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First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends

by Vera Brittain

Pub Date: March 15th, 1999
ISBN: 1-55553-379-5

The moving correspondence of five young people whose idealism and dreams are reshaped and ultimately buried in the muddy trenches of WWI. The four friends of the title are poet and writer Vera Brittain’s younger brother, Edward; her fiancÇ, Roland Leighton; and their schoolmates Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. The four men knew each other during their public-school days and planned, along with Vera, to continue their studies at Oxford following the summer of 1914. Instead, the four sought commissions in the British army and, one by one, crossed the channel to the battlefields of France and Italy. All four were killed. Vera, who had also left Oxford to serve as a nurse’s aide, kept up a steady correspondence with Leighton and her brother, and later with Richardson and Thurlow. Most of her letters were returned to her for safekeeping—and she, of course, also kept theirs. Bishop (English/McMasters Univ., Canada), who has edited Brittain’s diaries, and her biographer Bostridge have edited many of Vera’s letters heavily because the gist of them has already appeared frequently in her other writing. The correspondence begins almost immediately after Vera and Leighton, also a poet, are introduced by her brother. Their exchanges—light-hearted, and at first possessed of a youthfully showy intellectual bent—grow both in emotion and intimacy as the two fall in love. When Leighton heads for France, his letters return filled with war’s beauty and its soullessness: “Modern warfare is merely a trade, and it is only a matter of taste whether one is a soldier or a greengrocer. . . .” Following Leighton’s death, Vera writes more frequently to her brother and to the other two friends. Their responses are not as lyrical as Leighton’s, but their deaths are in some ways more disturbing, because they do herald a lost generation. Brittains of another time and place, here with their souls bared.