Elaine and English Showalter’s lively, perceptive and immaculately edited selection from the extensive correspondence between Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby shows the ruthless degree to which Brittain relied upon the devoted support of a perhaps more brilliant younger woman, one who gladly appointed herself Brittain’s handmaid while pursuing a remarkable career of her own. In her Testament of Friendship (1940), Brittain suggested that the husbandless, childless Winifred, five years her junior, had been the chief beneficiary of their relationship. By then, Winifred was dead and therefore in no position to contradict her friend’s distorted account of their shared past.
Brittain and Holtby met at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1919 and decided – boldly for those times – to share a London flat while forging their literary careers (neither woman needed to earn a living). Viewed from the outside, they made an unlikely couple. Brittain, introverted, fiercely ambitious and short of intimate friends, was devoid of any sense of humour. Holtby, though serious on the subjects of women’s rights and racial equality, was a witty extrovert, widely loved for her high spirits and lack of pomposity.
What did this famous couple, now honoured in a shared blue plaque, have in common beyond a belief that Brittain would achieve greatness? Both had worked as nurses during the First World War. Brittain had suffered the loss of a brother and a fiancé in the conflict. Holtby’s enduring but difficult relationship with the elusive Harry Pearson was affected by his traumatic experiences on the Western Front (Holtby’s letters record some of the appalling scenes he described to her), from which he never entirely recovered. In 1921, Brittain invited Holtby to join her on a pilgrimage to the graves of her brother (in Italy) and her fiancé, Roland Leighton (in France).
By 1925, Brittain and Holtby had each published two novels. Brittain’s – the first of which was subsidised by Holtby – were poorly received, but fiction, Brittain remained erroneously convinced for several years, was her vocation. It was Holtby who first found her feet in the literary world, becoming