by Antonia White, edited by Susan Chitty.
Constable, 320 pp., £19.95, September 1991, 0 09 470650 6
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In her introduction to Antonia White’s Diaries the editor, her elder daughter Susan Chitty, quite naturally raises the question of whether or not they should have been published at all. But such doubts as she may have had, and conquered, have apparently nothing to do with the amount of coverage her mother’s life needs or justifies. She obviously feels the subject is inexhaustible. Many readers might disagree. We already have Antonia White’s sequence of unashamedly autobiographical novels, starting with Frost in May in 1933. We have her own straight account of her early life, As once in May. Then there are other autobiographical pieces: short stories and attempts at further novels and, for good measure, a set of highly autobiographical letters, The Hound and the Falcon, which are concerned with her Catholicism.

For any necessary background there are the volumes written by her two daughters. Susan Chitty insists that they are only memoirs and of course she can say what she likes about her own book, Now to my Mother, but she is being a little unfair to that of her half-sister Lyndall Hopkinson, ominously entitled Nothing to forgive. This book is, among other things, a very substantial biography.

Now we have Diaries, a weak frame upholstered with informative notes and a biographical introduction which is for several pages word for word the same as the one Susan Chitty used for her Antonia White anthology a few years ago. And still the editor is not satisfied. She concludes her introduction by stating that ‘until someone writes a biography of Antonia White these diaries must stand as her memorial.’ Elsewhere she mentions ‘a considerable output of letters’ which are presumably in the offing. I suggest that natural piety is becoming unnatural.

Great achievement on the subject’s part is, of course, not absolutely necessary for biography or autobiography. Certainly the 20th century is rich in accounts of and by people who were, as the cliché goes, famous for being famous. But in her life Antonia White was never more than fairly famous for being fairly famous; and her work cannot bear any more weight than it has already had to. Sadly, for herself and for us, she was a writer with serious limitations. The success of Frost in May, which sent her into orbit in the first place, was due partly to the fact that at the time books about awful convents were very popular (they should soon be getting to the end of their shelf-life) and to the fulsome praise of the then highly influential Elizabeth Bowen.

Soon after the book’s publication its author wrote modestly and accurately of her gift. I quote from Diaries: ‘I do not think I have any “creative” genius. Whatever I have, if I have anything, is the capacity to recognise things. If I have a “line” it is this perceptive, interpreting one – not striking out new things, but trying to perceive old or present ones without cant, posturing or accumulations.’ Twenty years later, her talent now markedly in decline and herself both battered and toughened by the vicissitudes of literary life, she evaluates her gifts once more and rather differently. From Diaries again: ‘Among the moderns, in England I have to admit there are very few who are definitely “better”.’ She also has to admit that Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh are more brilliant than herself; she is not brilliant, she emphatically tells us, and only wishes ‘to see straight and put it down right’ (‘tell it like it is,’ they were to say in the Sixties); who wants to be brilliant? She thinks it is silly of the critics to compare her with other writers. But she seems to feel that the actual comparisons are sound: to George Eliot, Jane Austen, Galsworthy, Compton Mackenzie and Dostoevsky. What did enrage her was ‘a nasty review’ which mentioned her in the same breath as Daphne du Maurier. She records the comment with a Sitwellian exclamation-mark after it.

Great personal achievement is no more necessary to a diarist than it is to an autobiographer but it helps. Susan Chitty seems to have no doubts at all about this aspect of Diaries. She is contemplating a second instalment. The present volume records the years from 1926, when the writer was 27, to 1957. Actually, ‘records’ is not quite the right word, for the entries as presented are in every way random and desultory. We cannot know whether the editor’s work of selecting 250,000 words from over a million has helped or hindered in this respect. The result is neither a diary nor, as has been claimed, a writer’s notebook: it is a collection of jottings.

The dating of the book is misleading. The first piece, ‘Paris, 1926’, is the only one which represents this year or indeed the next six. It is a sort of étude, consisting of atmosphere (‘long drives in the bois. Beautiful these hot starry summer nights’) and arty remarks about pictures, like: ‘You feel that every line is there because there is nowhere else it could be.’ Then there is this long gap; the diaries themselves start in 1933. The editor is not responsible for the absence of earlier diaries: they were destroyed. But the effect is odd.

One of the sequences is completely incoherent. It has been taken from a separate notebook, referred to as Benedicta’s Diary and incorporated with the main material. Benedicta de Bezer, christened Kathleen, was the sort of woman who simultaneously gives Catholics and lesbians a bad name. She fell in love with Antonia in 1947. It was clearly a tempestuous episode, with a surprising number of other people in the cast, including Susan and several woman friends. Seven priests were involved: I counted them all out as they went off to impart ghostly counsel, but was unable to count them all back again. The two main characters drenched crucifixes with their tears and said the Office of the Dead together. They saw unspecified manifestations and had ‘intimate experiences’ at Holy Communion. Everybody else plunged about and chattered. The love that dares not speak its name seems to have been as talky as a parrot. I imagine that distress and anxiety were really there somewhere, but unfortunately the wildness of the story, as it can only by courtesy be called, makes it sound as though they were all having a lovely time.

Incidentally, I found Lyndall Hopkinson’s book very helpful here. She makes as much sense of the affair as anybody could. But, even with the guidance of all the background material available, what pleasure or illumination can we confidently expect from Diaries?

In her introduction the editor assures us that these diaries are not ‘exclusively for the literary’. I would suggest that they are not for the literary at all. Much of what Antonia White has to say would be of great interest to readers and writers if it was in any way developed or sharpened: but it is not. The whole question of the autobiographical novel, for example, is one which from her own experience she is particularly fitted to discuss. She is insistent on the extent to which she relies on the events and people in her own life. When she plans a new novel she has no thought of plot or theme or setting: her only decision concerns which husband or lover she shall centre it on. At times she seems to accept that her refusal or inability to invent is a handicap. At other times she prides herself on her lack of originality in this respect, and certainly makes little effort to do anything about it or even to reflect on it in any depth. If she has any exciting aperçus on the subject she keeps them to herself.

She has little to say about contemporary writers beyond the kind of comments already quoted. Her energy is reserved for vicious remarks about the novels of her son-in-law Thomas Hinde (Chitty): ‘cramped and stunted ... it’s the priggishness I dislike so intensely.’ Poets with whom she became involved – George Barker and David Gascoyne, for example – are sadly unrecognisable now as the vibrant young bucks she saw or imagined half a century ago. (She had a sharp eye, though, for dirty nails, mean and common facial expressions and weak chins.)

So the literary, whoever they are, will be disappointed, but no worse than that. What will goad any genuine writer to distraction is this perpetual talk of writer’s block, not so much on the part of Antonia White herself, though clearly that is how she thought of her persistent vain attempts to write in the latter part of her life, but on the part of everybody else. In connection with Diaries – blurb, handout, introduction, notes – the expression keeps cropping up. Writer’s block is creditable, it is glamorous; it proves you are a writer. But eventually it melts, it crumbles, it is got round or got over, and the writing which has been dammed up gushes through. But with poor Antonia White it is something quite different. Significantly, in her translations she never lost fluency but in her novels she increasingly did, painfully and not at all glamorously. In her everlasting laments about her impotence (a word she works to death in every possible context) we hear the ebbing of creativity, the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar; and the tide never turns.

Antonia White’s inability to write fiction is the main theme of Diaries. The short list consists of her affairs, her religion, and her analysis: all potentially fascinating subjects, with something for everybody, one would think. She is complacent about her love affairs which she refers to as ‘my extraordinary goings-on’. And well she might be complacent. Sexually, she must have been extremely attractive: three husbands and countless lovers before the age of forty. I do not mean ‘countless’ literally, for she kept a complete list. But the list, in as far as can be deduced from Diaries, is not so very interesting, though it seems Bertrand Russell did his best to get on it. Antonia White was no Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel. What I find really interesting is the light unintentionally shed on the sexual mores of the generation before mine. They seem to have been wonderfully ad hoc in their approach to liaisons. Compatability, gender, availability, none of these considerations seemed to have anything to do with it; not even species, if we are to believe Djuna Barnes, quoted in the notes: when asked if she was a lesbian she replied, ‘If a horse loved me I might be that.’ It is quite a point of view.

When it comes to the other two themes, religion and analysis, the book is too often disappointing, possibly because one had the wrong expectations. It seems reasonable to suppose that the Analysis Diary of a woman who once underwent the anguish of madness and in later life was trying to deal with chronic neurosis would explore greater depths than the gobbledegook of Thirties psychiatry: ‘Is a craving for a cigarette an expression of horror of the void?’ It also seems reasonable to imagine that a woman confronting the implications of a sincere return to Catholicism would utter more than the exemplary platitudes more appropriate to a speech from the scaffold. But perhaps that is the point: that she would not. In any case it makes for dreary reading.

What does not make for dreary, but for profoundly distressing reading is Antonia’s open description of her mental cruelty to her young children. It needs no avenging daughter to say it; she says it herself. There are some truly appalling remarks: ‘Out of a pure sense of duty I went to say goodnight to Susan.’ (Susan was seven.) ‘Both children really feel the need of harsh treatment sometimes.’ (Susan was ten; Lyndall was nine.) There are perpetual moans about how much the girls cost, though their respective fathers were paying for them, and in her accounts they always come after cigarettes, lunches, clothes and hairdressing – her own, of course. Some readers see this as an example of her honesty and even maintain they hear remorse. I cannot help hearing the voice of complacency. If she cannot be the best mother in the world, she will be the worst.

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