One From the Archive: ‘Testament of Friendship: The Story of Winifred Holtby’ by Vera Brittain ****

First published in March 2012.

Testament of Friendship: The Story of Winifred Holtby was written in 1939 and first published in 1940. In this recently Virago reprint, Vera Brittain ‘tells the story of the woman who helped her survive the aftermath of that war’. Brittain is perhaps best known for her first volume of autobiography, Testament of Youth, which detailed her experiences as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse during the First World War.

Winifred Holtby, a prolific journalist in her day, is the author of several novels including South Riding, which was serialised by the BBC in 2011. It is made clear from Brittain’s account of her that Holtby was a marvellous woman who was incredibly benevolent and compassionate. She had such a passion for writing, apparent from an early age: ‘long before she could read easily Winifred had begun to write, and before she could write she told stories’.

Testament of Friendship spans the period from 1919, when Brittain and Holtby first met in Oxford as history undergraduates, up until Holtby’s untimely death in 1935. It is told systematically in chronological order, from her childhood in the Wolds and the year of nursing she undertook, to her time at Oxford where she spent her time ‘tearing about the streets on a very rusty cycle’. Her interest of and involvement in politics has been detailed, along with the championing of several causes close to her heart.

Mark Bostridge’s introduction cites Vera Brittain’s belief that: ‘Although we didn’t exactly grow up together… we grew mature together, and that is the next best thing’. He goes on to describe how ‘as writers they were the most decisive influences on each other’s work’. Bostridge believes that ‘Brittain’s perception of Holtby is at times too clouded by her own grief, and by guilt at having exploited her best friend’s generosity, even unwittingly, during her final illness’. This seems rather a clouded view, as in no sense does Brittain’s account read in this way. Contrary to Bostridge’s opinion, she seems the perfect writer for a biography of this sort. She knew Holtby intimately for many years, living together in London and publishing their debut novels almost simultaneously, and consequently saw Holtby as her ‘second self’. Such first-hand knowledge of her subject allows Testament of Friendship to read like the very best of biographies. Facts about Holtby’s life have been reinforced with wonderful descriptions and her importance in the lives of everyone she met is made paramount throughout.

Parallels of Holtby’s own experiences have been drawn to the characters which people her novels, along with the incidents which drove her to write. Testament of Friendship is rather sad at times. Whilst Holtby was encouraged to learn and study at renowned institutions, her family and those living in her village in the East Riding of Yorkshire did not understand her fame. As a collective they were ‘equally unimpressed by her literary renown’ and Brittain believes that a ‘proficiency at bridge or folk-dancing would have seemed to them of similar significance’.

Poems of Holtby’s have been included throughout, adding a lovely touch to the biography. Brittain has also made use of adorable childhood anecdotes, including childhood friendships, favourite pastimes and the relationship which Holtby had with her elder sister Grace. A wealth of memories has been dipped into to provide a rich history of Holtby’s life, from its beginning to its sad end.

Brittain’s prose is poetic and informative in equal measure. The rich writing allows the account to be read almost like a novel at times. Whilst Brittain signposts events important to her, she always uses them in the context of Holtby’s life too. Never does she lose sight of her friend. Testament of Friendship is a must-read, providing a rich and fascinating portrait of an admirable woman.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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