Biscuits. Oh good!

Anna Vaux

  • Antonia White by Jane Dunn
    Cape, 484 pp, £20.00, November 1998, ISBN 0 02 240361 2

Antonia White died in 1980 leaving behind four novels, over thirty translations (mainly Colette), two books about cats, some stories and a piece of autobiography. She also left two daughters (Susan Chitty and Lyndall Hopkinson) and more than a million words of diaries – work that some consider her greatest achievement, and the editing of which led to a public row (and legal action) between the girls, who disagreed about what kind of woman their mother was. The two things people know about Antonia White are that she wrote Frost in May and that she was a disgraceful mother. Some doubtless know it the other way around. Mud sticks. And Chitty’s Now to My Mother: A Very Personal Memoir, rather than White’s very personal sequence of novels, is what appears to have stuck in the public mind (if anything was sticking at all).

Hopkinson’s memoir cannot have helped, though she had meant it to ‘correct’ the view of her mother given by her sister. For one thing, it was suggested she write it after she’d impressed the audience at a PEN club memorial with her description of how moody her mother was and how frightened she had been of her. And isn’t there something fishy about the title Nothing to Forgive – for a book in which she describes having to hide in the airing cupboard when she came home late from parties in case she woke her mother up and inspired an unendurable attack of vitriol, and a childhood spent mostly pretending to be a horse?

But none of this would have surprised White, who was not unaware of what her daughters thought of her. Nor of what she was like herself. Her journals, after all, span more than half a century, fill more than forty notebooks and ringbinders, and make virtually no reference to events in the outside world. She had years and years of analysis; and she spent a large part of her life with people who spent a large part of their time talking about themselves. Her analyst told her that she talked people to death. Certainly it must have been deadly to have been either her or her husbands as they sat up night after night in circuitous discussions about what was wrong with their relationship.

And imagine the stress of her social life: nights passed at Peggy Guggenheim’s playing games of Truth (when everyone writes a phrase, or paragraph, on a particular aspect – e.g. sex appeal – of one of the people present, and someone then reads out the anonymous comments). Poor Emily Coleman was found going through the wastepaper basket one night after everyone had gone to bed, trying to work out who had written what about her. White – who cared greatly about her blonde, pink and sometimes overweight appearance – was pleased when John Holms told her she looked like ‘a something Queen Elizabeth’. The missing adjective was ‘Surbiton’, which she would not have liked, though she was capable of accepting far crueller truths about herself than most people could dream up for her. She didn’t doubt the doctor who told her she had the nature of ‘a torturer’. And she worried about her effect on other people. ‘I feel like a leper,’ she wrote in faltering, suicidal pencil to Emily: ‘I have to hold my breath for fear of infecting the people who come near me.’ A view shared by David Gascoyne (with whom she was briefly in love, she nearly 40, he not yet 20), who wrote: ‘On the whole, I think her influence on the people she comes in contact with is bad ... There are very few who can stand the dazzling (but how depressing!) light of moral Truth she radiates. Exposed to their selves, her intimates begin to wilt.’

So lucky Jane Dunn, who can breathe the less infectious air of a safely dead Antonia, and who ‘now that the dust has settled’ is free to admire her with relatively little danger. And lucky Antonia, who might now escape the legacy of her daughters and their warring views. And, it could be said, lucky us, who might now have a chance to find out which way the story swings; and who having read White’s powerful and very autobiographical fiction have long had a strong and justifiably prurient desire to find out how much of it is true.

And most of it is. Even Jane Dunn finds it hard to tell things apart, at one stage mixing up Reggie Green-Wilkinson, White’s first husband, with the fictional version Archie Hughes-Follett as she relates the story of their wedding night (the same in both life and novel), when Antonia, having been warned by her mother that something so appalling was going to happen to her that she should put a glass of milk and a plate of biscuits by her bedside to console her when it was all over, left her new husband drinking downstairs and went to bed to wait for him. She was later woken as he stumbled in, glanced in her direction, mumbled, ‘Biscuits. Oh good!’ and polished off the lot before passing out in a stupor.

Reviewers thought this kind of thing was made up, which annoyed White (‘No one could try harder to record an experience truthfully’); and so in fact did her friends: ‘She sits talking, as Phyllis said, in a social way, to such a point that you can’t believe the things she says are real. But they are real.’ And they were. At the apparently fashionable ‘boasting’ parties White went to, she had no trouble producing the true and absolutely matchless claim that she had been married twice and had a certificate from the Pope vouching for her virginity – ‘beating Eddy Gathorne-Hardy’s declaration that he had contracted ringworm from the Archbishop of Canterbury into second place’.

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