Courage, Love—& Vera Brittain’s WW I Memoir

What Is True Courage—Including in Love?

By Nancy Huntting

Vera Brittain, 1915
Vera Brittain, 1915

Every woman wants to feel courageous.  I remember at college wishing I had the courage to do something really useful for other people and the world, and being ashamed that I was too timid and selfish.  There was hardly a day that went by that I didn’t have the feeling I was cowardly in some way.  How frequently women do feel this is a sign how much courage means to us, and how much it is an everyday matter:  when we don’t want to meet new people, or pretend we feel something we don’t, or join in making fun of someone knowing we should try to stop it, we feel cowardly and ashamed.

“There are two ways people criticize themselves,” Eli Siegel said in an Aesthetic Realism lesson, “which Montaigne wrote about in his essays.  One is cowardly; the other is cruel.”

What is true courage, and what stops us from having it?  Mr. Siegel gives this magnificent definition in his work Definitions and Comment, Being a Description of the World:

Courage is the belief that the way things are is not against oneself, and therefore that these things should not be gone away from.

Mr. Siegel shows that courage arises from our attitude to the facts about the world—”the way things are.”  “Courage,” he continues in his comment, “is an organic like of the facts, making for a wish to know them.”  The chief thing Aesthetic Realism shows, that stops us from having courage is contempt, the “disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.”  This unjust contempt is always cowardly, because it is a dismissing or changing of the facts in order to falsely get to superiority and comfort for ourselves.

Aesthetic Realism makes it possible for people to see that the way the world is, is for us, because its structure is aesthetic: the oneness of opposites, the same opposites we are trying to do a good job with in our lives.

Tonight I speak of the English writer Vera Brittain (1893-1970), and what a woman studying in consultations is learning now—to show that through Aesthetic Realism we can learn what true courage is.  Vera Brittain is best known for her 1933 book about her own life, Testament of Youth, said to be the only book about World War I by a woman.  In 1915 when she was 20 she left a prestigious position as a student at Oxford to enlist as a nurse; her fiance and her brother would be killed in the war.  In her forward to the book she says:

Only, I felt, by some such attempt to write history in terms of personal life could I rescue something that might be of value, some element of truth and hope and usefulness, from the smashing up of my own youth by the War….I have tried to write the exact truth as I saw and see it about both myself and other people…

She “had known despair” she wrote later, and in this book wanted “to prove that this universal emotion could be overcome even by individuals whose courage was as small as mine.”  Part of her courage is that she writes of fears she was ashamed of, and never understood, and I respect this very much.  But there was knowledge she didn’t have that Aesthetic Realism can provide women now enabling them to change in ways they so much hope for.

Where Does Cowardice Begin?

Eli Siegel is the person who most understood what a child feels.  “If you look at any child of three,” Mr. Siegel explains in his great lecture Aesthetic Realism and the Past, “and you go deep enough you will see that that child…is sizing up the universe….the question is, how good a job are you going to do?”

“Sometimes a child can think, as everyone can, that the whole world consists of one’s enemy and it’s too puzzling and I wish I could lie down and never get up.”

In my first Aesthetic Realism consultation I was asked what I thought of the world, and I said I was afraid of it.  I began to learn that, while there are things in the world we should be afraid of, the feelings of fear I was ashamed of came from my own unjust contempt—I wanted to think the world was against me and didn’t want to know it truly.  This, I learned, is the reason people both assert themselves arrogantly, and retreat from the world too fearfully.

For instance, as a child I was usually shy and quiet around adults, but with friends I did foolish and sometimes dangerous things—like climbing on the unfinished rafters of a house being built down the street.  In my teens at a party, I felt it was safer not talking because what I said might be used against me.  But the real reason, I learned, was before I knew anything about a person I already had contempt—I felt people were not worth talking to.

“Contempt is a sign of strength to people,” Mr. Siegel said in a class, and asked me, “Is that so with you?”  Yes it was.  While I felt afraid and inferior, inside I thought I was superior in finding other people’s flaws.  I learned it was because my thought about people was so unjust that I punished myself by thinking they were against me.  “If you don’t want to know people,” Mr. Siegel once said, “you have to see them as enemies.”

Only when we want to know the world and people, I learned, will we both assert ourselves and be accurately modest in a way that makes sense.  Courage is always a beautiful relation of these opposites.  “Courage,” Mr. Siegel explains in his comment to the definition, is not “imprudence, foolhardiness… stubbornness” and it “quite plainly, is not flight, faintheartedness, hesitation”—

“it is an accurate point between faint-heartedness and fool-hardiness, hesitation and stubbornness.  It is a rhythm, and a rhythm implies here, as elsewhere, a profound accuracy.”

Aesthetic Realism makes possible this “profound accuracy” and Mr. Siegel himself had it, magnificently.  Through what I have learned I am no longer walled up in myself, trying to get away from things.  I have a larger desire to know myself, to know other people, to see and be affected by the infinite richness of the world, that I am so grateful for—Aesthetic Realism has made me a more courageous person.

Vera Brittain Wanted to Know This

As a young child at the turn of the century, growing up in a well-to-do family in northern England, Vera Brittain, like every child, was not sure whether the outside world was for her or against her.  She remembers their house was “always… full of music” which she loved; at the age of 8 she says she read aloud parts of Matthew Arnold’s poem about a father and son, “Sohrab and Rustum,” over and over.  But she also describes herself at age 5 scornfully calling her younger brother, Edward, “Little fool!”  And in Testament of Youth she writes of the “strange medley of irrational fears” she says “tormented” her:

of thunder, of sunsets, of the full moon, of the dark, of standing under railway arches or crossing bridges over noisy streams, of the end of the world and of the devil waiting to catch me round the corner…

“There seemed to be no one to whom I could appeal for understanding of such humiliating cowardice,” she says.  There is courage in her wanting to know this.  Only Aesthetic Realism explains that we judge ourselves on how fair we are, how much true feeling we have about other people and things.  In Self and World Mr. Siegel understands the reason I and Vera Brittain had fear we were ashamed of:

“Guilt…makes for fear….where we should be against something in ourselves, we have chosen to be against what is not ourselves.  We have chosen to oppose it, hate it…. Once, however, we see the world as giving us pain, we can see it as giving us pain in the future, too, and in ways we do not see.  We feel also we deserve this pain…”

What made Vera Brittain courageous—more so than many people—was that while she had these fears, which she says never really left her, she also had a strong desire to know and find value in things.  At the girls’ school she attended from 15 to 18, she describes her pleasure in learning history and current events, and in reading poetry—Dante, Shakespeare, Browning, Swinburne; and it was Shelley’s poem “Adonais,” she says that—

taught me to perceive beauty embodied in literature, and made me finally determine to become the writer that I had dreamed of being ever since I was seven.

She wrote in her diary at 19, “I longed …for something to … respect with all my soul.”  Every woman is hoping more than she knows to respect the outside world, find value in it which is for us, will make us stronger, more ourselves.

Respect for the World Makes for Courage

It is the privilege of my life to teach with my colleagues in Aesthetic Realism consultations, given in person and via telephone to other cities and countries.  Women learn about contempt in themselves and have greater respect for the world, and the result is they become more courageous and proud; this includes the field of love.

Jennifer Matlow is a young Canadian woman who teaches math in a public school, and studies in consultations.  She had traveled extensively, and was proud of her academic achievements, but she wrote that, “I worried one day I would not be able to remember what I learned,” and, she said, “I was scared that I might not be able to feel at all.”  While Miss Matlow cared for both science and art, she told us she was very unsure of herself as a teacher, and said “to hide it I am stiff and hard with my students.”  And she also worried that she might not have real love in her life.

We asked her, “How much have you wanted to feel separate from the world?”  She did feel separate, she said, “I felt I had to fight the world to protect myself.”  “Are you in a fight between the scientist, and your desire to have your own world,” we asked, “your own laws?”  “Yes, I think I am,” she said.

She told us she got away from her family as soon as she could because “the atmosphere was unbearable.”  Like so many people, she was angry at her parents and felt hurt by them, and she had used them to dislike the whole world.  One of the early assignments we gave her was to write a monologue of the thoughts of her father, who she said she had admired, but felt was cold to her.  She began to see her father as having questions every man has, and not as just against her. “You have had a whole career in wanting to punish your parents,” we told her.  “We are trying to have you see what is true about them.  Should we go by what’s true,” we asked, “or what makes us important?”

As she did the monologue of her father’s thoughts—about her mother, his work as surveyor and geologist, books and people he was affected by—Miss Matlow said she began to remember how much he had encouraged her care for knowledge, and wasn’t just cold. “Many more memories are coming back,” she told us, “and I have a desire deep in my heart to understand my father.”  And seeing him more accurately, she felt more hopeful about love.

Courage and Love

Courage, Aesthetic Realism taught me, is necessary for us to honestly love another person.  Mr. Siegel explains the reason men and women have pained each other in love, in the preface to his essay “The Ordinary Doom”:

“We haven’t yet come to the courage needed to have ourselves be seen and to see another fully….Our attitude to the world is still one of fear, one of contempt, and one of aloofness.  This means that whomever we know, our attitude to that person will be one of fear, contempt, aloofness.”

When Vera Brittain was coming to know Roland Leighton—the handsome friend of her brother who took all the top academic prizes on “Speech Day”— she was both affected by him and fearful.  She wrote, “He interests me so deeply and strangely, this serious-minded, brilliant, unusual young man.”  But later she says, “I felt in danger of liking him too well to be altogether comfortable.” Roland Leighton

In the spring of 1915, 19-year-old Roland Leighton, like many young men, was sent to the front in France.  For 5 months in which she was filled with constant and truly warranted fear, they wrote to each other, and her account of their correspondence is moving.  The life-and-death worry made them kinder and more courageous in showing what they truly felt; they both had greater feeling about thousands of other people as they increasingly questioned why this horror had come to be.

Her response, though, when he came home on a short leave, and suggested hesitantly they might become engaged, was not kind, or courageous.  She writes in her diary:

I thought I would test him by using a little scorn and so I said as contemptuously as I knew how, ‘My dear child, you don’t know—’
‘What don’t I know?’ he asked.
‘Your own mind,’ I answered…

He soon became cool, too, and then both of them distant for the rest of the day.  A woman can feel she is bold in treating a man this way—but this is not courage, it is contempt which we think will protect us from a world we are afraid of being affected by—and it makes us cruel.

She accepted his proposal the next day, but four months later, Roland Leighton was shot and killed.  “Often since,” she wrote, “I have felt repentant about refusing to say good-night, or treating him with even assumed indifference after all he had been through.”

There is courage in her repentance—she is trying to criticize herself accurately.  Part of what impelled her, I believe, to remain a nurse throughout the rest of the war and go to the front, was regret for the way she had been cold and unkind. Earlier in 1915, as Vera Brittain began learning medical instruments and dressings at a London hospital—she wrote about her training to be a nurse, “love of learning is part of the very essence of my being.”  It was her care for knowledge that saved her from what she described as “the harsh, unmelting bitterness into which I had been frozen” after Roland Leighton was killed.

Courage, Mr. Siegel shows in his definition, arises from the desire to know, and not stop knowing—even when the facts may not seem comfortable or advantageous for us: “Real courage,” he says, “which wishes to be graceful, is always after the facts.”  Vera Brittain worked long hours, and all-night shifts until she was physically exhausted, seeing overwhelming agony we can only partly realize through her writing; seeing slow, excruciatingly painful, death.

In 1967 Mr. Siegel said in a lecture about World War I, “People think the shock is over, but the world has not recovered.”  It affected the direction of Vera Brittain’s entire life. She felt she had to try to prevent future war: she worked for the League of Nations, and later became an outspoken pacifist.

“It was contempt that made for the trenches in France in 1915,” wrote Eli Siegel in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known # 165 “What Caused the Wars”: “it was contempt which made for the labor camps of the Second World War.” In the study of Aesthetic Realism is the explanation of war and where it begins in every person, including those who run nations.

Courage and Aesthetic Realism Consultations

The change in Jennifer Matlow’s life is one of an increasing desire to know and like the world, and increasing true courage. She had pain as to love, but she began to learn that love is a subject of education: she has written assignments such as: “Are there laws about love in the same way there are laws of mathematics?” and “How I am like Madame Bovary?”

She told us in one consultation, “I would like to look at a man and feel I want to know him, not want to conquer him. I don’t like myself for that.” We asked,

Consultants:  Is it more thrilling to see the meaning of the world through a man, than to have him silly about you?  That’s what you need to feel in order to honestly love someone.  But have you felt women are superior to men?

Jennifer Matlow:  Yes.  That is what I’ve felt.

Consultants:  “Einstein was a lightweight?”

“No,” said Miss Matlow, laughing.  We gave her an assignment to write a list of things she would respect in a man; and we asked, “Do you think knowing a man is as much a subject as, say, algebra?”  When she met and began to care for Michael Forelli, a teacher of art, she respected his knowledge and the way he was self-critical. She told us with a new pride and pleasure in her voice that she was more courageous in showing herself to Mr. Forelli, including her doubts and questions. “Our conversations are having a good effect on us!” she said. As she’s become deeper and more accurate about people, she also has come to have large feeling about her students and love teaching.

What has happened to Jennifer Matlow stands for what can occur in every woman’s life.  She wrote to us in a document for her consultations:

I am one of the happiest and most fortunate women alive…. Aesthetic Realism taught me, and for this I will be grateful forever, that my contempt for the world caused me to feel depressed and worthless….[I learned] the deepest thing in me is related to the deepest truth about the world. “The world, art and self explain each other; each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites,” Eli Siegel saw.  This is the greatest truth ever discovered.  Learning this, I never felt alone again…for the first time I feel at home in the world.

I am proud to agree with Miss Matlow. The study of Aesthetic Realism makes possible the courageous and truly happy lives women are yearning to have, all people are yearning to have.