Novel Readings

Vera Brittain, Testament of Friendship

Whether or not the spirit of man is destined for some unknown flowering in a life hereafter, the benevolence of the good and the courage of the undefeated remain, like the creative achievements of the richly gifted, a part of the heritage of humanity for ever.

I’m not sure that I would have fully appreciated the rarity of Testament of Friendship if it weren’t for Carolyn Heilbrun’s thoughtful introduction to my edition–and in a way, that’s part of the lesson I take away from the book, namely, that there isn’t really anything extraordinary about strong, supportive, important friendships between women. Women live these (if we are lucky); we know their value. What’s unusual is to find a story of such a friendship, something for which, as Heilbrun notes it is difficult to find a literary model. “Friendship between women is seldom recounted,” she observes; “[f]rom the love of women for one another as they work and live side by side … recorders of civilization have averted their eyes.” Vera Brittain makes a similar observation in her Prologue:

From the days of Homer the friendships of men have enjoyed glory and acclamation, but the friendships of women, in spite of Ruth and Naomi, have usually been not merely unsung, but mocked, belittled and falsely interpreted.

Heilbrun sees Brittain and Holtby’s friendship as unusual because for them it meant, “as it had long meant for men, the enabling bond which not only supported risk and danger, but comprehended also the details of a public life and the complexities of pain found there.” It is true that their lives, and thus their friendship, had what have more typically been masculine aspects, but too much emphasis on this point risks reinforcing the division of norms into masculine and feminine, and Brittain’s own account shows that she and Holtby lived and worked among many women who were also publicly active, and that they looked back to a tradition of other such women. Obviously, it’s important to acknowledge that this was not the norm, that there were practical as well as ideological obstacles to women’s participation in public life–but at the same time reality has never been neatly bifurcated into male and female spheres and there’s nothing intrinsically masculine about public life, only the expectation or belief that there is.

Though Brittain, like Holtby, is an avowed and articulate feminist, Testament of Friendship is only implicitly a protest against both the narrative and the political constraints on her friend’s life story. Though Holtby was an extraordinarily busy public intellectual (just how busy, I had absolutely no idea until I read this book), Testament of Friendship is a personal tribute–and yet, having said that, it seems artificial to separate out the personal dimensions of her life or of Brittain’s recounting of it from her public ambitions and activities. A better way to put it might be that Brittain celebrates her beloved friend in her entirety, seeing a complete union of principle and character across all aspects of Holtby’s life. Unable to refuse a friend’s request for help or a listening ear, Holtby was equally unable to countenance injustice or failures of principle in the world at large. While travelling in South Africa, for instance, she recognized the parallels between prejudice and systemic discrimination on the basis of sex and on the basis of race:

At camp one night in the Transvaal, she had heard two black servants teaching each other to read from a child’s exercise book. But wherever she went, the white people whom she met talked to her pessimistically about the native question. They told her that higher education was bad for natives and gave them ideas and undermined their loyalty; that political power was unsuited to natives, since they were not ready for it; that segregation and the Colour Bar and the disenfranchisement of the black men in the Cape were necessary for the preservation of white civilization and the safety of white women and the happiness of the home.

Sometimes, as Winifred meditated on these statements, they seemed to have a familiar ring. Suddenly, one day in Pretoria, she realised why. In her mind she began to substitute the noun “women” for the noun “natives,” and found that these fiercely held, passionately declared sentiments of white South Africa coincided almost word for word with the old arguments in England against women’s enfranchisement, women’s higher education, and women’s entry into skilled employment. She even perceived–as Olive Schreiner had perceived before her–a close relationship between the two forms of subjection . . . .

Henceforth Holtby is equally tireless in her crusade against both forms of oppression.

Brittain’s admiration for Holtby–for her radiant beauty, her astonishing energy, and above all her moral integrity–energizes what might otherwise be a somewhat pedestrian recounting of Holtby’s life and career from her childhood in a small Yorkshire village to her sadly early death. We get, I think, at least as strong a sense of what Brittain thinks about her friend as about that friend herself, who is–perhaps inevitably–an idealized figure. I don’t think we ever hear of her as anything less than keen, enthusiastic, and generous. Interestingly, Brittain is not so uniformly positive about Holtby’s novels: though she refers to them often, frequently bringing out parallels between Holtby’s views and her characters, finding ways Holtby refracts her personal experience through her creative imagination, Brittain is frank about their shortcomings, seeing all the early ones as subordinate in skill and interest to South Riding. As South Riding is the only one I’ve read, I have only Brittain’s word to go on, but the others do sound a rather motley assortment. Her comments on South Riding, though, did make me want to reread that novel, which I feel I have so far under-appreciated. South Riding represented, Brittain suggests,

the reconciliation, at long last, of the artist and the social reformer who had wrestled for so many years within her personality. Thanks to the wisdom of growing maturity, she realised that for her there could be no final victory of the one over the other, so she found material for literature in those preoccupations which had hitherto dragged her away from it. In South Riding she threw down a challenge to pity, the deadly and recognised enemy of her achievement, and pity itself, captured, enthroned and crowned, became the apotheosis of her art.

The result was a story which, for all its differences of time and place, bears a close family resemblance to Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People. Would the clever literary critics who maintain that the political and social themes of Winifred’s novels put her outside the ranks of the artist take, I wonder, the same view of Ibsen? To mirror universal values in local or personal experience is surely a major function of art; and in this Winifred superbly succeeded.

The comment here about “clever literary critics” is a reminder that Holtby is publishing her socially-conscious fiction during the same years that, say, Virginia Woolf is writing and publishing her very different works (Holtby’s first novel, Anderby Wold, appeared in 1923; South Riding was published in 1936)–or, for that matter, Elizabeth Bowen’s early novels are appearing. Though she didn’t use this terminology, Holtby knew perfectly well she was not a Modernist. Writing to a friend about her decision to write about Woolf for a series of ‘Modern Writers on Modern Writers,’ she says,

I took my courage and curiosity in both hands and chose the writer whose art seemed most of all removed from anything I could ever attempt, and whose experience was most alien to my own. . . . I found it the most enthralling adventure–to enter, even at second-hand, that world of purely aesthetic and intellectual interests, was to me as strange an exploration as it would have been for Virginia Woolf to sit beside my mother’s pie and hear my uncles talk fat-stock prices and cub-hunting. I felt that I was learning and learning with every fibre of such brain as I have.

According to Brittain, Holtby’s work on Woolf  “enabled Winifred to state her own basic problem–the conflict between means and ends, between practical measures for bringing the good life nearer, and the creation of enduring beauty which is part of the good life itself. The [Woolf] book is one prolonged analysis of the meaning of true art and the method of its attainment.” Studying Woolf’s books helped Holtby “formulate more clearly her own philosophy of life and death,” Brittain says, and then quotes this passage from Holtby’s book describing “the flashes of insight” some of Woolf’s characters achieve:

These are the moments of revelation which compensate for the chaos, the discomfort, the toil of living. The crown of life is neither happiness nor annihilation; it is understanding. The artist’s intuitive vision; the thinker’s slow, laborious approach to truth; the knowledge that comes to the raw girl, to the unawakened woman–this is life, this is love. These are the moments in which all the disorder of life assumes a pattern; we see; we understand; and immediately the intolerable burden becomes tolerable; we stand for a moment on the slopes of that great mountain from the summit of which we can see the truth, and thus enjoy the greatest felicity of which we are capable.

This is not the ‘literary criticism’ we are now accustomed to: it has what I have heard described as the “whiff of belles lettres” about it–and in many circles (especially academic ones) that’s a smell as unwelcome as anything you might unwarily step on in the dog park. As an artist’s reflections, though, and as a commentary on the experience of reading Woolf, it has the ring of truth.  I admire Holtby’s open-minded eagerness to learn from someone unlike herself, which seems to have been one of the unifying characteristics of all of her work, and indeed of her life.

Reading this book has added to my sense that we let the Modernists win too easily–by which I mean that in the literary history I am familiar with, the important thing about the first part of the 20th-century is, singly, exclusively, Modernism: there isn’t a place in the story for any of the writers who did not take up their commitment to “purely aesthetic and intellectual interests.” Some confirmation comes from peering at our most recent description for our course on ‘British Literature of the Early 20th Century’: I see only Conrad, Joyce, Lawrence, Lewis, Wilde and Woolf on the reading list. Neither Brittain nor Holtby appears on our 20th-Century British reading list for Ph.D. students’ qualifying exams, and neither does Antonia White, Rosamond Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret Kennedy, Barbara Comyns–not even Rebecca West, and certainly not Dorothy Sayers.* (Actually, the most recent student to take these exams in 20thC British added Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise–it was conspicuous to me that her supervisor had not taken the Sayers seriously as anything but a token specimen of genre fiction, and the only question the novel prompted from him was a derisive one about the relevance of the cricket match. Ahem: we can do better!) It’s possible that I can’t make sense of, say, Margaret Kennedy‘s novels because they aren’t actually very good. But it seems at least as possible to me that they don’t seem very good because I don’t know why they do the things they do–I don’t understand the story to tell about them. Holtby’s cheerful determination to undertake strange explorations of unfamiliar minds is a good model for all of us.

*I’d be curious to know from those of you at other institutions: How typical is this? Also, apparently Elizabeth Bowen doesn’t rate either, even though she is a Modernist (as far as these labels hold up, of course). Is that typical?