Vera Brittain: testament of an inspiring woman

Last week, I heard that a film adaptation of Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’ is about to be released. If you’ve never read it, you should. I first discovered it when I was sixteen and was blown away by it.

Vera was born to a middle class family in 1893, and rebelled against convention throughout her childhood. She was desperate to study at Oxford but her provincial parents didn’t approve of education for women. She eventually wore them into submission, and won a place at Oxford without any coaching or encouragement. But she’d barely started her studies when war broke out. Frustrated by her own inability to be make a difference, she enrolled in the Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, tending to wounded servicemen in England, Malta and France. Her idealism soon faded. In the hospitals, she heard stories of atrocities committed by British and Germans, as well as witnessing horrific injuries, and became cynical about the war coverage in the British media. She also lost the four people she cared most about in the world: her fiancé Roland, two close male friends, Victor and Geoffrey, and her brother, Edward. Meanwhile her parents urged her to return to her ‘rightful’ place at home, obsessed with petty worries about lack of decent domestic staff.

When she returned from the war, she found it hard to adjust. She returned to Oxford and was devastated when she received a hostile response from younger fellow students following her description of her wartime experiences at the debating society. But she formed a close and lifelong friendship with fellow student Winifred Holtby and, after Oxford, the two of them moved into in a studio flat in an arrangement that was considered bohemian and led to later rumours about their sexuality. They scraped a living by writing articles and lecturing, though both were passionate about becoming writers. Vera had to contain her jealousy when Winifred was the first to have her novel published (she became a successful novelist and is best known for South Riding.) In 1925, Vera married George Catlin, a philosopher and political scientist. They had two children, one of whom is Shirley Williams, former Labour Cabinet minister and now a Liberal Democrat peer, who remembers her mother being constantly haunted by the loss of Roland, Victor, Geoffrey and Edward. Although she was a good mother, her writing came first; Shirley Williams recalls that ‘interruptions were permitted only for deaths, serious accidents or wars.’

Vera published Testament of Youth in 1933 and it became one of the most famous memoirs of the twentieth century. Although she wrote two more memoirs and a handful of novels, nothing came close to the success of Testament of Youth. And her life became further touched by tragedy. In 1935, her father, who never recovered from her brother’s death, committed suicide by jumping from a bridge. Also that year, Winifred died of Bright’s disease, aged only 37.

After this double blow, Vera threw herself into campaigning for pacifist causes. But she acted as well as talking; in the Second World War she worked as a fire warden, helped people whose homes had been bombed as well as working on food relief campaigns. Controversially, she also campaigned against the mass bombing of Germany.

Vera died in 1970, believing that she’d been forgotten as a writer, ‘the fading voice of a dying generation’. She was wrong. Testament of Youth was adapted for TV in 1979 and is still considered one of the greatest accounts of World War I ever written. I hope the new film does it justice.

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Noor Inayat Khan – Indian princess, British spy

This week, a woman descended from Indian royalty who sacrificed her life for Britain. Noor Inayat Khan was described as gentle, shy, sensitive, musical, dreamy, poetic and otherworldly, but as a spy she was one of the bravest and most defiant women in the Second World War.

Noor was born in 1914 in the Kremlin in Moscow while her parents were the guests of the Russian royal family. Her mother was American, her father Indian and a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, a famous 18th century Muslim ruler. Her father, a Sufi teacher, instilled in her strong principles, including religious tolerance and non-violence. She was raised in London and Paris and became an accomplished young woman, educated at the Sorbonne in child psychology, as well as being skilled in music and writing children’s stories. But despite her Sufi ideals, she couldn’t sit back and watch as war approached. When World War II started, she trained as a nurse with the French Red Cross but fled to England before the surrender of France and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Because of her fluent French, she was recruited by the elite Special Operations Executive (SOE) as a radio operator. This gentle woman who loved to played the harp was taught to shoot and kill.

In June 1943 she became the first female to be sent into Nazi-occupied France by the SOE and became the radio operator for the Prosper resistance network in Paris, with the codename Madeleine, despite a report that described her as “unsuited to work in her field” because she was scared of guns and easily flustered. But Noor flourished in her hazardous role and was more concerned about worrying her mother than the constant threat to her own life. Her mission soon became the most dangerous undercover operation in France. Although most members of the network were arrested and rumours abounded that the network had been infiltrated by a Nazi spy, she refused to return to England and spent the entire summer moving around, sending messages to London while evading capture, frequently changing her appearance and alias. Hers became the last radio operating between Paris and London.

In October, she was betrayed by the sister of a friend and seized by the Gestapo, but put up such a fight that the arresting officer had to request assistance. Unfortunately they found her book recording her secret signals and used her radio to trick London into sending three new agents who were captured as soon as they arrived. In November 1943, she was sent to Pforzheim prison in Germany where she was kept in chains and in solitary confinement. Despite ten months of beatings, starvation and torture, she refused to reveal any information. In September 1944, Khan and three other female SOE agents were transferred to Dachau concentration camp. Despite being kicked and tortured all night by an SS officer, Noor refused to crack. On 13 September, she was shot. Her final word, spoken as the German firing squad raised their weapons, was Liberté. Noor made a strong impression on everyone who met her. Even the head of the Gestapo headquarters in Paris, Hans Josef Kieffer, wept when told of her death during his postwar interrogation.

Noor was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre and the George Cross, one of only three women from the SOE to receive the latter. A memorial was unveiled to her in London in 2012, the first statue to an Indian woman in Britain and the first to any Muslim.