Postscripts and Vera Brittain’s Letter

First in an occasional series in which I compare J.B. Priestley’s wartime Postscript broadcasts to other regular WW2 publications, an extension of the Priestley’s Finest Hour project.

I recently catalogued Vera Brittain’s Letter to peace-lovers.  As an absolutist pacifist of the Peace Pledge Union, Brittain had a different view of the War from Priestley.

The audiences for the two series would have experienced them in different ways: text versus audio (though Priestley’s broadcasts were also printed).  Brittain’s audience had to subscribe; Priestley’s much larger audience had to expend less effort to hear him, and may have heard him by default – the radio happened to be on, or someone else chose to listen.

Actually, though, in a skim through Brittain’s Letters, I noticed the similarities between her pieces and Priestley’s rather than the differences.

The broadcasts and letters start in similar ways, with a letter, incident, idea leading to deeper thought about the War.  Both use everyday detail tellingly.  For example, this by Brittain about Hyde Park in August 1940 would have made an ideal Postscript: “I could not help wishing that Herr Hitler and Dr Goebbels could be transported here to see the vast London population which they have so often described as panic-stricken.  So accustomed has that imperturbable populace now become to military preparations of the most sinister type, that they have ceased to think of their meaning or even to notice them – except as props for their backs or convenient sandpits for their toddlers”. Both praise British stoicism and courage, and call for the energy put into war to be put into building a better world.

I ended up thinking about what the authors had in common.  Both of course were talented professional communicators, though clearly sincere in what they said.  The most important similarity is that both had experienced the horror of the First World War.  Priestley spent five years on the Western Front and lost all his boyhood friends.  He alluded to these things in his political writings of the 1930s and in the Postscripts, though he did not write about them in detail until Margin Released in 1962.  Brittain, as she described in the unforgettable Testament of Youth, worked as a VAD at the Front.  She lost her fiancee, her brother, and many friends.   Both knew what war meant.  Their life-changing experiences underlie both the Letters and the Postscripts.

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