Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 29, 2023

Sensational Snippets: Testament of Friendship (1940), by Vera Brittain

I am reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship for the forthcoming 1940 Club…

Testament of Friendship is about Brittain’s friendship with another author, Winifred Holtby, from their meeting as students at Oxford to Holtby’s death at the age of thirty-seven.  But there is more to it than that: Brittain is famous for her groundbreaking Testament of Youth, (1933) a classic of WW1 literature which exposed the impact on civilians, especially women.  Vera’s friendship with Winifred was forged in the devastation of WW1 when she had lost her fiancé, her close friends and her brother.  Winifred’s death in 1935 was yet another loss, and this memoir was Vera’s tribute to a friend she loved dearly.

So I was not expecting to laugh out loud as I traversed its pages…

In Chapter 3, ‘For King and Country’ Brittain begins discussing her friend’s path to becoming the author of the award-winning South Riding which was published posthumously in 1936.  She is endearingly honest about Winifred’s young, derivative sentimentality and her saccharine verses, but she asserts that this immature young author was nevertheless the spiritual parent of the woman who wrote the ruthless and vivid satire on British imperialism.  By 1919, says Brittain, her appreciation of ludicrous situations and her capacity for selecting the elements which made them funny were already fully developed. Holtby’s sketches in the unpublished The Forest Unit offer an almost realistic picture of the humours, discomforts and temperamental problems of the Huchenneville camp. 

Young women serving as nurses or WAACs in WW1 were, it seems, routinely warned against associating with *chuckle* ‘The Australians’.  The Forest Unit satirises the masculine jealousies and romantic feminine perturbations which followed the coming of an Australian contingent to rest at Huchenneville after ten months in the line.

Huchenneville village was only three minutes’ walk from the orchard unit, and Jean McWilliam has confessed that she awaited the arrival of the Australians with apprehension.  She was not mistaken in supposing that the plain, undersized British group of orderlies and engineers, who had come to take for granted their monopoly of the WAACs as companions, would suffer by contrast with the tall bronzed figures in slouch hats who rode through the forest blowing kisses to the girls from the high saddles of their magnificent horses.  But she admits that from the beginning the Australians proved to be generous friends who increased the enchantments of life at Huchenneville without appreciably adding to her problems.

“When they arrived”, she writes, “we had only one hut which we used for recreation.  We usually danced because the Colonel’s batman played splendid dance music on the accordion.  The sound of revelry drew the Australians to our unit, and I found an Australian officer standing by me.
” ‘You ought to have more than one candle,’ he said.
” ‘Yes, but our ration of candles was short this week,’ I answered.
“He said nothing, but the next day he sent me a bag of candles.”

In the late autumn of 1918 the Australian division, by arrangement between their captain and Jean McWilliam, gave a dance in the new recreation hut of the orchard unit.  Many of the Australians had not seen a woman for months, and keen masculine competition for the favours of the small WAAC group suggested the injudicious exclusion of their British rivals.  In The Forest Unit, Winifred describes with obvious enjoyment how the jointly owned piano so necessary to the success of the dance was twice kidnapped by the determined antagonists.

“Next morning Celia saw the wagon that was one of the most cherished possessions of the Orchard office at the door of the new recreation hut.
” ‘What’s happening?’ she asked the rabbit-mouthed corporal.
“He looked uneasy but defiant.
” ‘Oh, we are just coming to remove the piano to our hut for a little sing-song that we are having tomorrow night.’
” ‘Oh, but you can’t do that! We’re having a dance here.’
” ‘I know nothing about no dance. Those are my orders and I shall proceed to fulfil them.’ The corporal expanded his already somewhat spreading chest.
” ‘But you can’t’. Celia wrung her hands with feverish anxiety.  ‘We must have it for the dance.’
” ‘Excuse me, but orders is orders, and the dance is no concern of ours.  The piano is ours by rights, which you ‘ave ‘ad the privilege of making use of owing to kind permission of the colonel.  If you want to dance tomorrow night, you must find your own music.  Some of you girls is fond of singing, I’ve noticed.  Let your friends bring their hown piano.  We ‘ave a ‘ymn practice at our ‘ut tomorrow night and the work of the Lord cannot be put off for vain and frivolous amusements.  Carry on, boys.’
“And Celia, wringing her hands on the steps in furious impotence, watched the piano disappearing across the orchard.”

The Australian-bewitched WAACs were not defeated.  Without the official knowledge of their administrator or her hostel forewoman, eight of them took an old farm-cart to the men’s Mess Hut that night, and at the cost of barked shins and broken finger-nails, jubilantly brought back the piano to their recreation room. But in the end Cockney cunning triumphed over Colonial virility, for half-way through the dance the electric light went out with malicious suddenness.  As Winifred, in the excitement of preparing refreshments, had forgotten to indent for candles, the exuberant dancers were plunged into chaotic darkness — “while Sapper Bright, diligently searching for the fault with conspicuous piety, failed to find it.” (pp. 76-8)

Because this excerpt made me laugh, I’m prepared to overlook describing our soldiers as ‘Colonials’ when Australia had ceased to be a colony for nearly two decades.

Author: Vera Brittain (1893-1970)
Title: Testament of Friendship
Publisher: Fontana Paperbacks in association with Virago Press, 1981, first published by Macmillan and Co in 1940
ISBN: 0006363539, pbk., 453 pages
Source: personal library, purchased for $3.00 from the (now defunct) Rhyll Book Exchange on Phillip Island.


  1. Such a fabulous account of the little matter of the piano.


    • Yes!
      And of course it didn’t belong to either of them. IT belonged to someone in the French village…
      These days we would also notice the way the working class cannon-fodder is being mocked, but at the same time, it is fun to see a light-hearted moment emerging from the horror of the trenches.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Lisa

    I am a huge fan of Vera Brittain’s trilogy of Testaments (Youth, Friendship and Experience) as well as her less well known Chronicle of Youth (her wartime diaries) and her letters, published in “Letters from a Lost Generation.” The BBC film of Testament of Youth a few years ago with Kit Harrington as Roland Leighton, Vera’s doomed fiancee, and Alicia Vikander as Vera was also excellent and well worth seeking out. I find her two novels less engaging but her attack of the bombing of German cities and civilians in WW2 (Seeds of Chaos? I think is the title) is a very compelling read.


    • It’s not just that she writes of a lost era, but also that she writes in a lost style. I mean, people just don’t write in the same way anymore, and she was a great stylist.


  3. I read it so long ago, I forgot all about that bit! Thanks.


    • I loved it, and it’s a bonus that it’s a (rare) acknowledgment from the Brits that we fought beside them in WW1.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love all the Testament books but really can’t think I’ve re-read them since I lived in my flat in South London (I can see myself reading them there very vividly). Good to see they’re still being read.


    • Hi Liz, I hope to encourage that when I write my review…


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