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Vera Brittain
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  1. Vera Brittain

  2. Overview • The Edwardian Family • Experience of War • The Interwar period • Conclusion

  3. Introduction • Vera Brittain (1893-1970) gives an insight into women and war; feminism and pacifism • She wrote in many genres, always addressing the most devastating experience of her life: WWI • Contrast between later autobiographiesandthe more ambivalent writings of the war period • Wanted to show the attraction that war held for youth and relation between women and war • When war touched her personally she began rebellion against patriarchal values that dominated her pre-war life

  4. Edwardian middle-class family life • Carol Dyhouseargues there was a consistent set of rules about the right ordering of domestic life • Patterns of middle class life had become highly ritualised • Distance between social aspirations and income created tensions for middle class family • Affected women more than men

  5. Vera Brittain’s family life In her diary of 1913 when she was 20 she wrote: On the way to golf I induced mother to disclose a few points on sexual matters which I thought I ought to know, though the information is always intensely distasteful to me and most depressing – in fact it quite put me off my game! I suppose it is the spiritual - & intellectual – development part of me that feels repugnance at being brought too closely into contact with physical ‘open secrets’. Alas! Sometimes it feels sad to be a woman! Men seem to have so much choice as to what they were intended for.

  6. Daughters • Daughters treated differently from sons and adolescent girls spent long periods of their life at home • A daughter at home was initiated into the social routines of middle class women often centred around ‘calling’ – a highly complex and ritualised activity which functioned to establish and confirm social position and to cement the relationships between middle class families in the neighbourhood. • Her autobiography mirrors that of other early feminists full of impatience at what she considers to have been a futile waste of time •

  7. War • When war broke out in 1914 she was just within reach of a feminist dream: to go to Oxford • She was the daughter of a Staffordshire paper manufacturer and received the education considered appropriate for a young lady – lessons at home from a governess, followed by five years at boarding school in Surrey. • Encouraged by her reading of Olive Schreiner’s Woman and Labour she persuaded her reluctant father to send her to Oxford • Her plans were shattered by the war

  8. Diary: 3rd August 1914

  9. Love, Work and Death

  10. War Experiences • She turned increasingly to patriotic and religious discourse. • She became a full-time nurse enabling her to emulate Roland particularly by sharing his physical discomforts • Her poem The German Ward written in 1917 captured the folly of patching up the Germans after the Allies had blown them apart • At the end of the war she realised that nursing had saved her from personal despair over her losses (her lover and brother) • When the war ended she was in a state of ‘numb disillusion’. On Armistice Day she wrote: ‘all those with whom I had really been intimate were gone; not one remained to share with me the heights and the depths of my memories’.

  11. Violets – April 1915 Violets from Plug Street Wood Sweet, I send you oversea. (It is strange that they should be blue, Blue when his soaked blood was red, For they grew around his head: It is strange they should be blue.) Roland Leighton

  12. Oxford • Spent two years at Oxford • Developed friendship with Winifred Holtbywhich continued until Holtby’s premature death in 1935 • Supported campaign for women to receive degrees at Oxford • When she left Oxford in 1921 she determined to follow a career as a writer.

  13. Feminism • Associated with active feminists working in London • In 1920 Lady Margaret Rhondda assisted by a number of other women including Rebecca West and Cicely Hamilton founded the feminist journal Time and Tide. • 1921 she inaugurated the feminist organisation the Six Point Group which took its name from its six goals: pensions for widows, equal rights of guardianship for parents, improvement of the laws dealing with child assault and unmarried mothers, equal pay for teachers and equal opportunities in the Civil Service • VB and Winifred Holtby began to work for the six point group shortly after their arrival in London • WH became a director of Time and Tide in 1926 and VB was a regular contributor.

  14. Marriage • VB claimed a new concept of marriage was essential if women were to achieve equality. • Marriage should be an equal partnership and women should no longer be forced into the roles of ‘either slaves, exotic greenhouse plants, or carefully reared animals’. • She rejected the convention that married women should abandon their careers • She and George Catlin (professor at Cornell University) agreed to a ‘semi-detached marriage’ • Arrangement continued after her two children were born

  15. Pacifism • Became revolutionary pacifist through her encounter in 1936 with Cannon Dick Sheppard head of the Peace Pledge Union • Maintained stance throughout WWII • British government viewed her bi-weekly ‘Letters to Peace-Lovers’ which had almost 2,000 subscribers at its peak, as pro-Nazi heresy • England’s Hour written in 1941 about civilian life in England during the war ended with a plea to forgive the enemy • Pamphlet against obliteration bombing Seed of Chaos, first published in America in 1944, emphasised consequences of bombing for victims and those who inflicted the suffering

  16. Conclusion • Tracing Vera Brittain’scareer between 1914 and 1950 demonstrates there is not a straight line to pacifism and feminism but a series of backward and forward movements • Should relate her experience to an understanding of women and war more generally • Early pro-war sentiments and desire to be active in the war seem part of her professed desire to be a man • Her nursing experiences brought her in touch with her suppressed female identity • Before the war all her intimates were men, after the war she found friendship with Winifred Holtby