An Open Letter to Vera Brittain

Dear Vera, I just finally finished reading your book, Testament of Youth. It took me a long time; I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. I imagine that the parts about the war were the hardest for you to write. Strangely, they were the easiest for me to read, I suppose because I’ve been so saturated in literature and and film of the First World War - from my childhood onwards. But you account of your life before and after the war was really so very from other books about the period that I’d read, and steadily more and more fascinating.

Vera, I owe you an apology. When I first started reading this book, I thought it was really about the First World War, and I was impatient to get to that. I thought the opening was all just scene-setting, and I got bored of waiting. I even called you annoying and told you to hurry up and get to on with it, on twitter. I’m sorry. I missed the point - and only really got it in the final third of the book, when you write about your life after the war, and your continuing struggle to be you.

And suddenly, it seemed so silly to have been annoyed with you, for writing about your struggle to get to Oxford, and your long letter-writing relationship with Roland about all of the things that excited your brain. Because without you, Vera, and the women like you - and the men like Edward and Roland who accepted and loved that you were this person - women like me wouldn’t have got to have the university educations we have, or the work we have, researching, and writing, and opinionating, and editorialising all over hte place. Maybe there aren’t as many of us as you’d like there to have been 100 years after you were at Oxford, but without the yous there wouldn’t be half as many.

You see Vera, we’re still taught that smart girls are annoying, and smart women who want to have careers are difficult. We’ve still not solved the problem you and G. hoped to solve when you married him, of how to be a wife, and a mother, and have a working life, and to flourish in all areas. Instead we’ve somehow found ourselves living in a culture where women feel guilty for working if they have children because they’re bad mothers, and guilty for not working if they have children, because they’re bad feminists. Some of find our G.s, and some of us don’t, and some of us get blinked at owlishly by society because we refuse to settle for anyone less. We’re able to do all the thing you fought for us to do, but we still feel like we have to justify all of the choices we make, and spend hours of our lives fretting and feeling guilty about them. I suppose that struggling forwards is never a waste, but it does feel like we waste a lot of time battling along.

We learn to hide our intellectual interests and abilities in our school years: even those of us at schools that supposedly encourage smart girls learn to do this outside of school, so as not to occasion awkward pauses in conversation, or be teased for the fact that we like or write poetry, or history, or politics. When we do accept that it’s ok to care about these things, we learn to talk about them and our enthusiasm for them in ways that aren't intimidating or make it seem like we've made an effort to think about these things. We don’t want to be ‘precious’ or ‘pretentious’, or even earnest, because that way mockery lies. And that’s why I found you annoying, you see, because I’ve learnt that women who talk and write the way that you did are trying too hard, are annoying and no fun, and no one really wants to spend time with them - and I almost didn’t want to spend time with you. I’m sorry about that. I’m glad that I did. Thank you for reminding me that it’s ok to be earnestly invested in academic work and intellectual ideas, and hopeful about the possibility of politics and ideas to make the world a better place.

Thank you for fighting to be you, Vera.

love, H.

In which I wrap up January

of democracy, institutions and citizenship (part deux)