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Between Friends review – the letters of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby | Books

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This is the largest selection published so far of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby’s questing, intrepid letters, expertly and sensitively edited by wife-and-husband team Elaine and English Showalter. Reading them, what is most striking is how bold their experiment in living was – and how depressingly our concept of the family has narrowed since the 1920s.

When they met at Oxford in 1919, both women seemed destined to be unmarried. Brittain had lost her sweetheart in the war. Holtby had never really had one. Like many “surplus women”, they moved in together. Holtby was tall, blond and breezily down on her writing; in the first letter here she calls a story of hers “a loathsome thing; but I had to write it … but I think it should be burned.” Brittain was short, dark and anxious. When Holtby was published first, she wrote, shaken, “Almost I think of you as if you were a stranger; we are not equals any more.” She needed a lot of encouragement, which is may be one reason why she fell for the charms of political scientist Gordon Catlin, who first wrote to her as a fan of her prose.

As the flirtation developed, Holtby urged caution in her wry way. “I … hope that you are not going to allow another male to prove himself devastating,” she wrote, advising her friend that “the best thing to do with a dangerous rock is to use it as the foundation for a lighthouse”. But when Brittain did marry Catlin in 1925, she made it clear that she wanted Holtby to come along for the ride. Her love for Catlin shines through these letters but she was also frustrated with dull faculty parties at Cornell University, where he was teaching and she was expected to be just a wife (“What does a good feminist do on this occasion?”). She complained about Catlin “rather heavily and dictatorially” giving writing advice, and soon concluded that “marriage in general is an unhappy state, and to be avoided by anyone who is already quite happy single unless they are very sure that it is what they want, and have planned beforehand the conditions on which they intend to live together”. Having not planned things out beforehand, she took to the Evening News to outline her ideal of a “semi-detached marriage”. The Showalters also quote Holtby arguing that “spinsters” who have “natural instincts of domesticity” could “enjoy … living with their self-chosen families”. The phrasing is arresting; a century before the concept became popular, these friends were pioneering the idea of a chosen family.

In the letters, you can see them working out how to do this in real time. Brittain worries about having children but Holtby encourages her, saying: “Babies are a nuisance, of course. But so does everything seem to be that is worthwhile, husbands and books and committees and being loved and everything. We have to choose between barren ease and rich unrest.” Later, Holtby’s tender, loving descriptions of Brittain’s children are a powerful argument for embracing “rich unrest”; for the value of the maiden aunt (and bachelor uncle); for making families more capacious than mere nuclear units; and against the shortsightedness of dividing women into mothers and non-mothers.

“How many women,” rages Brittain, “are now … stirring that soup or rocking the cradle with one hand and writing with the other, and yet one doesn’t notice that their books are any worse – are often indeed better – than those of the young males … who have their lives to themselves and write, as it were, within sound-proof walls.” Holtby certainly helped Brittain write by looking after her children. But they also both helped each other work. And they each saved the other’s best book.

When Brittain despaired because Catlin wanted to be written out of her memoir, Testament of Youth, it was Holtby who suggested that cutting anything that would identify Catlin would not harm the book because it wasn’t about him; instead, she wrote, “it is your resurrection, your attitude to marriage, your decision to ‘take up the exquisite burden of life’… which makes the book”. She was right. As she came up with this clever and tactful solution, she was dying of Bright’s disease – although she hid her diagnosis from her friend. When she died at just 37, she left her novel, South Riding, in which the heroine is thwarted in romantic love but fulfilled by teaching and by the love of a mentor based on Holtby’s mother. Both Catlin and Holtby’s mother feared it would be embarrassing, but Brittain fought to get it published.

Perhaps Brittain was wrong to encourage Holtby’s friend and on-off lover Harry Pearson to propose to her on her deathbed – Holtby was, after all, the woman who had coined the thrilling mantra “I was born to be a spinster, and, by God, I’m going to spin”. Maybe Brittain’s portrait of Holtby in Testament of Friendship was partial, or self-serving. But in these letters what comes through is a true partnership of two women valiantly, imperfectly, trying to find new ways to live.


This is the largest selection published so far of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby’s questing, intrepid letters, expertly and sensitively edited by wife-and-husband team Elaine and English Showalter. Reading them, what is most striking is how bold their experiment in living was – and how depressingly our concept of the family has narrowed since the 1920s.

When they met at Oxford in 1919, both women seemed destined to be unmarried. Brittain had lost her sweetheart in the war. Holtby had never really had one. Like many “surplus women”, they moved in together. Holtby was tall, blond and breezily down on her writing; in the first letter here she calls a story of hers “a loathsome thing; but I had to write it … but I think it should be burned.” Brittain was short, dark and anxious. When Holtby was published first, she wrote, shaken, “Almost I think of you as if you were a stranger; we are not equals any more.” She needed a lot of encouragement, which is may be one reason why she fell for the charms of political scientist Gordon Catlin, who first wrote to her as a fan of her prose.

As the flirtation developed, Holtby urged caution in her wry way. “I … hope that you are not going to allow another male to prove himself devastating,” she wrote, advising her friend that “the best thing to do with a dangerous rock is to use it as the foundation for a lighthouse”. But when Brittain did marry Catlin in 1925, she made it clear that she wanted Holtby to come along for the ride. Her love for Catlin shines through these letters but she was also frustrated with dull faculty parties at Cornell University, where he was teaching and she was expected to be just a wife (“What does a good feminist do on this occasion?”). She complained about Catlin “rather heavily and dictatorially” giving writing advice, and soon concluded that “marriage in general is an unhappy state, and to be avoided by anyone who is already quite happy single unless they are very sure that it is what they want, and have planned beforehand the conditions on which they intend to live together”. Having not planned things out beforehand, she took to the Evening News to outline her ideal of a “semi-detached marriage”. The Showalters also quote Holtby arguing that “spinsters” who have “natural instincts of domesticity” could “enjoy … living with their self-chosen families”. The phrasing is arresting; a century before the concept became popular, these friends were pioneering the idea of a chosen family.

In the letters, you can see them working out how to do this in real time. Brittain worries about having children but Holtby encourages her, saying: “Babies are a nuisance, of course. But so does everything seem to be that is worthwhile, husbands and books and committees and being loved and everything. We have to choose between barren ease and rich unrest.” Later, Holtby’s tender, loving descriptions of Brittain’s children are a powerful argument for embracing “rich unrest”; for the value of the maiden aunt (and bachelor uncle); for making families more capacious than mere nuclear units; and against the shortsightedness of dividing women into mothers and non-mothers.

“How many women,” rages Brittain, “are now … stirring that soup or rocking the cradle with one hand and writing with the other, and yet one doesn’t notice that their books are any worse – are often indeed better – than those of the young males … who have their lives to themselves and write, as it were, within sound-proof walls.” Holtby certainly helped Brittain write by looking after her children. But they also both helped each other work. And they each saved the other’s best book.

When Brittain despaired because Catlin wanted to be written out of her memoir, Testament of Youth, it was Holtby who suggested that cutting anything that would identify Catlin would not harm the book because it wasn’t about him; instead, she wrote, “it is your resurrection, your attitude to marriage, your decision to ‘take up the exquisite burden of life’… which makes the book”. She was right. As she came up with this clever and tactful solution, she was dying of Bright’s disease – although she hid her diagnosis from her friend. When she died at just 37, she left her novel, South Riding, in which the heroine is thwarted in romantic love but fulfilled by teaching and by the love of a mentor based on Holtby’s mother. Both Catlin and Holtby’s mother feared it would be embarrassing, but Brittain fought to get it published.

Perhaps Brittain was wrong to encourage Holtby’s friend and on-off lover Harry Pearson to propose to her on her deathbed – Holtby was, after all, the woman who had coined the thrilling mantra “I was born to be a spinster, and, by God, I’m going to spin”. Maybe Brittain’s portrait of Holtby in Testament of Friendship was partial, or self-serving. But in these letters what comes through is a true partnership of two women valiantly, imperfectly, trying to find new ways to live.

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