Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton, From Buxton to London To Lowestoft–and From Provincial Young-Ladyhood to the Enfolding Arms of the Great Mother

Harold Macmillan, a young officer of the new 4th Battalion of the Grenadier Guards now in reserve in France, wrote to his mother today, a century back. An erudite parcel request:

If you are writing again, will you please also send me my edition of the Iliad? Bks 1-12. It is one of the brown Oxford texts…[1]

Some light reading.

Well, that’s enough of France! Another of our young intellectual subalterns has, after all, just spent his first night in Buxton as the more-or-less-but-not-quite formally acknowledged suitor of Vera Brittain.

Saturday August 21st

Breakfast–for which I was careful to arrive in time & Roland came down late–was a somewhat embarrassing meal. Last night I had teased him about the letters I was keeping for him & said I would either not give them back or else ask something so impossible that he would have to let me keep them rather than give it. I had been thinking everything over the night before–I did not go to bed till about 1.0–and many of the objections to our engagement which I had first seen & tormented him over seemed to have faded away. I wanted to tell him this, and to give him back my letters, but felt shy, and didn’t quite know how to do it. I waited about & put it off till a few minutes before we had to go to the station. Then I called him into the drawing-room and we both stood by the window, I with the letters in my hands. At last I said abruptly “Here you are; take them. You can have them after all. I don’t want anything for them.” I knew what I did want, but all through me we weren’t engaged & I did not dare to ask for it.

Then I said vaguely “What we were talking about last night. . . I didn’t know what to do, but I do want to do the right thing, but if you still want me to. . .”

“Well?” he said.

“Alright,” I answered.

“Oh!” he said coldly & a little ironically. “Do you really think it necessary?”

I didn’t know how to take him nor he how to take me. We stood looking at each other for a minute or two. Mother began to call for us to get ready to go to the station. I wanted him so much to speak to them before he left, perhaps never to see them again, but I didn’t know how to ask him to. I put the letters into his hand and simply said abruptly “Take them.” So we went away without his having said a word to [Mother & Father] about me or the future, & I felt a very bitter regret, not alleviated by the fact that it was all my fault.

Once on the London train the same embarrassment & intermittent sparring as on the previous evening began again. I kept reading my own letters, chiefly to myself, but now & then out loud to him. I asked him if he was surprised that I had taken his “proposal” in the way I had. He said he was certainly a little astonished at first, though if he had thought about it beforehand he would probably have known that I should take it just exactly as I did. We were getting a little more in touch with one another & he was condescending to move a little from his distant seat by the other window when a somewhat inquisitive young officer came & shared our carriage, and by the time Leicester came & he got out, the freezing process had proceeded some way again. But this time we talked the subject of an engagement without much ado and he kept urging me to say something, whatever it was. “Say what you want, whether right or not,” he said.

And so this fierce courtship of intellectuals begins to fumble toward drawing-room comedy. Although it’s not quite clear, is it, that the writer-protagonist is fully in on the joke. Oh, drat those parents and wandering strangers on a train! But what, really, was she thinking?

If it had not been for shyness I should have capitulated quite. After some more vague discussion, I finally said “Very well, I will show what I should have said last night if I had said what I really wanted to say.”

“Well?” he said. “What is it?”

I took out of the packet one of the letters I had written him when he first went to the Front–the one I wrote to answer that in which he said he had been kissing my photograph. At the end of my own letter I had said “I envy the photograph. It is more fortunate than its original; she has never quite been able to break through your reserve. . .” I smiled half-cynically to myself as I read this. With him there beside me it was so difficult to believe that I could ever have brought myself to put it. He seized hold of the letter & tried to take it away, & after a little resistance I gave it up to him, pointing to the momentous words. He read it in silence, & then looked at me, & I back at him, still with the very cynical expression. Suddenly he came over from his window & kissed me–with such a boyish shyness & awkwardness that I could have laughed–only I shivered instead. He had so obviously never kissed any other girl before me. I wonder how many young men of his age could say the same. I drew away from him and said rather mockingly “Oh, you needn’t be in a hurry. You certainly haven’t had much practice at this!”

Ack! Way to make the competent young subaltern remember his days as a stumbling schoolboy. What’s to be gained, young lady? Is there time for all this!?!?!

Again there was silence & then I began to talk again, seriously this time & on a difficult subject–which however I had to touch upon in order to explain my somewhat strange-attitude. I spoke of the lack of faith I had in men & their love–& expressed my doubts whether the intellectual & spiritual in love could rise & live untarnished in spite of its constant association with the physical that is in us all. I told him how I had hated the idea of marriage & how I had determined before meeting him that I never would marry anyone. . . I told him all about B.S.[2] “He didn’t want a companion,” I said, rather fiercely. “He just wanted a wife.”

“I’m not like that,” said Roland in the gentle, considerate voice I have learnt to associate with the rousing of his emotion. “In fact, rather the opposite.”

“I know,” I said. “I wouldn’t stop in this carriage another minute if I thought you were.”

He laughed–a little bitterly, and his eyes looked rather distressed.

“Forgive me for seeming to doubt you like this,” I said. “I do trust you more than anyone in the world. But I have thought on this subject–& got so angry about it that all my views have grown a little distorted. The iron has entered into my soul & I can’t get it out. You do understand, don’t you?”

“Yes,” he said sadly, “ I do understand.”

“And are you angry with me,” I asked, “for talking like this?”

“No, dear–of course I’m not,’’ he said, still very gravely.

“I will try & trust in you,” I said. “And learn to believe in you these few days.”

So, without any actual question and answer, but more through a mutual arrangement founded on a mutual understanding, we agreed to consider ourselves engaged. We admitted too that, much as we would have liked to keep it to ourselves, the world for convenience’ sake would have to know. We decided with some amusement that we would tell Mrs Leighton we were engaged for three years or the duration of the war. The originality of the notion seemed to please Roland, even though the reservation had no foundation in fact. So the conversation lost its previous tone of seriousness & almost gloom, though Roland remained rather distant & grave all through the day.

So they are to consider themselves engaged–a big step, and a bit of a save considering how badly Vera mishandled Roland’s initial proposal. The “three years or the duration” is clever, playing on the terms of enlistment which soldiers would agree to, and it gives them what is, especially for this couple, a sense of pleasurable superiority and uniqueness.

Edward, & Victor were on St. Pancras Station waiting for us. Roland, not quite so tall & much broader, seeming much older, in the tunic he had slept in many times & a very worn & dirty-looking Sam Browne belt, presented a very marked contrast to the other two. (Really I think he was rather proud to emphasize his négligé & war-worn “Front” appearance.)

He was–in the memoir, written later, Vera Brittain explains that the style in 1915 was for officers with experience in the trenches to show it through what would have been, in pre-war terms, unconscionably sloppy dress. Thus they visually asserted their distinction from the New Army officers yet to hear the sound of the guns. Later, when everybody had “been out,” the real hard-bitten officer was likely to return to traditional military smartness, or even dandyism.[3]

Our eye has been fixed on this relationship for a very long time, peering, as it were, over Vera’s shoulder. Yet Roland’s story is only mostly–and only recently–all about Vera. Like most schoolboys-transmuted-into-officers (Tolkien and his TCBS comes to mind) Roland’s experience was also meant to be shared with his fast friends. But he had gotten out first, and this causes consternation.

So the Three Musketeers, as Mrs Leighton calls them, met together for the first time since the War began. From their calm greeting you would never have guessed that in the meantime Victor had almost passed through the gates of Death [an illness, not combat], that Roland had had five months of the possibility of coming to them, face to face, that Edward had overcome various difficulties placed in his way of being a soldier, or that Roland had fallen in love with me.

Last but not least!

I thought I might be in the way, & had made plans to leave the three alone but in the end none of them came off. However I managed to give them a short interval to themselves during the afternoon & otherwise played the part of a very interested spectator without seeming to be in the way at all.

During a long & somewhat elaborate lunch Roland did most of the talking, which to me who am used to his saying very little, appeared somewhat unusual. I can easily understand that at school he must have been the acknowledged leader of the three. The great idea of the two was to ask him questions about things at the Front–technical details &  problems of all kinds–& then let him expound them at length, which he did quite readily.

Vera has “managed” to give the boys a little liberty, but she has kept herself in the picture. It’s probably more or less true–as she assumes–that few young women heard the among-the-boys version of life in the trenches.

I listened with great interest, as I had never been given such a good idea of the Front before. It isn’t every man that has enough reverence for women to speak without reserve–as he does, the dear Feminist–of the business side of his life. But he knows that a woman–at any rate this particular woman–could understand very well indeed. He went into all sorts of technical details about trenches, barbed-wire entanglements, positions etc. He dealt too with many of the usually unmentioned & more unpleasant aspects of the war, such as the condition of the charnel-house trenches, or the shooting of sentries who go to sleep on duty & are described in the casualty list as “Died”. Military discipline I suppose–but all the same it makes me feel sick to hear about it; no man can quite understand what it means to a woman, who knows the trouble & pain the production of an individual costs, to hear of this light destruction of a human creature for what may be simply the result of physical overstrain. But I suppose it might have such serious consequences that this cruel stringency is imperative. Roland told us how he saved the life of one such man–a very decent person–by waking him up before the Corporal who was with him came on the scene…

Vera is right, and will eventually be recognized as right–but not before scores of exhausted or traumatized solders are shot by their own army. Is this a (twenty-year-old) woman’s sense of the value of life, or a nurse’s intuition that prolonged modern warfare is physically impossible to sustain? Or, rather, an intelligent person’s simple realization that old military codes are cruel and unjust…

But this is no way to spend their first full day together as an acknowledged couple.

Roland turned to me & asked me to excuse him for the technical details he was going into. I told him with some scorn that I was as much interested in them as anyone else. He smiled & continued & did not apologise again.

Soon it was time for the train again (Roland says he never sees me except either in the train or at meals!).

So. Then off to Lowestoft, where Vera now meets for the first time Roland’s younger brother and sister and his father. Mr Leighton is older, nearly deaf, and generally reminiscent of the king in Princess Bride–except, of course, for the fact that he is married to a combination of Mama Rose, Sarah Bernhardt, and a middle class Lady Desborough.

The dramatic, expansive Mrs. Leighton immediately steals the show, sweeping about the big house, swathed in lamp-light chiaroscuro under the blackout curtains…

She took me to see her temporary bedroom, where only a candle, which she only lit for a moment, was allowed, and which seemed to be almost entirely filled by a very huge bed. Roland followed us in, and in a very few minutes we had all established ourselves on the bed, where we stayed talking for at least an hour. Roland lolled on the pillow end of the bed, & Mrs Leighton on the other, while I sat on the edge of it with my feet dangling down a long way from the ground.

I really don’t think that Vera–who has no real knowledge of how this family (or any other, save her own) works–is as aware as he might be about the unusual intensity of Mrs. Leighton and Roland’s relationship, and of the challenges this will pose to the almost-engaged couple. But that, perhaps, his half-assed biographical criticism on my part.

Another problem is that we, still coasting down the long reverse slope of the Freudian era, might see too much. History, remember, is lost before it is found, then written, then–like any literature–created anew in the mind of each reader.

So that’s us–recreating the scene, and unable to read past that “very huge bed.” And yet, striving to read with as little of our baggage as possible, wouldn’t we say that the writer of that paragraph, who depicts herself/her protagonist dangling girl-like from a bed on which her lover and his mother “loll,” has some idea of what is going on? She might not have read Freud, but doesn’t, at least, the Vera of a few days hence–the writer rather than the in-the-moment mother-meeter–suspect something? Does she encode in the narrative, half-knowing, a strangeness she may not have realized in the cloying clammy heat of the moment?

Mrs Leighton talked a great deal about Roland, & told me all about his childhood, knowing I suppose how I should love to hear. Roland lay on the pillows without making any comment, listening quite contentedly & as if it were all as a matter of course (which I suppose it has become to him) her telling me how she had always worshipped & adored him from his very earliest years. From what I observed myself & from what Edward told me–how all the family look up to & adore him, how he has always had everything he wanted that it was possible to give him, and how all the little spare money there has been has always been his, I wonder he is not more autocratic & spoilt than he is. But she told me that never from his earliest childhood had he once attempted to take advantage of her worship of him. This is so completely the Roland that I know. He never would take advantage of anyone, strong or weak.

Mischief managed. Mother hath not wrought it, and–in any case–there is nothing to worry about its having-been-wrought. Nothing to see here! If you see what I mean.

Ah, but we have another witness installed on that bed. Mrs. Leighton–Marie Connor Leighton, author of several romance novels of little literary value–will write this scene herself, later on in the war.

So the girl with the amethyst eyes came down to our house by the eastern sea. There was only Sunday for her, since she came late on Saturday evening and we were all going up to London on Monday morning. But that Sunday was enjoyed to the uttermost. It was so strange to see Little Yeogh Wough with her!

Yes–that’s Roland. The tall, strong, prize-winning, ex-prefect, scholarship-winning, platoon-commanding “boy of her heart,” aged nineteen. Little Yeogh Wough.

No wonder his sister and his young brother looked on in frank bewilderment, remembering that he had been simply a masterful schoolboy until the time of his putting on together of khaki and a moustache! What a forcing power this war is! It changes people’s ages as it changes their addresses, and that is saying a great deal.

O.K. so, drama! Romance! Fine. Not so bad, right?

It’s actually pretty bad. I am grateful to have been recently pointed to a new blog–testamentofyouth–which has several thoughtful essays that dig far deeper into the history of Roland and Vera and their friends than I have been able to do. I am particularly glad that the author has saved me from a task I had been putting off, namely reading the whole of Mrs. Leighton’s memoir. (But remember–following the link will take you to a place where the century back future is known, where the rest of the war has happened.)

What are we to make of a writer-mother who pens a sentimental dual autobiography in the shape of a memoir of her life with her son? “As Boy of My Heart unfolds, Marie Leighton reveals herself as hyperbolically emotional, cloyingly sentimental, extravagant, anxious, superstitious, and preoccupied with appearances.”[4] Yup, that’s about the size of it.

Vera is going to have to be the small, sweet, fragile girl who can be swept under the great maternal cloak. The allotted role is as a sort of subordinate helpmeet in the triangle of son, mother, and lover. Well, perhaps that is a little too psychologically grim. What is certainly the case, a century back, is that Vera does not realize what she has gotten herself into. She’s miles smarter than Mrs. Leighton, but that doesn’t signify. She’s young and–despite her self-presentation–very proper and eager to please, and woefully ill-equipped to parse the deeds of an over-the-top emotionalist.

After telling me about his childhood Mrs Leighton got me to talk about myself and the great contrast between my life’s desires & the small opportunities in my previous life for their fulfilment. I said just a very little about the way every aspiration might, had it not been so strong, have been nipped in the bud by the frantic attempts to turn me into an uninteresting, conventional, ordinary person. Mrs Leighton needed no more than a little telling to make her understand. She was very interested in the incongruity between my parents & me, and wanted to meet them, especially Father…

Soon the three will have a late night snack and put on the gramophone. The war is here too, remember, since Lowestoft is one of the first places in England to endure the extension of “total war” to the home front.

The gramophone at last was stopped & we decided to go to bed (as Mrs Leighton said Zeppelin hours were over for that night at any rate). Roland had put the records away & disappeared without saying anything to me or attempting to say good-night. Mrs Leighton came with me into my room, talking again about Roland; how she was going soon to tuck him up in bed, which she had done ever since he was a baby. She told me that the first night of his leave, when he had come in so tired from his journeyings & an accumulated insufficiency of sleep that he could scarcely stand, he was just like a child, and nestled down into the bed saying how lovely it was to have sheets & pillows again. Something hurt at the back of my eyes like tears.

Would this be a completely different scene if we were a different sort of a third party? If we dwelt, for instance, as readers, in Roland’s reminiscences rather than Vera’s? (Yes, of course.) Is Vera wise, and treading carefully? Or has she slipped demurely into the subordinate position that Mrs. Leighton has prepared for her?

She then looked at the bed & asked me if I was sure I should be warm enough. I said I knew I should because I never wanted many bedclothes. “Why, you little thing!” she said in her impulsive way. “You never seem to want anything!” I fancy, I don’t know why, that the look she gave me was almost sad. I told her that I was nearly impervious to the influence of comforts & luxuries & that I was trying to break myself of those which still had a hold on me.

Which is good–because the family finances are a wreck, and they’ll have to live on whatever Roland can earn–a lieutenant’s pay? And after the war, at Oxford? Never mind that Vera is helplessly, eagerly playing the good, good girl, the worthy, uncomplaining, winsome-in-the-background bride to the favorite son.

She kept on looking at me meditatively as if she were studying me again. Then she kissed me again & left me–left me thinking as I have never thought of anyone before in my life, of how I worshipped Roland & adored his Mother. One can trace in his character those high influences of hers which have been his from his earliest years.[5]

Mischief most definitely managed.


References and Footnotes

  1. Webb, ed., Downing Street, 125.
  2. Bertram Spofford, a former suitor of Vera's. And, yup, yes--I guess those are indeed his initials.
  3. Testament of Youth, 177-8.
  4. From the testamentofyouth blog, which has much good stuff--but warning: spoilers!
  5. Chronicle of Youth, 239-49.