Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby

Testament of Friendship
Image used with the kind permission of Virago.

Since we began asking for recommendations of literary friends for Something Rhymed, one pair has dominated the replies: Vera Brittain, who penned the classic First World War memoir Testament of Youth and Winifred Holtby, the author of South Riding.

Both committed feminists, pacifists and socialists, it’s surprising perhaps that when they met as students at Oxford, these two initially disliked each other. After suffering what she took to be a humiliation by Holtby during a university debate, Brittain was keen to avoid her college mate – this frostiness only being repaired when Holtby called on Brittain, who’d been fighting a cold, with the unexpected gift of a bunch of grapes.

Once they’d got over their initial feelings of distrust, they realised that, despite outward differences – Holtby was tall, blonde and gregarious, whereas Brittain was small, dark and more reserved – they had a great deal in common. They bonded over their shared experiences of war service and mutual aims to make their way as writers.

After university, they decided to move in together, so that they could encourage each other in their ambitions.They also, famously, lived together in later years when Holtby joined the family home that Brittain established with her husband George Catlin, and Holtby became an aunt figure to the couple’s two children.

During their sixteen-year friendship, they continued to actively support each other’s careers. Despite the soar-away success of Brittain’s Testament of Youth, this was very much a friendship between equals. They often critiqued each other’s finished writings (although, interestingly to us, rarely work-in-progress) and helped to shape their thinking on important issues of the day through their conversations and letters.

We find these two particularly fascinating because, like us, they met when they were close to the start of their literary journeys and became each other’s ‘travelling companions’, never afraid to acknowledge the depth of support they had given each other.

After Holtby’s death at the age of 36, Brittain would go on to immortalise their relationship in her book Testament of Friendship, a fitting tribute from the woman once described by her pal as ‘the person who made me’.

 Activity

Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby’s friendship nearly failed to get off the ground due to their initial impressions of each other. Hopefully avoiding any risk to our friendship, we’ve set ourselves the challenge this month of casting our minds back to when we met to describe our first take on each other.

As always, we are interested in hearing your suggestions about other writing friendships we could profile on Something Rhymed. You can Tweet us or use the ‘Leave a Reply’ tab below to get in touch.

 

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