Monday, March 30, 2020

Testament of Friendship by Vera Brittain

Testament of Friendship
The Story of Winifred Holtby
Vera Brittain
Published 1940
English memoir/biography

After extremely enjoying Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain, I was encouraged to read Testament of Friendship, also by the same author. Brittain has a deeply emotional writing style, which I like, and she does not disappoint in this fairly long biography about her intimate relationship with Winifred Holtby. 

Winifred Holtby
They met at college (1919) and flourished into a genuine friendship until Holtby's death in 1935. If you do the math, you will see they only had about fifteen years to grow together, but it was so full of experience and history that it was equal to a lifetime. Brittain said of their relationship, 
Although we didn't exactly grow up together, we grew mature together, and that is the next best thing.
You could say they were cut from the same cloth: both were history majors and both became journalists, authors, lecturers, and activists. They travelled together and were roommates for a while. When Brittain married, Holtby lived with Vera, her husband, and their children. They also encouraged and inspired each other in their careers and private lives, which actually weren't so private since they knew everything about each other. Both women were essential parts of each other's lives.

Just a sidebar: My children and I are reading about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and I chuckled to find her companionship with Susan B. Anthony and the parallels of their passions extremely similar to Brittain's and Holtby's relationship and inspirations. Stanton was the married mother, like Brittain, and Anthony remained single, like Holtby. Anthony was so close to Stanton and her children that she was known as "auntie," just like Holtby was. 

Vera Brittain
Back to Testament of Friendship...there was much history in this biography: the attack on England during the War, conditions of post-WWI Europe, the problems with the League of Nations, the state of English occupied South Africa, the issues of feminism, and so much more. Brittain purposefully used the opportunity to give a thorough picture of the historical setting of her friendship.

I finished this book a few months ago and found it wasn't as intense as Testament of Youth, the powerful memoir of Brittain's experience during WWI. Friendship does not compare to Testament. Instead, I was left smiling and coveting that Holtby left such an impression on Brittain, inspiring her to write and paint a most beautiful picture of their relationship. It should make all of us wish for such a friendship with another human being. I suppose that is what I take away most from having read this. 

I did wonder the validity of their platonic relationship, and apparently I was not the only one. Brittain denied any questions about a lesbian romance, and frankly, it is not important because it is their business. But there was no denying that they cared intimately for one another, and their friendship was a blessing to have during life's greatest trials of war, heartbreak, pain, and suffering. We need to have more friendships like this.


If you like biographies, memoirs, history, feminism, and poetry -- Holtby was a poet -- and you appreciate deeply emotional narratives (told at a slower pace), then you may like this story about love, life, and friendship.


  1. That's super interesting about Anthony & Stanton. I didn't realize they had a similar friendship. I'm glad you enjoyed this one. :)

  2. This sounds wonderful! I still have Testament of Youth on my Classics Club list, but will add this, too. Thanks for the review.

  3. JILLIAN: Thanks for introducing me to Vera. She's the kind of writer I enjoy. My kids and I just completed the bio about Stanton, and now I have to read about both of those women.

    JOANN: I highly recommend Testament of Youth bc it introduces you to the writer and her life, and it is so emotionally engaging. Friendship is much more laid back and gives you a different perspective after WWI.

  4. Hi Ruth!

    This sounds like an interesting read as well as the other Testament book by Brittain, especially with the historical back drop.

    I don't think that they were lesbians. It was a more innocent time back then and people were not exposed to the hypersexualized culture we have today. Their imaginations weren't like ours. I think it was possible to be very close friends while having no physical attraction to each other.

    I think that would be more common today, but our minds run in different directions now.

  5. I have to put this in two comments because I HAVE GONE ON TOO LONG FOR BLOGGER. :)

    This is a hazy memory as it has been a couple years & I don't own a copy of the book, but I believe I read in the biography of Vera Brittain by Deborah Gorham that it's believed Vera puts such a focus on not being a lesbian in this book because the two were surrounded by rumors that they WERE lesbians, & she wanted a chance to address the matter. Two women living together & being that close led to rumors, but Brittain claimed steadfastly that they were simply dear friends. As I recall, Gorham makes the argument that there was lesbianism involved, but not as we would define it sexually. Rather, she defines the lesbianism as part of the continuum of female affection that many women are a part of and fear to cross because of the stigma that a woman closer to a woman than a man must be a lesbian. As in, they were soul mates, deeply devoted, deeply affectionate, but Gorham guesses they were not sexually involved. We call it lesbianism for want of a better word, but it is a love that goes through the soul and has no name when it is between women.

    I've read their letters (heavily edited by Brittain), and they seemed to place their friendship above the romantic relationship between George Catlin and Vera. Winifred (not usually one to complain) was desperately sad when Brittain married. Brittain was more traditional than Winifred and felt that a woman should be married and have children, and she got on with George and had affection for him and a sort of love, so she married him. She told him plainly she'd always love Roland and he was cool with it, or at least said he was, but later apparently felt that Roland existed as a ghost within their marriage. She demanded an equal partnership and he was thumbs up for that too, refusing to do his own writing until he'd helped her with the housework. He was that sort of guy. (And as I recall, he later committed adultery. Again this is a hazy memory, but I recall Brittain discovered he'd been philandering. She was angry, but then began a romance that went nowhere with her publisher George Brett -- WHO WAS ALSO MARGARET MITCHELL'S PUBLISHER BY THE WAY!!) :)

    Vera seemed to (from what I've read, I mean) like George Catlin a great deal when they married, & even eventually, if not immediately, love him, but she told Winifred when she married him that she could never love him as she loved Winifred. It was a different kind of love. That Winifred wouldn't lose her to marriage.

    It was sort of a package deal: you marry Vera? You get Vera and Winifred. My guess is they were something deeper than sisters. But the affection was between their minds and souls. I don't personally believe it went beyond that.

    At one point (and this was pretty funny) Vera described sex to Winifred in a letter after she married George Catlin. They'd both been wondering how THAT would go, and Vera basically says (paraphrased), "You know, I really had it worked up in my mind, but when it came to it? .... eh." Ha! Ha ha ha!

    I think that being clear on whether or not she and Holtby had been lesbians in Testament of Friendship was so important to Vera because her brother Edward is believed to have been gay. Again, I believe I read this in the Gorham biography: it is believed he may have purposefully gotten himself killed in battle because his relationship with a man was discovered by the military not long before his death. This would have destroyed the reputation of his family. As I recall, Vera had known he was gay before this and had left it out of her memoir. She had also (if I recall) learned that this may have been why he died, and also chose to leave this out of her memoir.

  6. I believe the Gorham biography to be a reliable source but as ever I must caveat that I was not there & only read this, so I have no idea what's true. But I'd say Vera did have such thoughts (lesbianism, gay, not gay) on her mind when she wrote Testament. I strongly agree with her argument that two women can be extremely close and affectionate and not be lesbians. I applaud her for making this such an emphasis in her book. As she says, male friendships are often lauded within literature. But let a woman love a woman deeply? She must be a lesbian. Perish the thought she has the capacity to deeply rely on the mind, strength, and soul of a human who has no penis. The literature of the day was forever trying to insist that a woman's capacity for love must always be channeled toward her husband. Brittain seems to have agreed she ought to get married, but to have wanted to make QUITE CLEAR this didn't mean she wanted her female friendship to take second stage. She makes pretty clear that marriage, try as it could have, would not be permitted to erase the influence Winifred Holtby had on her life, and to me that is a crazy beautiful tribute, and courageous for the day. I'd like to see more women believed to simply value one another deeply without it automatically meaning they're valuing one another deeply and also in bed together. The two desires need not be mutually exclusive. Brittain was taking a stand against the either/or mentality that says you can only love a woman if you admit you LOVE her. She says I loved her for her mind, her soul, her heart, her life, and that is enough.

    (That they lived together after college is no proof they were more than friends. Women did this often: in the nineteenth century too. To claim independence.)

    Only my thoughts. And as I've said, I wasn't there and have frankly no idea what I'm talking about. Whatever they were, however they loved, it seems to have been beautiful & deep, and the two seem to have influenced each other, and strengthened each other, in healthy ways that made them both more. Winifred Holtby became a feminist because of Brittain, from what I've read; and Brittain opened her mind to international issues because of Holtby. Better together than apart. Like Scarlett and Melanie. x :)

  7. Oh, according to Wikipedia, I may have read that part about Edward Brittain in the Mark Bostridge biography of Brittain. Or possibly it was in both. See, this is why I should review or at least JOURNAL what I read: I MIGHT REMEMBER. :)

  8. SHARON: This is true. I am using my modern judgment and experience to respond to an observation. Brittain and Holtby were passionate about the same ideas, and they were so intimately connected on that level, that it made for a great relationship. Who could not be excited about that?

  9. JILLIAN: Thank you for your interesting insight. In the intro of my copy, the writer discussed in depth this issue, and she repeated much of what you said; she must have read your source, too. Vera did describe their attraction as intellectual.

    I understand how possible it is for women to have strong relationships with each other because we desire connections and relationships with people more so than men desire them. Many men cannot become intimate on a deep level with women (their wives), when that is what women long for. So when men remain empty shells, women find fulfillment in close relationships with their female friends. It is just easier. And we share bonds and passions about similar ideas, whereas our own husbands can sometimes be aloof and disconnected.

    Of course, that is not why Vera's relationship w/ Winifred happened. I am just saying I understand how a female friendship can become so deeply developed bc women desire those connections naturally; the best friendships may provide each with the fuel needed for inspiration, passion, conversation, emotional support, and so much more, a lot of which we cannot get out of a relationship with men...much less a husband. (I speak from experience.)

    The story was a quite inspirational for a friendship and love for another human being.

    If that is true about Vera's brother, well, that is really sad.

  10. If you have the Virago edition of Testament of Friendship, it looks the intro was written by Mark Bostridge? If so, I'm glad I got so much of the story right since last reading it! I drew all that from memory, ha ha! I have a copy of the biography Bostridge wrote & intend to reread it. I found a little note he wrote to a woman who appears to be a librarian he knows tucked into the pages. That was pretty cool. So apparently I have his personal copy! :) Or one he gifted.

    He's one I'd like to shake hands with. Well done, sir, bringing so much of her back into print.

    By the way, I meant to say, I'm really glad you read this, Ruth. Thank you for writing about Vera & Winifred so those who read your blog have heard a bit more on their life and viewpoint. xx

    I definitely see what you're saying about friendship between women versus friendship between a woman and a man. Also, your "I know from experience" made me chuckle. <3

  11. JILLIAN: YES, it was written by him! Haha! That was pretty cool that you ended up with possibly his personal copy. He did extensive research on Vera's and Winifred's lives. Obviously the intro is a small fraction of all there is to know.

    Oh, yeah, let me tell you! My poor husband -- of course, I love him! but poor thing...even after 20+ years of marriage, he doesn't know me very deeply. He thinks he does, but if he had to take a quiz, he'd fail. My closest girlfriend of 6 years knows more about me, especially my loves, passions, fears, weaknesses, and anxieties. We also share of love of books! We do talk about our marriages and motherhood (for me, particularly bc my husband has no interest or desire to talk about them). Sometimes I wish I had a female roommate just for the companionship bc having a male roommate doesn't make up for those empty times, longing for friendship and connection.

  12. She sounds like a WONDERFUL friend! <3

  13. It sounds like she's left a lasting memorial of their friendship, and that's great. It must have been a satisfying and fulfilling project, especially since modern readers can still benefit from it.

  14. PAULA: That's what I was thinking exactly.