Vera Brittain Goes to Cornell

I was feeling claustrophobic and disheartened without a book on the go that I really liked (still working on Wild Life, still not enjoying it; finished Mr. Golightly’s Holiday, didn’t much like the turn it took; not looking forward to The Paris Wife after reports from others that it’s “vapid”)…and so in a readerly huff I took Testament of Experience off the shelf this morning. A life with no time for reading you really want to do is not a life worth living!

And already, I’m caught up in it. First, there’s Brittain’s marriage. Marriage is something she talks about a lot in the abstract in Testament of Youth:

In spite of the feminine family tradition and the relentless social pressure which had placed an artificial emphasis on marriage for all women born, like myself, in the eighteen-nineties, I had always held and still believed it to be irrelevant to the main purpose of life. For a woman as for a man, marriage might enormously help or devastatingly hinder the growth of her power to contribute something impersonally valuable to the community in which she lived, but it was not that power, and could not be regarded as an end in itself.

But she herself did get married, to the deliberately opaque “G.” (who apparently asked to be kept  in the background in Testament of Youth, and who is referred to always just by his initial). Testament of Experience opens with the marriage, which is inevitably haunted by Roland Leighton, Brittain’s first love and fiance, who died in the Great War. Touchingly, Brittain gives her wedding bouquet to Roland’s mother–it says something about G.’s generosity and love that he seems unperturbed by this third presence at the ceremony.

I’m looking forward to reading more about this marriage. Within the first year, it had taken an unconventional turn, as Brittain finds herself frustrated and unfulfilled living as a “Faculty Wife” during G.’s appointment to a position at Cornell. Her description of Ithaca brought back a lot of memories of my own time there:

I had thought Buxton remote owing to its four hours’ rail journey from London, but Ithaca, four hundred miles from New York, made escape even more difficult. [“Centrally isolated,” was the joke when I was there.] . . .

In Ithaca, Derbyshire’s pleasant rocky dales become dramatic ravines crossed by swaying suspension bridges over thundering torrents, and the tinkling streamlets of my childhood turned into boisterous cascades. Tuchannock Falls [now Taughannock Falls] were steep and fierce; at Buttermilk Falls the water, resembling delicate lace, dripped slowly from a great height over enormous rocks. Every winter huge icicles hung from the beetling cliffs for several months of sub-zero weather, and desolate winds swept the steel-cold surface of the Finger Lakes into angry waves.

But the biggest contrast came from the colours. In Derbyshire the gentle, continuous spring had taken three months to merge into pale-hued June; Ithaca had no spring at all, but leapt from stultifying winter into noisy summer. After August the noise became a tumult, with vermilion maples, orange oaks and flaming banners of sumac competing in a riotous woodland carnival.

I remember the falls fondly. My first year at Cornell I lived in an apartment complex on Lake Street, not far from Ithaca Falls, and when the stress of graduate school overcame me, or my wistfulness to be back with my family in Vancouver got too distracting, I would take my books down the little path and sit surrounded by those fall colours, soothing my nerves with the steady tumbling of the water over the rocks. I haven’t scanned any of my own photos from that time, but I found one very similar to several of my own:

Such beauty was some solace even for my painful inability to distinguish cultural materialism from new historicism (among other vexations of my coursework years). Brittain is not one for sitting around, though; for her, even scenery is a spur to action:

Much as I love colour, this gorgeous panoply of reds and yellows brought me no comfort: it merely reminded me that until my lengthening but mediocre record included some valuable achievement, I had not earned the right to enjoy it. Like Buxton’s dales and moors in the previous decade, Ithaca’s beauty, in itself, a challenge to get back to constructive work.

By the time of their first anniversary, G. and Brittain found themselves experiencing “in an acute form the much-discussed issue so tritely summarized as ‘marriage versus career'”:

The word ‘career’ is a limited expression, suggesting a neat nine-to-five job of small significance; the real clash lies between the important human relationship of marriage, and every type of fulfilment–spiritual, intellectual, social–which falls outside the range of personal intimacy.

Brittain found herself unable to continue the work she had dedicated herself to after the war, her crusade to spread the ideas she had come to believe “could save mankind from its suicidal follies.” America was not the right venue for this work: “the self-sufficient America of 1926, which so little understood the griefs and struggles of the Old World, deprived me of mental food as completely as any Florence Nightingale in a Victorian drawing-room lamenting her ‘Death from Starvation.’ Vera and G. settled on “semi-detached marriage”: she returned to England to carry on, while he remained at Cornell. As far as I can tell from Brittain’s account, though they both suffered emotionally from this and many other separations, they both also recognized that to compromise their impersonal aims for each other was not an acceptable option.

4 thoughts on “Vera Brittain Goes to Cornell

  1. Stacey November 27, 2011 / 2:59 am

    Please skip The Paris Wife.

    And I’ve never been able to finish a Molly Gloss novel. Though, since she is a “northwest” writer and visits our town regularly, I still keep trying….

    I’m going to try Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag next: even if the story doesn’t work, I know I can count on her prose. But Testament of Experience sounds fabulous….


    • Lisa Hill April 4, 2023 / 11:52 pm

      My MIL gave me The Paris Wife one Christmas. It was really nice of her to buy me a book, because most people think I have too many, so I felt a bit of a twinge when I offloaded it without opening the cover after she passed away…


  2. dana elstein November 27, 2011 / 2:07 pm

    May I recommend Vera Brittain A Life by Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge (1995 and 2001) as this tells the full story of the Brittain-Catlin marriage. Testament of Experinece gives a very discreet version of the marriage and is frankly the Testament that, of the three, is least worth reading.


  3. Rohan November 27, 2011 / 3:08 pm

    Thanks, Dana: that is on my reading list, definitely, along with Marion Shaw’s biography of Holtby and a growing number of other related books. I wanted to read the first-hand works first. I’m glad you recommend it: I don’t read a lot of biographies, ordinarily, but it’s hard to imagine this not being an interesting life story. I’ll give a full report on how I find Testament of Experience when I’ve finished it. To be the least worth reading of this group is still to be more interesting than a lot of books–or so I hope!


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