years passed and the great cause of peace which she had championed still remained a dream, her faith in God grew stronger. In November 1963, she wrote a prayer of thanksgiving and hope for all “the rich experience of my life in Thy beautiful world, the discipline of sorrow. . . and a world at peace in which to live and serve Thee”. She had come to realise “that the years of frustration and grief and loss, of work and conflict and painful resurrection” would necessarily constitute the unfinished task of future generations.

After a long illness precipitated by a fall, she died on Easter Day, 29 March 1970, aged 76. Next Friday, 29 December, will mark the 130th anniversary of her birth.

As Advent ends and we prepare to celebrate the birth of a vulnerable Christ-child “with no language but a cry”, who will summon all those who believe in him to rise up again and again, Brittain reminds us of the scriptural duty to “hope against hope” (Romans 4.18). God’s peaceable Kingdom, however seemingly impossible, is always worth the struggle and the cost.

Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

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