These fascinating letters between Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby tell the story of an extraordinary friendship.
A literary relationship that began when the women met at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1919, it lasted until Winifred’s early death at the age of thirty-seven. The letters, written from 1920 to 1935, kept them ‘continuously together’, and show us the life of two pioneers who wished to make their mark as writers and campaigners. Each encouraged and advised the other. However, there were periods when they were literary rivals. Winifred landed a book deal first; Vera produced an international bestseller with Testament of Youth; and the letters show them negotiating envy and self-doubt. It was at times an uneven relationship: Vera, more than four years older, was married and had two children during this period, while Winifred, a single woman with an adventurous spirit, travelled and made a wide range of friends. As the heroine of her novel South Riding says, ‘I was born to be a spinster and by God, I’m going to spin!’ Vera decisively influenced Winifred’s passion for feminism and peace; ‘You made me,’ Winifred told her. In turn, Winifred, who took care of Vera’s children and placated her husband, gave Vera crucial intellectual and emotional support, fiercely believing in her literary gifts.
A portrait of the inter-war years and a dramatic, touching and ultimately tragic story, the letters have the hallmarks of honest female friendship: not without friction and with its own delicate co-dependency, but life-changing for them both.