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.

 

Celebrating Each Other’s Successes

NotebooksUnlike Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, or Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, there was a huge disparity in the worldly successes of this month’s featured writers.

Although Anne Sharp wrote plays for her students to perform, and was able to use her sharp critiquing skills to give Jane Austen advice on her work, she has gone down in history as little more than a footnote in the life story of her illustrious friend.

We cannot know whether Sharp ever felt envious of Austen’s achievements, and the fact that her work had the chance to reach an audience far wider than her immediate social circle. Neither would we go as far as speculating that she could have been another Austen-in-the-making if life had dealt her a different hand of cards.

It is interesting to wonder, though, whether the governess might have attempted to pursue any similar ambitions if her family and financial circumstances had been different.

What we do know is that, despite their contrasting levels of commercial success, each woman rated the other. Sharp celebrated the publication of Austen’s novels along with her, but was also ready to tell her friend when she felt there was a flaw in the work – advice that Austen appears to have highly valued.

It’s nice to imagine that her decision to rename her novel First Impressions as Pride and Prejudice was her way of acknowledging in print the crucial support she’d received from Sharp.

It’s a notion that might mean something to last week’s guest bloggers. Antonia Honeywell and Rachel Connor discussed the pride they take, not just in each other’s creative output, but their long-running writing friendship too.

Antonia’s comment on the publication of Rachel’s first novel (ahead of her own book deal with Weidenfeld and Nicholson) was one that really struck home with us. ‘It felt like a great triumph not only for Rachel,’ she recalled, ‘but for the dedication with which we both carved out the time for our regular exchanges of work.’

As we’ve mentioned before on Something Rhymed, our own career trajectories have gone along roughly in tandem so far, but there is bound to be a point when – if only temporarily – one of us will accelerate past the other.

When that happens, we hope we can learn from the example of Antonia and Rachel, and Austen and Sharp too – that we will be able to enjoy this joint success for our writing friendship, rather than focusing on any perceived gulf that divides us as individuals.

Other news

We’re currently enjoying the BBC Radio 4 series Five Hundred Years of Friendship – episodes available to listen to on-line.

We’ll be moving on to the next profiled writers on Tuesday. We were advised to look into the friendship of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby by many of our readers, so we particularly look forward to sharing what we’ve discovered about them.

We’re still actively researching female writer pals, so do keep letting us know, by leaving a reply or Tweeting one of us, if there is any particular friendship you’d like to see profiled.