Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Testament of Friendship by Vera Brittain

Winifred Holtby was not a well-known figure until a couple of years ago when her novel, South Riding, was televised. This catapulted her into the Austen/Bronte romantic novel stratosphere although of course she was a very different figure writing at a very different time.

I first came across Holtby when reading Vera Brittain's autobiography, Testament of Youth. This book covered the heartrending period of the First World War and highlighted the appalling loss of life. Most particularly it chronicled the loss that Brittain personally suffered – her brother, fiancĂ© and their close friends – and gave a very personal account of the contribution made by women during the war.

This was the war that was to lead eventually to the emancipation of women, not only by their gaining enfranchisement but also respect for the role they played and could play outside the home. Brittain and Holtby met at Oxford just after the war: both extraordinarily bright young women who had a mutual interest and ambition to write.

Testament of Friendship is Brittain's homage to Holtby, who tragically died of Bright's Disease at the age of 34. Both women had a strong ethos of public service, a desire to further women's equality and to work towards peace. Both not only dedicated their lives to writing about the peace movement but also their time to supporting and furthering its causes.

The book tells us as much about Brittain, the author, as it does about Holtby, the subject. Both women were committed, industrious and passionate but where Brittain comes across as intense and serious, Holtby appears inspired and larger than life.

Young Holtby is portrayed very much as the Principal Boy of pantomime. Brittain was devastated by the death of her brother, Edward, her closest and almost only childhood companion. She was desperate for someone to admire and to take his place and Holtby seems to have willingly stepped into this role.

It is as an Adonis that Winifred Holtby is portrayed in Testament of Friendship. She is tall, attractive, confident, kind and clever and - if we are to believe Brittain - there is nothing she cannot do. Nothing except get the man she loves to propose to her. Brittain's style is probably too florid for our taste today, and one wonders if her superlatives regarding Holtby are an attempt to assuage any guilt she may have felt because she often ignored the seriousness of Holtby's illness.

There is no doubt that Holtby packed a lifetime of achievements into a very short span of years and it is fascinating to read of the famous historical figures she met and the places she visited. There is one major flaw to this book, however, and that is its length. Too long by half, it can bore and bog the reader down. This is a shame because there are few books that give us such a picture of life at that time.

Nevertheless, I think the book worth reading (for the second time as I first read it about 15 years ago) if for nothing else but as a sequel to the women's movement: a snapshot of life for the educated middle class woman of the 1920's and 1930's. These inter-war years - after WW1 and before the role of women would change yet again with the advent of WW2 - deserve a closer look and Testament of Friendship goes some way to plug this gap.