Empire, State and Society: Britain since 1830

By Jamie L. Bronstein; Andrew T. Harris | Go to book overview

10
Culture and Ideas between the
Wars, 1919–1939

Vera Brittain defied her middle-class, provincial family’s expectations. Although her parents’ hopes firmly focused on her brother, and she was expected to be little more than an ornamental middle-class wife, she applied to and was accepted to an Oxford University women’s college on a scholarship. She also fell in love with Roland Leighton, the son of a well-known London literary family, and they had a brief and romantic courtship. Leighton left England to fight in the First World War, and in 1915 he was killed just when he was supposed to be coming home on a Christmas leave. As a tribute to the sacrifice that Roland had made, Brittain spent the rest of the war as a Volunteer Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse in England, Malta, and France. She threw herself into her work, lived in spartan and uncomfortable conditions, and sought out the most grueling labor, changing bedpans and unpleasant dressings in the hope of feeling some kind of redemption. At the very least she hoped to cleanse herself of survivor’s guilt.

Roland Leighton was not the last young man Vera Brittain lost in the war. By 1918, he had been joined in death by Brittain’s beloved brother Edward, and by two of her best male friends, one of whom had been blinded and whom she had agreed to marry out of a sense of duty. War’s end left her with nothing; she had been robbed not only of her loved ones, but also of her sense of direction. Ultimately, she became a writer and a crusader for internationalism, and although she felt as though most of the joy in her life had died along with the casualties of the First World War, she intended her future activities to stand as monument to those who were lost. Her memoir Testament of Youth, published in 1933, illustrates the way in which Britons grappled with the great losses of that war and tried to move on.

The First World War had been demographically devastating for Europe. Although Vera Brittain experienced exceptional personal losses, the cenotaphs that still dot many British villages and towns remind us that the experience of loss was

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