Vera Brittain (1893-1970) #madeinderbyshire
Unquestionably Vera Brittain is a key-figure in the literary and political worlds of 20th century England. For a short, but important, part of her life she lived in Buxton. In 1904, when she was 11, the family moved from Macclesfield “to a tall grey stone house in Buxton, the Derbyshire ‘mountain spa’”. This was, evidently, ‘High Leigh’ at 21, Manchester Road – a house which was later converted into flats – as many such houses were. The move was, Vera records, so that she and younger brother Edward could go to a ‘good’ day school: “mine inevitably described itself as ‘a school for the daughters of gentlemen’.”
Three years later the family moved to ‘Melrose’ at 151 Park Road where there is a Blue Plaque recording the fact that she lived ‘here’ from 1907-1914, that is between the ages of 14-21 – key years in the life of anyone. [There is also a plaque in the Pavilion Gardens marking Vera’s links with the town – sadly this bears the wrong dates]. Vera regarded 1915 as the year in which she finally left Buxton – so she was connected with the town between the ages of 11 and 22.
Buxton in the early 20th century had a population of about 12,000 – half what it is today – and Fairfield, Burbage and Higher Buxton were more distinct in their identities than they are now.
It is often reported that Vera ‘hated’ Buxton – and she isn’t very complimentary about the place in her much-loved memoir Testament of Youth. It wasn’t just Buxton that the teenaged Vera didn’t care for; she found her whole upbringing a source of frustration. Her father was wealthy but she found the middle-class social environment stifling – this was especially the case for a questioning young woman who did not want to be merely a decorative, but inferior, accessory for any man. The family had few books and the range of conversation was narrow. Buxton came to represent a provincialism that she never could accept; as she candidly writes in Testament of Youth she was something of a metropolitan snob.
Vera’s family was financially very secure (the house in Park Road is pretty grand by the standards of most people) and their money was earned from paper mills in Staffordshire (she was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme). Though the family lived in Buxton, Vera was away at boarding school in Surrey for long periods and it was at St Monica’s, Kingswood (near Reigate) – which she attended when 13 – that she first encountered the sort of radical ideas that were to shape her life. Vera was sent to St Monica’s because her aunt (Florence Bervon) was one of the two Principals there; it was the second, Louise Heath Jones, who took Vera under her wing.
Louise was “an ardent though always discreet feminist” and a supporter of women’s suffrage and took Vera to public meetings in 1911. She also introduced her to the work of South African feminist Olive Schreiner. It was reading Women and Labour that convinced Vera that she must extend her education and “go to college and at least prepare for a type of life more independent than that of a Buxton young lady”. Vera’s time at St Monica’s gave her the opportunity to read widely, to think critically and to write. Whilst she was not formally prepared for entrance to Oxford she did develop some of the intellectual qualities she would need to pass the entrance exam.
Following her return to Buxton Vera attended, in the Spring of 1913, a short series of University Extension Lectures at the Town Hall. These were given by John (later Sir John) Marriott, who taught history at Oxford and was to become a Conservative MP. Vera completed “essays on the Industrial Revolution, the Problem of Distribution, the History of Trade Unionism and the Rise of the Socialist Movement.” There must have been enough in these essays to prompt Marriott to support and encourage Vera’s bid to be accepted by Oxford.
Buxton also held other important moments and memories for Vera. She met and fell in love with a friend of her brother – Roland Leighton. Edward and Roland met at Uppingham School. Vera and Roland spent some time in Buxton, walking in the Goyt valley. Roland had sympathies for Vera’s feminism and had he lived undoubtedly they would have married
Vera – further encouraged by Roland – had applied for a place at Somerville College, Oxford but the outbreak of war in August was to change everything. Vera completed the first year at Somerville but in the summer of 1915 she decided that she should work to aid those fighting.
Vera was instinctively ‘non-militarist’ but she could see why men were somehow fascinated by war. Roland and Edward quickly enlisted. In June 1915, Vera became a nursing assistant at the Devonshire Hospital, Buxton (‘The Dome’ - now home to the University of Derby). She applied to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment and in November was posted to the First London General Hospital, Camberwell. That effectively ended her life in Buxton.
Roland died on 23 December 1915 of wounds sustained in October. Edward died in Italy on 15 June 1918. He had, earlier in the war, been awarded the Military Cross. His death is recorded, with that of many others, on the Buxton war memorial on the Slopes between the Town Hall and the Crescent.
Vera remains best known for Testament of Youth which tells of the first 30 years of her life – covering her time in Buxton and, crucially, how the First World War affected some of her generation. A recent film adaptation – starring Alicia Vikander as Vera – has been well-received. No filming took place in Buxton – though some scenes were shot in Darley Dale.