Vera Mary Brittain, (29 December 1893 – 29 March 1970) was an English writer, feminist and pacifist, best remembered as the author of the best-selling 1933 memoir Testament of Youth, recounting her experiences during World War I and the growth of her ideology of Christian pacifism.
Born in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Brittain was the daughter of a well-to-do family, which owned a paper mill in Hanley. She had an uneventful childhood with her only brother her closest companion. At 18 months her family moved to Macclesfield, Cheshire and when she was 11 they moved again, to Buxton in Derbyshire. After studying classics at Somerville College, Oxford, she delayed her degree after one year in 1915 in order to work as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D.) nurse for much of the First World War. Her fiancé, Roland Leighton, her brother Edward Brittain, and many of their closest friends were killed during the war. Their letters to each other are documented in the book Letters From A Lost Generation. Returning to Oxford after the war to complete her degree, Vera found it difficult to adjust to peacetime. It was at this time she met Winifred Holtby, a close friendship developed with both aspiring to become established on the London literary scene, and the bond developed between them until Holtby's untimely death in 1935. During this period Vera joined the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship.
Vera Brittain's first published novel was The Dark Tide. In 1925 she married George Catlin, a political scientist and philosopher. It was not until 1933 that she published Testament of Youth, which would be followed by the sequels, Testament of Friendship (1940) – her tribute to and biography of Winifred Holtby – and Testament of Experience (1957), the continuation of her own story, which spanned the years between 1925 and 1950.
Vera Brittain wrote from the heart and based many of her novels on actual experiences and actual people. In this regard her novel Honourable Estate was in places almost autobiographical.
Her pacifism came to the fore during World War II, and she began the series of Letters to Peacelovers. She was a practical pacifist in the sense that she helped the war effort by working as a fire warden and by travelling around the country raising funds for the Peace Pledge Union's food relief campaign. She was vilified for speaking out against saturation bombing of German cities, although solace was obtained in 1945 when the Nazis' Black Book of people to be immediately arrested after a German invasion was known to include her name. Some of her pacifist writings are included in One Voice, issued in 2005.
In 1998 Brittain's First World War letters were edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge and published under the title Letters from a Lost Generation. They were also adapted by Bostridge for a Radio Four series starring Amanda Root and Rupert Graves.
She and George Catlin had two children, a son in 1927 and a daughter in 1930. Her daughter is the well-known politician Shirley Williams, now Baroness Williams of Crosby. Her son John Brittain-Catlin was the author of the autobiography Family Quartet and an artist who died on 29 March 1987, sharing thus with his mother Vera their respective death anniversaries.
Vera Brittain never fully got over the death of her brother Edward. After she died in 1970, her will requested that her ashes be scattered on Edward's grave on the Asiago Plateau in Italy – "...for nearly 50 years much of my heart has been in that Italian village cemetery." Her daughter Shirley honoured this request in September 1970.
She is portrayed by Cheryl Campbell in the 1979 BBC Two television adaptation of Testament of Youth.
Songwriter and fellow Anglican Pacifist Fellowship member Sue Gilmurray has written a song in Brittain's honour, titled simply "Vera".