Born in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Brittain was the daughter of a middle-class family with socialist sympathies. After studying at Somerville College, Oxford, she delayed her graduation in order to work as a V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse in Europe. Her fiance, Roland Leighton, her brother, and most of their friends were killed in the war. Returning to Oxford to complete her course, she found it difficult to adjust to peacetime. Her closest friend was Winifred Holtby, whose experience was comparable and who, like Vera, was a budding novelist. Vera Brittain's first published novel was The Dark Tide. In 1925 she married George Catlin, an American professor. It was not until 1933 that she published Testament of Youth, which would be followed by several sequels.
Her daughter is the politician, Shirley Williams.