Author of Testament of Youth, her account of life as a nurse in World War One, Vera Brittain was a highly influential member of English PEN throughout her long life, working to assist refugees during World War Two and taking part in free expression campaigns for years afterward.
Brittain was also a founding member of the Peace Pledge Union, started in Britain in 1934 by Dick Sheppard to ‘renounce war and never again to support another.’ By the late-1930s, Brittain’s membership of the PPU would put her at odds with PEN policy.
In 1940, Storm Jameson and Hermon Ould, on behalf of English PEN, published a declaration in newspapers around the world entitled ‘To the Conscience of the World’. It urged ‘all those who have still the liberty to speak and to think’ to ‘make it clear to people in your country that we with our allies are not fighting only for ourselves but for the belief we share with every man of any race or religion, who holds that men should respect each other and minds should be free.’ It was signed by a number of influential PEN members including Storm Jameson, H.G. Wells, J.B. Priestley, Cecil Day Lewis, E.M. Forster, Rebecca West and Vera Brittain.
However, some PEN members who were also pacifists took exception to this stance. In November 1940, Ould wrote to Brittain, that another PEN member, a Pacifist named Horace Shipp, had protested the document at the recent English PEN Executive meeting, and suggested that Brittain supported him in this view.
He had, Ould explained, ‘told the Executive Committee that you had written to him in support of his attitude.’ Ould, ever diplomatically, writes ‘it would interest me, and I expect, that Committee, to know exactly what you did say, as I cannot imagine you signed an appeal without knowing what you were signing.’
Brittain admitted that she had been hasty in signing the letter and admitted that she had not agreed with ‘every detail’ but that she ‘was anxious to associate myself with PEN, which I regard as an influence for peace’.
Brittain’s error highlighted a major faultline in Engish PEN and, indeed, among most Britons and Americans in the late 1930s: Should Britain appease Hitler if it might somehow keep the peace in Europe or should it go to war to defend its Allies and values?
The statement made clear English PEN’s support of the war in a way that a founding member of the Peace Pledge Union could not possible countenance. Peace campaigners on both sides of the Atlantic weighed in to condemn Brittain’s involvement.
This marked a serious rift between Brittain and Storm Jameson, then President of English PEN. Jameson had been a pacifist and campaigned alongside Brittain earlier in the decade, but in more recent years, she had come to see war as an inevitable and necessary evil, to rid the world of Nazism. Jameson – typically hard-headed – put little stock in the protests of Shipp and Brittain ‘one of whom had signed the Appeal without reading it, and the other without agreeing with it.’ As she put it.
The ‘Appeal’ would not be revised or withdrawn. The organisation would not support the appeasement of Hitler, but it would support those affected by escalations in hostilities.
Brittain brushed over the incident, close enough in her friendship to Jameson to understand there was little chance of changing her mind.
Nonetheless she donated generously to the PEN Refugee Fund set up by Ould and Jameson, and she organised, with Phyllis Bentley, numerous social events at her home for refugee writers which continued into the 1950s. The parties offered opportunities for the writers to meet each other, to form friendships and to make contact with British writers and publishers who might be able to promote their work.
She was also an active campaigner on a range of issues, from starving children in war-torn to Europe to her later work encouraging links between English and Indian writers.