This deeply researched, immensely readable biography is of a woman whose claim to fame rests on one book, Testament of Youth, published in 1933 and immediately recognised as epoch marking, the first book in which a woman speaks about war on behalf of her generation. When Vera Brittain wrote of her own "fairly typical story" in relation to its "public significance" she registered a shift in the way history, particularly the history of war, was recorded.
There is much else to Brittain worth recalling as "typical" of her age. She represents an equal-rights variety of feminism which flourished during the interwar period, justifying her "woman citizen" status after women were first given the vote in 1918 by earning her own living as a lecturer and writer, insisting on a semi-detached marriage, campaigning for pacifist and feminist causes, keeping her strongest loyalties and affections for her friend Winifred Holtby during a time when women were encouraged to be rivalrous.
Born into a deeply conventional family, and retaining always an element of the provincial bourgeoise, she nevertheless was profoundly progressive and nonconformist, with a gritty integrity that made her an uncompromising and discomforting campaigner. The most striking instance of this was her unpopular pacifism during the Second World War, culminating in her opposition to saturation bombing of German cities in 1944. Seed of Chaos, the pamphlet in which she countered the arguments that such wholesale slaughter of German citizens would shorten the war, was viewed as outrageous.
Yet as this biography says, the press attacks, the abusive letters, the dog faeces through the letter-box, "gave her few qualms. After all she had never shied away from unpopularity". Egotistical yet self-sacrificing, immensely public spirited yet quick to take offence, anxious for the admiration of men yet sexually timid, fearlessly outspoken yet vulnerable, she was not, as many of her contemporaries noted, altogether likeable. But she was admirable and, perhaps because of the blend of courage and vulnerability, she was also lovable.
When she died, her reputation was at a low ebb but the process of rediscovery and reassessment was to begin within a decade. This biography brings this process to fruition, taking us beyond the tragically romantic appeal of Testament of Youth to the lifelong struggle to transform herself, in the words of her own account of the women's movement, from "lady into woman". In this respect what she represents is as historically significant as her war experience.
Marion Shaw is professor of English, Loughborough University, and is writing a biography of Winifred Holtby.
Vera Brittain: A Life
Author - Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge
ISBN - 0 7011 2679 5
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Price - £25.00
Pages - 581