Monday, March 16, 2015

A genius for friendship

Vera Brittain's memoir of Winifred Holtby, Testament of Friendship, achieves what any biographer wants--and even more, what any biographer of a friend wants: it makes us believe that we know what it was like to be around its subject, to feel that we've encountered her actual life force. In Holtby's case, it seems to have been a potent, energetic, effusive life force, extinguished by disease far too young. This is a book that earns the term of its title: while far from a hagiography, it's nonetheless a true testament, a tribute as much as a portrait.

Tonight I'll share a few paragraphs that succinctly show Brittain's approach while at the same time revealing a key aspect of Holtby's character:
Since Winifred died, many people have wondered where exactly her genius for friendship lay. It came, I think, from an instinctive skill in the art of human relationship which most of us acquire only after years of blunder and quarrelsome pain. St. John Ervine has said that she saw her radiance in other people, and this is undoubtedly true. But it is also true that few individuals are jet black or even neutral grey; most of them possess their own radiance, their peculiar glamour, if the beholder's eye is benevolent enough to discern it. Winifred realised that the desire to "be good" is a fundamental part of each normal person's make-up. It may be overlaid by pessimism, camouflaged by cynicism, transformed by bitterness, but the observer who perceives it beneath the trappings can usually count on a gracious response.

Winifred had an infallible consciousness of the other person's standpoint; usually she put her friends' wishes first and her own second. When she wrote letters she invariably began by referring to her correspondents' interests and problems. If she answered the telephone she always replied, however disastrously the call had interrupted her, as though the speaker at the other end were the one person whom she wanted to hear. In conversation she seldom discussed her own troubles; she encouraged other people to talk about theirs. She was never offended; she seemed to be quite without the apparatus of sensitive pride and vulnerable dignity used by the person who lacks confidence to defend his ego against a world of which he is deeply suspicious. Meanness and irrationality were the only qualities that she feared, and she always took for granted that people were generous and rational until they had proved beyond doubt that her trust was misplaced.

When, very occasionally, someone did her a service, she promptly expressed her delighted appreciation; her very surprise (for she was not without her own brand of cynicism) added to its spontaneous sincerity. Although, especially in her last years, she had a marked capacity for trenchant criticism, she seldom criticised individuals for their conduct, and only then after the most thorough search for extenuating circumstances. She never committed the deadly sin of undermining another person's self-confidence, for she knew that self-confidence takes half a lifetime to build up but can be destroyed in half an hour.
Most of this is far from complicated--it's what we try to remind ourselves to do: listen, ask questions, pay attention, care about the people we careen about with in this life. But all too often we fail to do so; the self is too seductive and distracting. Holtby, it seems, managed it, and did so with a grace and ease that made it seem natural. To do that and while managing to write several novels, be a well-regarded journalist, and be politically active (and effectively so), well, that's the mark of a rare person. No wonder Brittain felt her loss so keenly.

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