Testament of a Generation: The Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby

The more time I spend in the company of these two extraordinary women, the more I appreciate their energy and commitment, as well as the clarity and force of their prose. All of these qualities are on full display in this collection of their journalism. The editors, Paul Berry and Alan Bishop, have organized the contents thematically, a decision which makes sense on many levels, though the chronological leaps backwards as a new section begins are occasionally disconcerting. There is also an element of arbitrariness in the divisions, particularly, I found, between what was filed under “A Writer’s Life” and what under “Politics”–for such intensely political writers, always aware that the personal is also political, there’s not really much difference. In fact, the most striking thing for me across the collection was the consistency of tone, regardless of subject: straightforward, direct, assertive, drily humorous. To some extent, in their fearless confrontations with prejudice, folly, and hidebound tradition, they remind me of Victorian writers like Frances Power Cobbe (some of whose outstanding essays can be found in the excellent Broadview anthology Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors). But both Brittain and Holtby seem to me less artful than Cobbe, which I don’t mean as a criticism but as recognition that Cobbe and her contemporaries had worked hard enough for women’s causes that by the time these two are writing, there is less need (not no need, mind you) to dance around the issues, to pander strategically to masculine egos or social norms, or to adopt disingenuous poses.

A straightforward recapitulation of just how much progress  had been made comes from Holtby in an essay she wrote for Time and Tide about King George V’s Jubilee. She refused the invitation to join a resolution protesting against the celebrations on the grounds that the previous twenty-five years “were, on the whole, the most propitious that women in this country had ever known”:

Twenty-five years ago forty thousand women marched through the streets of London in what was known as the Women’s Coronation Procession. It was a protest against desires unfulfilled. It represented arts, sciences, authorities, powers; lawyers and doctors walked there, the prototypes of peeresses and abbesses; and they were led by women carrying banners who had been imprisoned for insisting on women’s right to use their abilities in such service. ‘It will not come in my time, ‘ Mrs Pankhurst said. But do I not remember the extraordinary service at which Mr Baldwin unveiled Mrs Pankhurst’s statue under the shadow of Parliament, in which he, the constitutionalist, honoured her, the rebel, for having ‘set the heather on fire,’ at which Dame Ethel Smythe in the robes of a doctor of music led the police band playing The March of the Women, which she had once conducted with a tooth-brush through the bars of a window in Holloway Gaol to a chorus of exercising prisoners? I have seen a woman cabinet minister walking through the lobby of the House of Commons; I have seen a woman architect chosen to design the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre; I have seen my own mother applauded by a county council when she was elected as its first woman alderman; I have myself been heckled as an agitator at Marble Arch, demanding the vote in the equal franchise campaign of 1927 and 1928; and I have been enfranchised. I have voted. And I know that those people who say that the world is no better off since ‘women have been let loose in it’ simply do not know what they are talking about.

She goes on to detail the “revolution in social and moral values” which is “a direct result of that challenge to opinion which we call the Women’s Movement.” But for all her appreciation of these positive developments, she is clear about “the imperfections of the movement,” about which she is equally clear and specific. Though these great gains have been made, the challenge going forward (which may sound all too familiar, depressingly, to feminists in the present moment) is to maintain momentum, build on successes, and extend the principles underlying it beyond those who have so far benefited–including looking beyond gender to consider inequalities of race and class. “I am constantly reprimanded for ‘flogging the dead horse of Feminism,'” Holtby observes; “I do not think the horse is dead.”

The articles, then, carry on the work of social analysis and criticism, sometimes at the micro level (as in the nice little piece “Should a Woman Pay,” about the explicit assumptions and implications of men’s picking up the tab–“the ethics of social encounter reflect the economics of an earlier epoch,” Holtby observes), sometimes at the level of state or even international politics. Holtby writes stringently, for instance, about South African leader Jan Christiaan Smuts, “an indefatigable general in the nationalist Boer War; an architect of empire in the years succeeding it.” Smuts “has achieved superb feats of generalship, statesmanship, and intellectual synthesis,” Holtby acknowledges; he has unified “the Dutch and British sections of the white community” of South Africa; and he has recently given a “speech upon liberty” at St. Andrew’s University “which has won the acclamation of the English-speaking world.” Holtby’s critique is relentless. Having conceded his skill, renown, and accomplishments, she takes him apart for presuming to speak as a champion of freedom and equality:

‘Popular self-government and parliaments are disappearing,‘ he said. ‘The guarantees for private rights and civil liberties are going.‘ Quite. Smuts should know. In Cape Province, until 1931, there was no constitutional distinction between European and non-European citizens in the matter of franchise and property. True, the educational tests and property qualifications for voting were so arranged that only a minority of black men were enfranchised . . . Still, liberty broadens down from precedent to precedent, we are told. . . . All change, we thought, would be an extension of freedom, at least under men like general Smuts. In 1931 European women were admitted to parliamentary franchise; non-European women were excluded. Today before the country is a Bill, almost certain … to be passed, disenfranchising non-European males as well as females. The Native Conference, supposed to serve as a substitute for other constitutional powers, criticized this and other Government proposals in 1926 and 1927, so has not subsequently been summoned . . . .

‘Dissident views are not tolerated and are forcibly suppressed.’ Smuts should know. He himself encouraged the South African Government to pass the Riotous Assemblies Act – an Act which makes ‘incitement to ill-feeling between black and white’ an offense punishable by banishment. Now where conditions in a country as as they are in South Africa . . . merely to speak aloud of the laws and administrations precisely as they exist is adequate to ‘incite ill-feeling.’ The Act has been used to prevent the development of trade unionism, to prohibit political protest, to render inarticulate any form of native criticism; it has been used to enable politicians to say – ‘But the natives themselves do not protest.’

Smut should know: the refrain is initially, disarmingly, innocent-sounding, but ultimately damning. Holtby’s conclusion goes beyond South Africa to a wider indictment of the consequences of failing, as Smuts fails, to imagine other people, different people, as fully human:

These abrupt failures of the imagination are among the most fruitful sources of injustice in the world. They are more common than deliberate sadism, more insidious than fear. Indeed, they breed fear. . . . The Jews to Nazi Germany, the Catholics to the Ku Klux Klan, Negroes to a southern states lynching party, women to eighteenth-century liberals – they are not human; they need not be accorded human privileges. The mind closes against any conception of their own point of view.

This is only one of many references to Nazi Germany, which is not surprising if you consider the general historical context (the piece on General Smuts is from Time and Tide in 1934), but it did surprise me a little because the majority of them are specifically feminist critiques, which is not the most familiar argument against Nazism today. In the piece on the Jubilee, Holtby makes a passing reference to “what has happened in Germany, where the pendulum of reaction has swung back so violently that all that had been gained seems lost again.” In “Black Words for Women Only” (1934) she considers Sir Oswald Mosley’s assertions about the importance of women to the Fascist movement–which would, he declared, “treat the normal wife and mother as one of the main pillars of the state.” “It is not irrelevant,” Holtby proposes, “to compare what Sir Oswald promises with what Herr Hitler has performed”:

The German Constitution of 1918 granted equality before the law to all citizens. Women entered politics, the professions, the civil services. Between thirty and forty-two sat in each of the various Reichstags as deputies between 1919 and 1933 – a higher proportion than in any other country. They held high executive and municipal offices.

But the Nazi movement has reversed all that. Women may vote, but none stand on the lists as candidates. Their associations are all now directed by men; since July, 1933, all the girls’ high schools have been controlled by men. Professional women are finding themselves compelled for one reason or another to resign from work. Married women are persuaded to leave their employment, and unmarried workers are often asked to surrender their jobs to men, as in one Hamburg tobacco factory, where 600 girls were asked to hand over their work to fathers, brothers or husbands, or to retire, marry, and claim the State marriage loan.

There is little hope for ambitious young women in Nazi Germany, where the brightest contribution of constructive economic thought towards the solution of the unemployment problem appears to have been the expulsion of large sections of the community from paid work, as a penalty for being women, Socialists or Jews, and their replacement by unobjectionable loyal male Aryans. Individual women have protested against this mass campaign to restore their economic dependence and drive them back to the kitchen. But their protests are penalized; public influence is strong, and there are women who have been temporarily persuaded to believe that Hitler’s policy really serves their interests.

Quoting one such woman, who wrote to the Manchester Guardian declaring that “Woman has again been recognized as the centre of family life, and today it has again become a pleasure and an honour to be a mother,” Holtby acerbically observes, “No explanation is offered of why or when motherhood ceased to be a pleasure and an honour – perhaps when children were driven to concentration camps?” “Throughout history,” she concludes,

whenever society has tried to curtail the opportunities, interests and powers of women, it has done so in the sacred names of marriage and maternity. Exalting women’s sex until it dominated her whole life, the State then used it as an excuse for political or economic disability. . . . Today, whenever women hear political leaders call their sex important, they grow suspicious. In the importance of the sex too often has lain the unimportance of the citizen, the worker and the human being. The ‘normal’ woman knows that, given freedom and equality before the law, she can be trusted to safeguard her own interests as wife, mother, daughter, or what you will.

I was reminded in these articles of Gaudy Night, which also ties together Nazism and the gathering clouds of war in Europe with hostility to women’s rights at home: the strongest clues to the perpetrator’s identity turn out to be her strong view that women’s place is in the home, her most important identity that of wife and mother, not citizen, worker, or human being.

Brittain’s political writing focuses more on her pacificism, which leads her to support, provisionally, Chamberlain’s deal with Hitler at Munich in 1938–“a policy beset with problems and fraught with peril,” she acknowledges, but an alternative to “an ever-darkening night of hatred, suspicion, and fear.” Once that dark night has arrived, she continues to write about the horror of war and the need to act with what compassion and justice are possible under its terrible pressure. About “massacre bombing,” such as that of Dresden, she is eloquent: “It made no undeniable contribution to military victory,” she says (having cited a number of military experts on this controversial question), “and it relegated men, for whose salvation Christ died, to the level of hunted and outraged beasts”; “the ruthless mass bombing of congested cities is as great a threat to the integrity of the human spirit as anything which has yet occurred on this planet.”

The section on “A Writer’s Life” (though overlapping in some of its concerns with the sections on feminism and politics) takes us in some more personal directions, as with Holtby’s account of her development as a writer–complete with quotations from a book of her juvenile poetry published, at her mother’s instigation, when she was thirteen. “I was,” she says, and it is borne out by the verses she quotes, “a creature of completely uncritical piety and sentimental convention.” (I too endured the complex blend of satisfaction and utter humiliation of having my  private poetic scribblings taken up and prepared for public viewing, though in my case the little volume was not released to the genuine public, only to a select group of family and friends–this at my grandmother’s instigation. All I can say in defense of the poems in it is that they are not conspicuously worse than Holtby’s, except in formal specificity.) Holtby’s review of Woolf’s The Waves was of particular interest: it shows the same generous reaching towards understanding of an aesthetics wholly unlike her own that she shows when explaining her decision to write her volume on Woolf’s life. And Brittain’s essay on “The Somerville Novelists” would probably be the kicking off point for the  seminar I imagine offering on that subject.

4 thoughts on “Testament of a Generation: The Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby

  1. Amateur Reader July 13, 2011 / 1:25 am

    I guess you will know soon enough since you are constructing a class, but do you know what sort of work scholars have done with these writers? They seem like rich subjects.

    It’s certainly been a rewarding area for you to explore, and for me to read about. I knew nothing about these women.


  2. Rohan Maitzen July 13, 2011 / 10:03 am

    I haven’t done more than quick searches at this point, just to see how much activity there is–and there isn’t much, at least not to someone used to doing MLA searches on George Eliot or Dickens. I’ve found only one book specifically on the Somerville novelists, with the great title Dangerous by Degrees and there seem to be a few books on (women’s) fiction between the wars–again, nothing like what you turn up searching a term like “Modernism.” Vera Brittain seems initially to be the most covered, with Sayers a close second (with the attention primarily on her as a detective novelist, of course). There’s a recent collection of critical essays on Holtby but in general not much. There’s almost nothing specifically on Margaret Kennedy, and so far I haven’t turned up anything at all specifically on Hilda Reid. I expect more (if also more peripheral or perfunctory) discussion comes up in general books on modern(ist) fiction or 20th-C British fiction, So far I don’t know much at all about what sort of scholarship these books and articles represent–what the main critical angles or issues or contexts are. It is kind of enticing to go find out, rather than surfing through more and more essays on well-travelled Victorian territory…ah, the lure of dilettantism.


  3. dana elstein July 13, 2011 / 12:12 pm

    There is a brilliant biography of Vera Brittain by Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge (995), and an excellent one of Winifred Holtby by Marion Shaw (1999). Additionally I see on the web that a feature film is forthcoming of Brittain’s Testament of Youth.


  4. Rohan Maitzen July 13, 2011 / 12:24 pm

    Thanks, Dana. I’ve seen these biographies listed but haven’t looked at them yet: do you know if they include any extended critical commentary on either author’s writing? Biographical material seems easier to come by than critical. I didn’t know a film was on its way (and I haven’t seen the old TV adaptation [yet])–I’ll have to google that and find out more. As is usually the case with adaptations, the main problem is likely to be how to capture any sense of Brittain’s voice, which for me is part of the appeal of the memoir.


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