Perfect Light

Jenny Diski

  • Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton
    Michael O’Mara, 165 pp, £14.99, June 1992, ISBN 1 85479 191 5
  • Shared Lives by Lyndall Gordon
    Bloomsbury, 285 pp, £16.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 7475 1164 0
  • Antonia White: Diaries 1958-1979 edited by Susan Chitty
    Constable, 352 pp, £19.95, May 1992, ISBN 0 09 470660 3

One of the mysteries of our time is the hunger we have to know details about the lives of people we have never met. Years ago, walking down Heath Street, I saw, at the bottom of the hill by the station, the most extraordinary glow in the air. I was still too far away to see what was causing the strange disturbance, but as I got closer the picture resolved itself into two figures encased in a golden shimmer, the light zinging around them. Naturally, I was thrilled to be getting my first authentic sighting of extraterrestrials – and in Hampstead, too. Sadly, my vision firmed up quite soon, as they and I got closer to each other, and I recognised the not-quite-extraterrestrial, dumpy, middle-aged forms of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton panting their way up the hill. The glow was not, of course, from their outward perfection, nor their inner beauty and wisdom, but the result of years and years of attention from precision-ground lenses and high-wattage lights being focused and shone at them. They had absorbed the energy, and like fully-charged batteries, radiated it back.

This must account for some of our obsession with the lives of the famous. We invest energy in them and then mine them, as if they were natural resources, warming our chilly everyday selves with the glow we have created.

Imagine a world where, every time you turned on the television, you did not see an actor giving his recipe for world peace, before laying before us his deep emotional feelings (yes, I know that’s tautologous) about fatherhood. Imagine a world in which one-third of every newspaper (I mean, of course, the quality press) was not devoted to in-depth interviews with dressmakers and novelists, so that you were not obliged to know their attitude to contraception and the wall-colouring technique of their favourite room. Difficult to imagine so many blank screens and empty pages, I know, but it’s worth the effort to achieve the rush of serenity to the frontal lobes, where before there was only brain ache.

In a hundred years or so, I suspect that our time will be described, not as the age of Marx or Freud or Darwin (anyway, one has toppled, one’s shaky on his pins, and the last hasn’t got a chance in hell of surviving the Age of Aquarius), but as the age of the personality. ‘Whatever that was,’ they may well add.

For posterity, let me explain about personality. It might be supposed that in order to be one, an individual ought to have one. If this was true in the past (was it? Was drinking too much and killing big fish evidence that Hemingway was someone we needed to listen to?), the reverse is true now. Ideally, a personality should have no more to say than would take up ten minutes of Wogan or Aspel air time, they should wear the clothes of a handful of authorised designers (Armani, say, or Westwood), and they should be falling over themselves to reassure us that any past misdemeanours are regretted and, in any case, not nearly as exciting as we were led to believe. I’m thinking here particularly of a recent interview with Paul McCartney where he explained that when he and Mick smoked what he described charmingly as ‘pot’ together (after dinner, with a nice glass of wine apparently) all that happened was that they ‘discussed art’. I remember ’68, and let me assure you, he’s right, that’s just how it was.

So where, in the personality stakes, does this leave a 30-year-old woman with two kids, a minimum of education and no qualifications, trapped in a dead marriage to an absentee husband? Nowhere, of course, if she happens to live in a housing estate in Leeds: but right bang on top of the interview list if her old man happens to be the next king of England.

Early on in Diana: Her True Story (isn’t that a nice title?), I find myself vindicated in my zinging light theory by best friend Carolyn, who assures us: ‘I’m not a terribly spiritual person but I do believe that she was meant to do what she is doing and she certainly believes that. She was surrounded by this golden aura which stopped men going any further, whether they would have liked to or not, it never happened. She was protected somehow by a perfect light.’ And this before anything more momentous had happened to her than finding herself with Barbara Cartland as a step-grandmother. Diana, apparently, concurs with this: ‘I knew I had to keep myself tidy for what lay ahead.’

This magical piece of gynaecological imagery makes Andrew Morton’s book almost worth reading, but it might not be enough to make it worth buying. Diana is constantly quoted, the key phrase being, ‘As Diana says ...’ But it is never clear to whom she is speaking, or even when. It gives her a mythic quality. She exists like a genie in a bottle, whose stopper is occasionally lifted, and lo, she speaks. Obviously, she is not speaking to Morton; you can almost feel the pain of the missing ‘to me’ at the end of the stock phrase.

There are a few other exciting moments, as when Morton combines the sartorial with the mystical: ‘The most obvious outward sign of the inner development was her new shorter hairstyle which signified the liberation she feels from her past life.’ Clearly, Morton has taken a leaf out of Diana’s own book and consulted a spirit medium who put him in touch with Barthes for this insight. In fact, the suggested spiral of her spiritual development is such that we might shortly be privileged to see her (just before her canonisation along with her pal, Mother Teresa) with an entirely shaved head. I await the moment with quiet excitement.

Tempered steel is emerging from the nondescript little girl whose marital suffering has made a woman of her. Once praised merely for ‘being, not for doing’, she has decided to allow the world to know all that she has to put up with. Prince Charles is a cad – he walks away when she flings herself head-first down the stairs, he mocks her when he finds her reading Jungian texts on death and holding the hands of dying friends, he is petulant about her popularity with the population. Worst of all is his persistent liaison with the sinister Camilla Parker-Bowles. (We are not told if this is a sexual relationship, but no doubt the lady gives good-enough Jung and Van der Post to satisfy the seeking Prince.) All this, according to Morton, has made Diana increasingly her own woman. With the help of astrologers and metaphysically-inclined masseurs she is carving a niche for herself in succouring the halt and the lame, while knowing (in that way one knows) that she won’t become queen of England. The premonition is never quite explained. Does she think that death is beckoning, or divorce, or is she planning to become a nun? It is not clear.

In truth, if things are as described between the Waleses, it is a miserable marriage and you can’t help but be sorry for that. But since when were royal marriages supposed to be happy? In the history of British royalty, when was there ever a sexually and mentally-fulfilling official coupling? It’s not supposed to be like that, I had thought. Princes of Wales have mistresses and peculiar social theories, and Princesses of Wales give themselves up to dignified child-bearing and weird waving in nice frocks from open carriages. That’s a royal destiny.

The trouble seems to stem from that terrible wedding business. Having read (or been forced to read) too many of her step-grandmother’s books, Princess Sweet Pea-Brain was caught up in the fabulation, and believed she was actually participating in a fairy-tale. This fantasy, of course, was only meant for the hoi polloi, who were, at the time, being distracted by the Brixton riots, IRA hunger strikes and trouble in the mines: but young girls’ heads (those not born to it) will be turned by an overdose of petticoats and lace. Only now does Diana appear to have understood that she was merely an actor in a long-running show, whose cast, unlike that of The Mousetrap, never changes. Naturally, waking as she has from a dream, she’s a bit grumpy, feeling a little cheated by reality. Either she will adjust to it (a Mars Bar is always a good way of getting fast energy after a long nap), or we may look forward, in years to come, to ghosted memoirs and to a stream of chat show appearances by the personality of all personalities: the one that got away from the innermost sanctum of the Royal Family. Fergie, eat your heart out.

It’s hardly surprising that some will revolt against all this, and search for meaning in ordinary, un-spotlit lives, demanding to know, with Virginia Woolf, ‘whether the lives of great men only should be recorded. Is not anyone who has lived a life, and left a record of that life, worthy of biography – the failures as well as the successes, the humble as well as the illustrious? And what is greatness? And what is smallness?’ And what, one might ask VW in a whisper, is humbug? Still, finding meaning in the ordinary life is the stated purpose of Lyndall Gordon’s biography of her three girlhood friends, Romy, Rose and Ellie, who never became famous for anything before they each died, younger than people are supposed to these days.

Of course, an early death is almost as sexy as fame and riches, especially if it’s the death of a woman who is unhappy, confused, unfulfilled. Little lives rounded with a sleep are given their shape, and therefore a special significance, which little lives that linger on into tetchy, dismal old age don’t have. Just a question, but what if Sylvia Plath were alive and well, along with Anne Sexton, and the two of them met over occasional lunches to tut-tut over the sloppy rearing of their grandchildren?

Death, in any case, has a cachet which lends weight to even the featheriest of lives. A cynic might suppose that Lyndall Gordon was fortunate to have such friends, their brief lives a biographical gift to the surviving fourth, who was the only formal achiever in the group. The time and place, too, were serendipitous: South Africa in the Fifties has the retrospective air of Pompeii before Vesuvius went pop, Pudding Lane just before someone dropped a match, the Titanic as the bottle of champagne crashed against her bows.

Apartheid was in full bloom throughout their youth, with Sharpeville at its dead centre. All of them, from politically liberal families, grew to dislike the regime and finally left the country. Yet you can’t help wondering to what extent the political outrage was fuelled by the perceived glamour of New York and Paris, beckoning in glossy magazines to the young women who felt themselves to be stuck in a provincial backwater. And the problems of virginity and marriage seem to loom largest in the story of their lives.

Of the four friends, the star is Flora, whose name mutated with the years to a more glitzy Romy. She seems to exist in the book almost as the shadow self of Lyndall Gordon, who herself married young, travelled to America where her husband worked, had children, postnatal depression, and finally got down to a career in academe, and the writing of two literary biographies.

Meanwhile Romy – who was the plump schoolfriend, Flora – flits furiously around the world pursued by lovers, but staying single and virgo intacta for an inordinately long time. She diets, cuts her hair and her hemlines according to the needs of the decade, but remains in permanent flight from the social and cultural necessity of settling down. Romy is presented as a free spirit, inevitably damaged by the changing demands of the times she is living through – by the past and her family, who so badly want her married and bearing babies, by the future and the outside world, which wants her an independent carefree career-woman. Yet she comes across as irritatingly neurotic rather than heroic – though the two conditions are perhaps much the same. Eventually, she does get married – to the man to whom she finally loses her virginity, although not the man she loves. Her death not long after, from viral pneumonia, colludes in keeping her from the dull satisfactions of the future.

There is undoubtedly a bond of time and place between the women, but the often overwrought prose Gordon uses to describe it is not very convincing. This is the response to a letter from Rose suggesting she and Gordon were never all that close: ‘I had shared with Rose a sense of a submerged being, like some deep-sea creature swimming and diving beneath the surface. Nothing of this had we put into words, but meeting Rose or Flora beneath the sea, had been for me, and I believed still was for Flora, the truthful moment.’ There’s no one left to argue the point, and Rose’s cool words are left to flap uselessly about in someone else’s record of time past. And, in the end, it’s hard not to feel that the story which started out as an attempt to retrieve the value in invisible lives has become a faintly triumphal account of Lyndall Gordon the survivor, the achiever, and the one, out of all of the promising friends, who has the power to choose to make them visible.

The other side of the personality conundrum is how much do we really want, or need, to know about the lives of those who do achieve something memorable? Clearly, we want to know quite badly, if the plethora of biographical material on Antonia White is anything to go by. Since her death, squabbles and law suits have busied her offspring, and trees by the dozen have been felled in the cause of discovering the real Antonia White. The second volume of her diaries takes her from the age of 60 up to her death at 81, a period in her life when no new books were written, though not from want of trying, and those written years before were reissued as ‘classic women’s writing’ by Virago.

The diaries are edited by Susan Chitty, White’s eldest daughter, in the teeth of her half-sister Lyndall’s opposition. Antonia White herself seemed not entirely sure if she wanted them published or not. ‘All I can say is that they are a record of what I was thinking and feeling at the time. On the other hand, there are things in them which it would hurt Sue, and perhaps Lyndall to read ... and I know they are a horrible exposure of myself.’ In the same passage she advocates burning the diaries, but also thinks they might be useful to other writers and to Catholics. A nice little problem to leave for your descendants to argue about. Their use to writers is limited, I should think, to their description of what all must either know or fear already: the agony of the The Block. And for Catholics, White’s relationship to religion, in this period, would, I imagine, be dispiriting.

The entries tell the story of a terrible aridity, desperate displacement obsessions about painting and decorating (problems with the right kind of chintz loom large), sentimental religiosity and the sad business of waiting for death. Not that the unhappy declining of powers and the struggle to keep them alive isn’t a story to tell, but perhaps it is one better told in fiction, where the sharp eye of a novelist such as White herself can cut through the miasma of self-deception and silliness. Her desperate attempts to overcome her writing block are painful to read. Over and over she asks herself if she’s meant to be a writer, spends months working and reworking a single paragraph, then decides it would be better to do another book altogether. It is a state of panic which nothing can alleviate: ‘three weeks ago I said to God “If you really want me to write this book, give me some idea how to handle this chapter.” ’

God isn’t much help here, though he does come up trumps financially from time to time. He assists her in the housing department, too, when she moves into a new flat. ‘All the astonishing things that have happened ought to convince me God wants me to have it! I will never know what I owe to my friends’ prayers and generosity ... think of Phyllis, so poor herself, giving me that £100.’

It is curious that the author of Frost in May should have so infantilised her relationship with God. The child in that novel, which White herself calls autobiographical, has an infinitely more profound understanding of the power and sensuality of the Catholicism to which Antonia White returned in later life. Nanda, the child in the novel, struggles with the grip of the Church over her imagination and spirit, all the while loving and fearing its terrible coercive power of ceremony and guilt. The elderly woman, however, wonders, when she wonders at all, what parts of the Garden of Eden story she is supposed to take literally. It is in the fiction that we see most clearly what White increasingly doubts the existence of through the period of this diary: the ‘core’ of herself. I can see nothing to be gained from reading about the pathetic private confusion of her last months, but it is true that up to that point you sense a great tenacity, an almost noble determination to struggle on despite the brick walls of writer’s block and increasing infirmity. But that strength is precisely what is most strongly seen and felt in the novels and stories.

Fiction is what she did in the world, and what she thought of herself as doing. Isn’t it odd that, admiring the work, we want to possess the worker – happy, apparently, to exchange her carefully thought-out intention for the everyday inadequacy of a life which is, of course, just as humdrum and confused as the life of anyone else. What we own of Antonia White is her published fiction, stories and novels, and that is all we can ever own, unless we were personally involved with her. And perhaps it’s also true, conversely, that those personally involved with writers can never quite own the fiction. To look to the life, of Diana, Romy or Antonia White, for what fiction does so much better is to seek out a phantom which cannot fail to disappoint.