Social Revolutions: Vera Brittain, Honourable Estate

I finally finished reading Vera Brittain’s 1936 novel Honourable Estate. I read Part I a few months back and described it as “not particularly artful” but “emotionally quite intense,” and unsurprisingly, it continues that way to the end. Part I told the unhappy story of Janet and Thomas Rutherford, their marriage destroyed either by Janet’s unreasonable commitment to the suffragist cause or by Thomas’s inability to accommodate Janet’s needs and ambitions within marriage, depending on whose perspective you take. Parts II and III take up the story of their son Denis and of Ruth Allendeyne, daughter of a local squire who herself matures into a feminist and then a pacifist. Ruth’s life story has clear parallels with Brittain’s own, including the sad fate of a brother who seeks death on the battlefield to avoid a court martial for a homosexual affair (this was apparently true of Vera’s beloved brother Edward, though it is not discussed in Testament of Youth).

Denis and Ruth represent a new generation, trying to live with as well as complete the social revolutions that their parents’ generation fought for or against. First they must pass through the crucible of the war, however, and much of the last section of Honourable Estate explicitly addresses the painful challenge of building a future so much loss and disillusionment. Ruth especially, who loses a lover as well as a brother, initially feels no purpose in her continued existence, and it’s Denis whose kindness as well as political commitment helps her embrace her responsibility to use her life in a meaningful way. She ends up running for Parliament as a Labour candidate, aware all the time of the irony that her party is helping to destroy the squirearchy represented by her family home, which is, aptly and symbolically, demolished at the novel’s end. She’s also a mother, and here Brittain brings us back to Janet to contrast the suffering endured by both mother and child because of an unwanted but inescapable pregnancy–in one of the nice “coming full circle” touches of the novel’s construction, Ruth reads Janet’s diaries and reflects on the tormented life of “a normal woman whose talents had been thwarted, whose natural affections had been starved, whose maternal instinct had been assailed and vitiated before it reached maturity.” She is particularly captivated and saddened by the story of Janet’s friendship with the playwright Ellison Campbell, a relationship which initially brought her “consolation and reassurance” but ended in bitterness. (It’s hard not to read this as a gesture towards the potentially great gift of friendship exemplified by Brittain’s friendship with Winifred Holtby.)

What kind of world should we strive for, knowing what we know, having seen what we have seen, having lost what we have lost? This question, which motivated Brittain’s own post-war life, motivates Honourable Estate too. The novel is ambitious in the sweep of time it embraces and effective in showing how great the transition is from its earliest events to its conclusion. Janet and Ruth are effectively counterpoised, with Denis the fulcrum between them: he takes Ruth to Janet’s grave, explaining,

‘In some ways you’re so like her – and then your work and everything you stand for are precisely what she herself wanted to do and be. . . . your very existence in relation to hers gives me a new sense of hope. It’s made me believe that people’s ideals are sometimes fulfilled in the end, only not necessarily in one life or one generation.’

That’s the overall lesson of Honourable Estate: that transitions are painful and difficult, but that it is important to try to see the larger picture. At the end, Ruth reflects,

‘I suppose if we took a long enough view, we should feel that any sorrow bears its own compensation which enlarges the scope of human mercy. Some of us, perhaps, can never reach our honourable estate – the state of maturity, of true understanding – until we have wrested strength and dignity out of humiliation and dishonour.’

That’s the true ‘honourable estate,’ not marriage, then: the irony of Part I was that marriage as an institution kept women from their essential dignity, and the celebration of the final parts (amidst the sorrow) is that significant change has already come:

‘To-day men and women, but especially women, live in a very different world from that of 1870, or 1900, or 1910. Even since 1914, we’ve passed through a whole series of social revolutions. There are others to come which I shall not see, for reason and mercy will have to fight their battle with passion and injustice for ever. Hatred and cruelty and perhaps even war will come again, in my children’s time and the time of their children; they’re the dark forces from our barbaric beginnings which are always being conquered and always rising again. But with every generation we know them better for what they are. We know more clearly what we should withstand and how we should build.’

As you can perhaps tell from these excerpts, though Brittain works hard to embody her ideas dramatically, their working out in the novel is somewhat effortful and long-winded. Her people have a tendency to talk like textbooks. Here’s Denis, for instance, responding to Ruth’s revelation, when he proposes to her, that she’s not a virgin: “To my mind the pitiless condemnation of sex-offences illustrates exactly that self-indulgent evasion of fundamentals which society’s capable of at its worst.” (As an aside, I was surprised–unfairly so?–that the novel is pretty explicit about Ruth’s sexual experience, as well as about her brother’s homosexuality. And I was also surprised–perhaps out of ignorance–that Ruth [and possibly also Brittain] explains her brother’s affair as at least partly the result of his having been isolated from female company while in the army. Her fear that her lover will succumb in the same way is one of the reasons she resolves to have sex with him before he returns to the front. Was this a common theory about homosexuality in the thirties? Ruth is very clear that she does not see her brother’s affair as a moral offense, though: she is bitter that they live in a world where “giving expression to your love for a person whom the law didn’t permit you to feel about in that way” is considered a crime while war, cruelty, and exploitation are not. Finally, I was surprised at the very direct discussion of birth control in the novel. A lot has changed, obviously, since the Victorian novels I’m used to reading, where everything is so carefully coded and so much cannot be thought of at all.)

Since I read Part I of this novel, I’ve been doing some reading in related critical and literary historical material, and as a result I have been thinking a bit differently about the lack of fictional artfulness in Brittain’s and Holtby’s novels. Just recently, for instance, I read an essay by Marion Shaw called “”Feminism and Fiction between the Wars: Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf.” Shaw argues that Holtby is very aware of contemporary debates about whether women’s writing is inherently different from men’s–debates turning on arguments from psychology, for instance, about gender differences–and of a split in feminism between those who emphasized equality and those who emphasized difference. There was a strongly male-identified tradition of the novel at the time, exemplified by Bennett, Wells, and Galsworthy. In pursuit of a female aesthetic, she suggests, women writers such as Woolf, Richardson, and Mansfield deliberately turned against this tradition. Shaw’s point is that this was a deliberate choice on their part, and that because this choice was highly visible and self-conscious, it meant that choosing to continue in a more traditional style was also a deliberate choice: not a conservative or inartistic default, but a decision by a writer about how best to make the novel serve the ends she had in mind. Shaw notes (and the evidence certainly backs her up) that the writers who made the choice to be experimental and break away from the more traditional novel forms have gotten pretty much all the attention and thus critics haven’t done justice to the congruity between means and ends chosen by the other writers. In the case of Holtby, her major example, the ends of fiction were social and political: “What Holtby fears is that the refinement, interiority and introspection of what she perceives as a feminine aesthetic may result in a gender-bound, class-bound uselessness and passivity. In Holtby’s view, literature should be an agent of change.”

Though this analysis seems to me unnecessarily polarizing, it also seems useful, because it cautions us (me!) against underestimating the art of a novel like Honourable Estate. Shaw makes a good point that once there really are clear alternatives and they are not just aesthetically but politically charged, there’s nothing necessarily casual or inartistic about writing documentary realism. Any reader of Woolf’s “Modern Fiction” or “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” knows what a brilliant advocate Woolf is for her own artistic priorities, but her eloquence doesn’t make her absolute. I’m currently reading Holtby’s Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir, and Holtby is pretty sharp so far. Shaw’s commentary helps me see what the contexts and stakes might be for these very different writers as they chose the forms of their own fictions.

3 Comments to Social Revolutions: Vera Brittain, Honourable Estate

  1. jane murray's Gravatar jane murray
    July 2, 2012 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    Ellison Campbell’s failed friendship with Janet in Honourable Estate is less a gesture by Brittain towards her own relationship with Holtby, and much more a (fairly scathing) representation of Brittain’s disastrous friendship with the novelist Phyllis Bentley. See Berry and Bostridge, Vera Brittain: A Life.

  2. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    July 2, 2012 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    Ah yes, that makes sense–though I suppose the example would still work by contrast to highlight what she found with Holtby but not with Bentley.

  3. finny davis's Gravatar finny davis
    July 3, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Thanks for your enlightening commentary. Did Phyllios Bentley harbour desires for Ms Brittain. That’s what the biography and this book seems to suggest.

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