March 1914: Vera Brittain is Awarded an Exhibition

“I realised that I could not have any chance at all” Vera Brittain, ‘March 16th-20th, Somerville College, Oxford’ Chronicle of Youth

In March 1914, Vera Brittain visited Somerville to take the College entrance examination. She had applied not just for a place but for a scholarship, despite advice from the Principal, Emily Penrose, not to try for the latter. Her anxiety before the exam was poignantly similar to that felt by many students going through College entrance today. When she saw the first of the week’s papers, she was horrified to find that she had not prepared correctly at all, and only continued the exam after promising herself that she would ask Miss Penrose to send her home in the afternoon.

Of course, she need not have worried, as the very next week she received a letter announcing the decision to give her an exhibition of £20 for 3 years. She regarded the news as amazing, commenting “what they can have awarded the Exhibition on I cannot think, as I finished none of the papers”! Perhaps her interview with Helen Darbishire (who would become Principal in 1931), with whom she discussed Wordsworth, convinced the College of her academic merit.

The entrance examination itself was sat by all Somerville applicants (according to Brittain, there were 82 in 1914). The papers included one translation from Latin, Greek, French, or German, and also one paper in the applicant’s chosen subject. For Vera Brittain, that was English Literature. Listed in the College annual report with the other scholars and exhibitioners, this is the first published record of Vera Brittain’s long association with Somerville.

Georgina Salzedo