Vera Brittain is best known for her feminist memoir Testament of Youth about her experiences as a nurse in WW1. The Dark Tide is her first novel and seems strongly autobiographical.
It tells the story of two young women, Daphne Lethbridge and Virginia Dennison, and the dynamics of their initially spiteful relationship. Like the author, Virginia returns to Oxford after nursing during WW1 and finds it hard to adjust. Conscious that she would have advanced along the academic path had she not done her war service, she finds that she has forgotten the academic and social rules and is assigned to have extra coaching because she is ‘weak’ at some areas.
Her rival, Daphne, takes every opportunity to say mean and hurtful things, exquisitely rendered by the narrator Claire Higgins. The dialogue reveals Britain in all its class-conscious glory; it’s also indicative of gender relations in the post-war period. Daphne too is being coached by Professor Raymond Sylvester and disastrously, she marries him. She abandons Oxford after Virginia trumps her with a first in the exams; and he comforts her by saying that while a diplomatist values a wife with a degree, academic results were not, per se, important. Daphne thinks that since she has a man, and Virginia doesn’t, she can feel superior…
Alas, it doesn’t work out for Daphne, and the honeymoon presages a marriage that is a disaster. Daphne has never travelled and on her honeymoon she’s made to feel guilty about taking time to see the wonders of Italy which he has already seen before; she behaves like a doormat. He drags her off to Siena where he gets involved in projects not entirely academic and she mopes about on her own, feeling more and more inadequate when she discovers in the Cathedral that she cannot remember enough of what she’d learned about Renaissance art at Oxford. Often she dines alone in the shabby pension and it’s really quite poignant, despite Brittain’s often acerbic turn of phrase.
(On the honeymoon in the heat of a Venetian summer, Daphne is beset by mosquitoes. As every traveller knows a mosquito in the net is worth ten mosquitoes in a room with no nets at all, remarks the narrator, and poor Daphne gets short thrift from her inconsiderate spouse when his new bride’s face is revealed to be covered in bites the next day).
Raymond is a cruel and spiteful man, and the violence of their separation has dreadful consequences. Brittain dissects his self-absorption forensically, but while she shows how Daphne’s romantic notions about being a perfect companion contribute to his selfishness she also shows how he is too is held captive to society’s rules. They both marry for the wrong reasons, and Raymond is as subject to society’s expectations as she is. It takes Daphne a very long time to muster the courage to sue for divorce because she clings to the idea that a good woman would love him ‘in spite of everything’. He needs her to hold off any divorce because it would ruin his political career in a society with inflexible rules. Raymond’s lover Lucia is the only one who is determined to have her freedom and love.
Why then does Daphne still love Raymond? Why is it his perfidy that brings Daphne and Virginia together? Why does Virginia give up her brilliant academic career to go nursing again? Quixotic decisions riddle this book but I don’t think it’s immature plotting by a naive writer. Oxford, which Brittain has used as a microcosm of the wider society, was full of people who were suffering from reaction [to the war]which made them despise work or from the aftermath of sorrow which made them despise play. It is hard for us at this distance to imagine what it was like to live in a society as damaged as this; but Daphne as the damaged wife symbolises those who thought there was nothing else that they could do except learn acceptance.
It’s a very fine debut novel. There are some flaws: Raymond is a little too beastly; and Daphne’s generosity of spirit is a little dubious – Brittain’s resolution speech is a bit of a homily. But overall, it’s a novel that shows the promise that came to fruition in Testament of Youth.
Author: Vera Brittain
Title: The Dark Tide
Narrated by Claire Miller
Publisher: BBC/Chivers Audio Books, 2009
Source: Kingston Library