Vera Brittain’s landmark autobiography is long. In my previous Brittain post I mentioned how it reads something like a symphony, and of course it has an extremely novelistic storyline as well. The four-years long war ends somewhere around page 450, and Brittain’s narrative still has 200 pages to go. It’s a sustained resolution.
The first part of the ending contains Brittain’s basic feelings, or lack thereof, at the end of the war. She’s numb, hobbled and devastated by loss, too weak and lost to muster the strength even to grieve. The world is dark and empty, and one of her set pieces records her stumbling through the armistice celebrations, unable to understand the impulse to rejoice. She mentions more than once that it would ultimately take her about 20 months to recover from her brother Edward’s death, which occurred four months before the end of the war.
During that year she returns to Oxford. There’s another good comparison to Robert Graves here, as he took more time and even married before going to Oxford, but the university and its environs become the setting for both books. It’s interesting to note the contrast of Graves’ celibacy and detachment from romance, how he only allows himself to fall in love after he is out of the war, his chaste pre-war attachment to “Dick” notwithstanding. Graves’ book is anti-romantic; Brittain is just the opposite.
So Brittain goes up to Oxford as a woman of experience, trying to rebuild her old dream of being a writer and regain her scholarly ambition. Her values and goals have changed, however, and she switches her course from literature to history, as she’s aiming at political engagement and finding a way to make the unimaginable sacrifice of the war somehow worthwhile. She quickly discovers, however, a number of things that thwart her goals and hopes. Oxford recovers too quickly, its memory shockingly brief, and the rising generation doesn’t know or want to know the war, while Oxford itself takes pride in its timeless academic detachment. If it’s bad for soldiers, who have fallen behind and are disrespected, it’s that much worse for women scholars-turned-workers. No one seems to care, no one sees any value in Brittain’s experience, no one wants to know. Brittain, lost and weak to begin with, is confused and demoralized. But, being Vera, she keeps going.
She’s saved by feminism and her own resolute strength of mind and character. She eventually finds an intimate, supportive friend, Winifred Holtby, and together they rekindle the dream of the woman’s life as a writer. They move through Oxford exams and are early women degree holders. One note is how Brittain knew she could gain a high First in English, but she felt compelled to learn history and politics in order to engage the world as a topical journalist and public speaker, and in a generally more meaningful way. And she and Holtby bear out this quest, writing articles (mostly rejected at first), novels, giving lectures, engaging in peace and internationalist efforts and women’s issues.
Brittain’s historical scholarship and growing political sophistication, much of which was Graves’ extraordinary birthright–while Brittain and Holtby struggle in spartan quarters and grind along the lecture circuit, Graves is palling around with Lawrence of Arabia–serves her well but causes her to have an acute, close understanding of the tragedy of the failed peace. It’s not unlike her nursing experience, assisting at brutal, ugly, ineffective operations on mortally wounded men. She continues her amazing record of places and travels, returning to peace conferences in Geneva, and making detailed tours of Germany and its struggle to recover. Brittain seems headed for the break and rejection that Graves records.
But she’s still alive, and a character in the novel that is her life, a novelist now. Political reversals are balanced against the story of writing and a long siege of the publishing world. She fails, she writes another book, her first book is finally accepted and becomes a bestseller. She and Holtby both achieve the old goal of becoming a woman writer.
And Vera being Vera–it’s an autobiography of great emotional intimacy and vulnerability, in which you feel deeply connected to the writer–, and this book being a feminist-romantic statement, a new and different love grows out of the ashes of youth. Her final set piece is surprising, sad and satisfying, as she dares to fall in love, endures yet another separation, and finds herself running onto one more train, passing by the cheering ghosts of her doomed cohorts, searching for the living man with whom she, still young, will build the life and family she had been denied by fate. It’s straight out of a film, a cliche, but we buy it because Brittain has been so honest and true and trampled, so stalwart, such a committed and worthy survivor. And perhaps it helps that we see Robert Graves watching the scene, tipping his hat to Brittain, as he goes off in the other direction in his most gentlemanly “not a gentleman” manner, leaving England and saying goodbye to the simpler side of hope and romance, believing no doubt that they have been well left in the V.A.D.’s hands.