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Baroness Williams’ Buxton family history

PUBLISHED: 09:00 26 June 2014

Baroness Williams alongside her portrait in the new Brittain-Williams Room at Somerville College, Oxford Photo: John Cairns

Baroness Williams alongside her portrait in the new Brittain-Williams Room at Somerville College, Oxford Photo: John Cairns

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Mike Smith looks forward to Baroness Williams’ appearance at the Buxton Festival, where she will be talking about her mother Vera Brittain, who lived in Buxton as a girl

Baroness WilliamsBaroness Williams

When 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor auditioned for a part in the film National Velvet, she faced tough competition from another budding child star and almost lost the role that would launch her glittering career. Her rival was a 14-year-old girl called Shirley Williams, who missed out on Hollywood stardom, but would go on to stardom at Westminster.

Although Shirley was already a rising politician during her undergraduate years at Oxford University, she continued to pursue her thespian ambitions, taking on starring roles with the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS). Most notably, she played the part of Cordelia in a production of King Lear that toured the United States. In fact, Shirley spent so much time acting while she was a student at Somerville College that her tutor had to plead with her to reduce her commitment to OUDS and concentrate on completing her essays on time.

Her frustrated tutor had also received a letter from Shirley’s mother Vera Bittain, the celebrated author of Testament of Youth, who was very worried about other distractions that might be affecting her daughter’s studies. As a blue-eyed beauty with a seductively husky voice, Shirley was immensely popular. Robin Day called her ‘the most celebrated female undergraduate of her time’ and the student magazine Isis nominated her as their ‘Isis ldol’. Vera Brittain warned her daughter’s tutor: ‘Shirley is terribly handicapped by her popularity and very much at the mercy of her friends.’

Vera Brittain had attended the same college at Oxford, where she had also faced criticism, but for a very different reason. After spending just one year on her degree studies, she chose to abandon her course in order to work as a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Exchanging the dreaming spires of Oxford for a series of military hospitals in London, Malta and at the front in France, she cared for wounded soldiers throughout the years of the First World War, before returning to complete her degree.

Vera BrittainVera Brittain

After graduating from Somerville, both women were driven by their passionate beliefs to make their mark on the world. The College Principal, Alice Prochaska, has described them as ‘two of the most illustrious alumnae to have attended Somerville during the past century’. Last December, Shirley Williams, now known as Baroness Williams of Crosby, was invited to open Somerville’s new Brittain-Williams Room, which celebrates the two women and spans the full width of the Wolfson Building, enclosing the western end of the College quad.

The choice of Buxton for Baroness Williams’ talk about her mother is appropriate in one respect, but somewhat ironical from another perspective. Vera Brittain moved to Buxton with her parents at the age of eleven and later ‘came out’ there as a sort of provincial debutante before going up to Oxford. Describing her life in the town in her celebrated book Testament of Youth, the author wrote, ‘I hated Buxton, despite the austere beauty of its peaks and dales.’ She explained that the heather-covered hills surrounding the town represented in her mind ‘the walls of a prison’.

As a young woman, Vera loathed the ‘bridge-dance dominated atmosphere of Buxton’ and she detested the middle-class values of her parents, who had deliberately sent her to a boarding school in the south of England which ‘equipped girls to be men’s decorative and contented inferiors’. In Testament of Youth, she writes of the long battle to convince her parents that they should allow her to take the Oxford Entrance Examinations and she describes her relief when she was able to escape her ‘provincial prison’. However, in a later chapter in the book, she manages to concede that ‘my furious Buxton resentments eventually mellowed into more balanced opinions’.

Baroness Williams has spoken of her own frustrations with parental attitudes during her upbringing in Chelsea. Writing in a preface for a reprint of Testament of Youth published in the 1970s, she recalled that her mother was in the habit of writing in her study between 10am and 2pm, when she would take a short break to take Shirley and her brother to Battersea Park before returning to her desk until it was time for dinner. Summarising her mother’s attitude to her children, she wrote: ‘She found me and my brother a bit of a distraction; she loved us, but didn’t let us get in the way.’

Buxton Opera House, the venue for Baroness Williams'  talkBuxton Opera House, the venue for Baroness Williams' talk

Regardless of this criticism, Baroness Williams has always had an enormous respect for her mother and for her many achievements, not least as the author of Testament of Youth. Of the book, she says: ‘It is an autobiography and also an elegy for a generation. For many men and women, it described movingly how they themselves felt. Time and time again, in small Welsh towns and in big Northern towns, someone would come up to me after a meeting to ask if my mother was indeed the author of Testament of Youth, and to say how much it meant to them. It is a precious sort of immortality.’

Vera Brittain’s book is an account of her own struggles to go to university and have an independent career at a time when it was frowned upon for women to do so. It is also a moving account of the devastating effects of the First World War, not only on the soldiers who fought but also on the women they left behind. Vera suffered the heartbreak of losing two close friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, together with her brother, Edward, and her fiancé Roland Leighton. She relates how she was expecting to hear confirmation in December 1915 that Roland was coming home on leave for Christmas, only to receive the news that he had been killed by a German sniper. She and Roland had spent a mere seventeen days together.

After the publication of Testament of Youth in 1933, which made Vera Brittain one of the best-loved writers of her time, she wrote 28 more books. She was a convinced pacifist, prolific speaker, lecturer and journalist, devoting much of her energy to the causes of feminism and peace. Her daughter began her own career as a journalist and became a Member of Parliament who quickly rose to Cabinet rank. She was one of the ‘Gang of Four’ who founded the SDP and became the new party’s first MP when she was elected to represent the Crosby constituency.

After losing her seat, she spent five years in America as a professor at Harvard University, returning to the UK in 1993 when she was elevated to the House of Lords. As Baroness Williams of Crosby, she served as the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Upper House and led the opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Her mother would have approved of her stance.

Baroness Williams will be appearing at the Buxton Festival, when she will be in conversation with Dame Janet Smith on the topic of ‘Vera Brittain and the First World War’. The event will take place from 10.30am to 11.30pm on 21st July at Buxton Opera House, tickets £6.

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