Posted by: zhiv | January 7, 2011

Stray Thoughts: Vera Brittain and Olive Schreiner

I should be working on and finishing a post on Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy. And I have Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That to write up as well. I read these books over 10 days ago now, but that just shows you how time flies by.

I wanted to do a note on the book I’ve been reading over the past week, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. First let me say that I’m very happy with my Lit WWI reading sequence. West’s Return to All Quiet to Regeneration Trilogy to Graves to Brittain: it has been excellent. These books, which I knew little or nothing about, have all been fantastic. Last note: Sassoon’s Sherston memoirs are up next, I think.

Reading Brittain after Graves is extraordinary. My sequence started with Rebecca West’s short, homefront, female (not quite feminist, but not unfeminist either by any means novella. All Quiet puts you in the trenches; you share the experience and fate of the common, doomed soldier. Regeneration Trilogy creates a wider, psychological and anthropological view of the impact of the war on man and society, all within a solid fictional story. And it’s a good tangential introduction to Sassoon and Graves and Wilfred Owen. You get the outline of their movements and history. Graves, then, tells his own direct, unsparing version. You get more incidental Sassoon, you get into the war itself and the trenches again as in All Quiet, and you get an interesting whole, a before and after with a complete war in between. After the war Graves has to figure out who he is and what he wants to do, trying to pick up his literary education and write and be a poet, after he learned to survive and live as a soldier and his world changed.

And that brings me to Vera Brittain. It’s a bit like going back to where I started, the woman’s side of the war portrayed by Rebecca West. But Brittain’s Testament is a completely different literary animal. It’s a detailed memoir that’s much more like Graves, in the sense that it shows the growth of a literary and intellectual consciousness, one that’s just beginning to take shape as the war begins. But it’s completely different from Graves. Brittain’s book, published five years after Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928) and Graves’ in the same year, is conscious of her predecessors. Graves has an accomplished family, his half-German heritage is an interesting part of his book, and he’s a von Ranke, directly related to the historian. His pre-war world has a compelling European context, with summers in a Bavarian chalet, and skiing in the winter of 1913-14 with his German cousin, who would fight and die on the other side of the line.

Brittain’s story is that of the struggles of a smart, sheltered girl growing up in provincial Buxton (wherever that is), a romantic dreaming of a larger world, developing literary ambitions and yearning for freedom and intellectual stimulation. Brittain tried unsuccessfully to tell her story as a novel, but it seems that the example of Sassoon and Graves and presumably others showed her how to write and shape a text based directly on her consciousness and experience. She contrasts her provincial mediocrity and naivete to Graves quite directly. And her account also made me think of David Copperfield and Charlotte Bronte and the 19th century traditions of romantic, realist, and autobiographical fiction, as well as her direct autobiographical predecessors. Brittain’s book, which seems quite straightforward, reads more or less as if it’s a standard domestic novel, with herself as a frustrated, burgeoning feminist heroine. And then the war comes in. As relatively unvarnished as it is, the first 200 pages read very much like romantic fiction, especially by comparison to Graves, and then it turns inexorably to a tougher, darker perspective. It’s an account of a lost world, lost innocence, and lost illusions. The fight is demanding and real, and death and doom are all around. I have to say that it’s an extraordinary text thus far, compelling and oddly insistent, refreshing in ways, pretty fantastic.

But the prompt here for today’s midstream musings, with all of that background, is that even with her doomed brother and lover and all of her romance, Brittain is a feminist. She’s not just part of the war’s lost generation, as she’s also a woman going up to Somerville College at Oxford in 1914, a university student, a conscious feminist who is aiming at woman’s work and independence and the suffrage movement of 1918.

And the part that I found stunning is the degree to which Brittain’s feminism is based on the work of Olive Schreiner. I should find the quotes, but at first it was just a hint. When she goes to oxford she talks about Schreiner’s “book” and the effect of her “Women and Labour” piece or pamphlet or whatever it was. The book of course is The Story of an African Farm, which I read in my Fall 07 run through South African literature, unfortunately right before I started this blog. I wish I had any sort of post on it, and something from that time would be even better. But I was amazed by its similarities to To The Lighthouse, “two blocks joined by a corridor,” and I wrote about that. And I did a standard post on Schreiner’s biography by Ruth First–need to look at the post and the book again now. I’ll note that all of this stuff might be routine and part of the standard path in studying the history of feminism and doing women’s studies. But for me it is literary material and intertextuality of great interest, exciting, and all new.

And the amazing thing is that Brittain’s feminism mention is only the beginning: she’s just getting started Schreiner and African Farm. Pages 100-200 of Testament of Youth tell the story of her romance with Roland Leighton, as they arrange meetings and exchange letters and fall in love and she writes in her diary. And they talk about Lyndall and Waldo and African Farm quite a bit, in a rising crescendo, going as far I think as to call it their “bible.” Schreiner and Brittain is a paper that virtually writes itself. It will be interesting to look at Schreiner again–it has been awhile–, tracking the timeline and checking her pre-WWI movements and status. The Boer War was a critical juncture for Schreiner too, and her bestseller Trooper Peter Hallett might be noted as a pre-WWI text on men and war.

The note here then is that if you find Brittain intriguing at all and might want to read it, and you’ve heard of Aftrican Farm but it’s a bit out of the way and you never got around to it, I would highly recommend reading Farm first and then Brittain. No biggie, I just found it exciting that I did it that way, and reading Farm–To the Lighthouse–Testament of Youth together in a sequence would be fantastic. For me, Farm’s relationship to To The Lighthouse was fascinating, a worthwhile study for any Woolf fan. But now it’s that much richer and meaningful and I’m curious to get back to it and see how it has been discussed in commentary and anlaysis of Brittain.


  1. I’m not familiar with most of what you discuss here, except for the Schreiner book, and I need to return to that, as I didn’t make much of it the first time around (quite a long time ago). Clearly, it’s worth a reread. The Brittain sounds really great too.

  2. Africa: a continent drenched in the blood of revolutionary heroes | Victoria Brittain…

    I found your entry interesting thus I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  3. I like the discussions! You know exactly how to set the stage and follow up.

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