Although we didn’t exactly grow up together,” Vera Brittain once wrote of her relationship with fellow writer Winifred Holtby, “we grew mature together and that is the next best thing.”
For 16 years, until Holtby’s untimely death, at the age of 37, from kidney failure caused by Bright’s disease, the two women had enjoyed a close companionship. As friends they had been intimates. As writers they were the most decisive influences on each other’s work. It was a relationship, above all, that made significant contributions to the writing of two bestselling masterpieces, which have stood the test of time: Brittain’s memoir of the cataclysmic effect of the First World War on her generation, Testament of Youth, and Holtby’s South Riding, her novel about a Yorkshire community struggling in the grip of the Great Depression of the Thirties.
After Holtby’s death, Brittain memorialised their friendship in a biography of Winifred which, she hoped, would remind people “of the glowing, radiant generous, golden creature whom we have lost”. This friendship has achieved iconic status, as an example of an emotionally and intellectually supportive relationship between two women, of a kind rarely recorded in literature.
It’s soon to be portrayed on the big screen, in a film adaptation of Testament of Youth, produced by BBC Films, and Heyday Films, makers of Harry Potter. The concluding scenes of Juliette Towhidi’s screenplay provide what are in essence two happy endings: Vera Brittain’s marriage to the political scientist George Catlin, and the continuation of her working partnership with Winifred Holtby, who will be no less integral to the domestic equation of husband, wife, and wife’s best friend than Catlin is.
Yet Brittain and Holtby’s initial encounters as undergraduates at Somerville, Oxford, had been marked by undisguised hostility. “We did not, to begin with, like each other at all,” Brittain later admitted. Physically and temperamentally, they were total opposites. Brittain was small, dark and moody, while Holtby was tall, blonde and gregarious. At shared tutorials, Vera felt nothing but resentment towards Winifred’s vitality.