Vera Brittain was born on 29 December 1893 in Newcastle-under-Lyme. She came from a middle class Staffordshire family, and her father was a director of the family paper business. Her only sibling was Edward, two years her junior. She left St Monica’s School in Surrey in 1911, came out as a provincial debutante in her hometown of Buxton in Derbyshire, and for the next two years attended an endless round of social engagements. By 1913 she had decided to apply to Oxford - a remarkable ambition for a woman of her time. Her intellectual powers were stimulated by her brother’s best friend, Roland Leighton, who had been at Uppingham School with Edward, and who was also planning to go to Oxford. Having won an exhibition to study at Somervile College, Oxford, Brittain passed the Oxford University entrance exam shortly after the outbreak of war in August 1914. Her dream of studying alongside Edward and Roland was shattered by the First World War. Edward, Roland and two other friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, all enlisted and were soon called to the Western Front. Anxious to imitate their example, Brittain - who became engaged to Roland Leighton in 1915 - left Oxford and joined a Voluntary Aid Detachment as a nurse, serving in England, Malta and France. By the end of the war, all the men in her life had been killed, and Brittain returned to Oxford. After University, she began a career as a novelist, journalist and lecturer, and in 1925 married the political scientist, George Catlin. Testament of Youth made her famous when it was published in 1933. It is an autobiographical account of her war experiences, and it became the ‘war book of the women of England’, contributing to the popular idea that Britain’s post-war decline was due to the loss of the country’s best men - a Lost Generation. Brittain (she kept her maiden name) became a committed feminist and pacifist, and was successful in publicising both causes. However, she came under fierce attack during the Second World War for her criticism of the saturation bombing of Germany. She published 29 books, but was best known for her autobiographical works (including the sequel to Testament of Youth, Testament of Experience), and for her biography of the writer Winifred Holtby, Testament of Friendship. Brittain and Catlin had two children, John Brittain-Catlin and the politician Shirley Williams. Vera Brittain died in 1970 and her ashes were scattered over her brother’s grave on Italy’s Asiago Plateau.
Mark Bostridge was educated at Westminster School and Oxford University, where he won the Gladstone Memorial Prize. A former research assistant to Shirley Williams, he has reviewed for The Times Literary Supplement, The Times Educational Supplement and the Literary Review. He currently works for BBC Television and lives in Richmond, Surrey.