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’.

Just as impressive was the fact that she had gone mad at the age of 24 and spent a year in Bethlem Hospital, often under restraint. The Guggenheim lot seem to have made mental instability a social requirement. So did people like Dylan Thomas, who saw White romantically as a wild animal kept safe ‘behind the suburban-zoo bars’. Henry Miller and Alfred Perles (who published some of White’s poems in their magazine the Booster) thought madness ‘a mysterious conundrum to be embraced as intellectually inspiring, an ennobling risk one ran in the creation of great art’ (Dunn’s words). White thought pretty much the same, believing that she was more in her element in the asylum than out of it. If she could only come to terms with her madness (she called it ‘the Beast’), it might make her ‘an artist instead of a Clever Little Thing’.

Confirmation of that came thirty years after the event when, describing her time in hospital in Beyond the Glass, White found that she wrote with never-before-experienced ease and could recall her condition with compelling exactitude. This was also the first book of hers since Frost in May which was generally liked. People appear to have got over a review in the Telegraph the year before that complained about her ‘suicidal wives, with their dreary psycho-neurotic dreams, her cold Catholics and scrubbed nuns, querulous and dogmatic by turns’, and she had sold five thousand copies by the end of the year. Dunn loves it, and quotes passages from the novel interspersed with Bethlem’s medical records to prove White’s ‘extraordinary connection to the literal truth’:

[20/3/23] Patient is much more demented. She has regressed considerably. She has to be tube fed entirely now. She secretes enormous quantities of saliva. Does not speak at all now. Occasionally smiles in a dull sort of way. Stuporous condition. Mouth has much improved.

She lost herself again; this time completely. For months she was not even a human being; she was a horse. Ridden almost to death, beaten until she fell, she lay at last on the straw in her stable and waited for death. They buried her as she lay on her side, with outstretched head and legs. A child came and sowed turquoises round the outline of her body in the ground, and she rose up again as a horse of magic with a golden mane, and galloped across the sky.

But White’s fiction stops here. Having written about her childhood at Roehampton’s exclusive Convent of the Sacred Heart, from which she believed she had been expelled at 14 for writing a ‘sinful’ novel (Frost in May), her family life in Kensington (The Lost Traveller), her brief and sexless marriage to the gangling alcoholic Reggie (The Sugar House), and her divorce and madness (Beyond the Glass), she leaves her fictional self on the verge of grown-up life. She could write about her schoolmaster father (the Botting of the Hillard and Botting Greek primers, who taught at St Paul’s), and her frivolous, snobbish mother (who called White ‘Tony’, rather than the inappropriate Eirene, meaning ‘peace’, which her father had lumbered her with). But she didn’t write about her second marriage to the homosexual Foreign Office worker Eric Earnshaw Smith, her third marriage to the straying Tom Hopkinson, the palaver over Silas Glossop, the father of her children, her affairs with George Barker, David Gascoyne, Eric Siepmann, Ronald Moody, Basil Nicholson, Ian Henderson ... And she could never write about the incident following her release from the asylum, when she was visited in her bedroom by a man with a mutilated leg, wearing her father’s dressing-gown. White lost her virginity that night, and conceived a child, which she had aborted, helped by £50 from her father, who had mistakenly thought the man a decent suitor.

But it was not for want of trying to write about it. If anything in White’s life was ‘Grand Guignol’, as Dunn says it was, it was the ‘epic fruitlessness’ of her labours: ‘thousands of hours of work and hundreds of pages written and destroyed’. ‘I sat down at 11 ... I thought I wd just “tidy up” a sentence or two ... Perfectly easy ones. When I looked up it was 4.30. I had spent 5 ½ hours – absolutely unproductively.’ Her desk, says Dunn, was sometimes littered with 15 versions of a first paragraph. ‘She beat herself into a frenzy for three weeks trying to write a review for the Tablet but was incapable of even making a start.’ In 1979, 25 years after Beyond the Glass was published, she tried with the help of Carmen Callil to write an introduction to an edition of Frost in May which was to launch the new publishing house Virago. ‘I sat opposite her,’ Callil writes, ‘and I watched pain so great overcome her it twisted her body. I was dumbstruck. She was a living ball of pain.’ Callil wrote the introduction instead, and Frost in May became the first of the green-spined Modern Classics.

Dunn is at pains to make clear the tragedy of writer’s block for a woman who spent her entire existence wanting to be a writer. White had put ‘authoress’ as her profession on her marriage certificate before she had written anything. She was nothing, she maintained, if she was not a writer, which Dunn feels is quite literally true since White’s sense of her own identity ‘was so fugitive that she seemed only to exist when she could capture herself in words on paper’: she wrote ‘to explain herself to herself’.

All of which makes her inability to write a cause for psychological burrowing. White herself burrowed and spent a fortune on doctors, even when she had trouble paying ordinary monthly bills. Her shrinks thought she might be better if only she could write from imagination instead of sticking to fact. White agreed – though she could not. At least two of them thought her psychological troubles began in the womb (her mother had had to give in to sex with a sozzled husband while pregnant with her). And Dunn thinks ‘horror’ and ‘shame’ were White’s companions from the start. White wondered whether it was her need for money that was holding her up. Or was it to do with the success of Frost in May, which had been wrung out of her by her husband Tom Hopkinson, who insisted she read a new chapter to him every weekend, and which she later said had wrecked her marriage, so that ‘psychologically’ whenever she wrote something she destroyed love?

Dunn is never in any doubt, however. Neither were White’s daughters. Susan wrote on the first page of her book: ‘The trouble with my mother was her father.’ Dunn calls it ‘a complex of Electra-esque proportions’. Just look at the novels, with the creepily unforgiving, vaguely pederastic and incestuous Claude Batchelor, who treats his wife like a child and his daughter like a wife. Just read the diaries:

It seems clear from several indications that I want my father’s penis or a child by him e.g. A work engendered with his loving approval. What am I fussing about? I can’t have his loving approval because he is DEAD/I couldn’t have had intercourse with him anyway because presumably apart from morals (a) he didn’t want it (b) I couldn’t have endured it without mutilation.

Or:

I will write backhand in spite of father. I WILL, WILL, WILL. Couldn’t even write – filthy beastly old man. I spit on your corpse. I hope you’re being punished. I forced myself to admire you. You ruined my life. I don’t honour you or my mother, I’d like to fight and kill you both.

But her father could not have done it without God’s help. If White’s doctors had wanted to release some of the shackles on her art (as Dunn calls them) they might have helped rid her of the Catholicism that her father had imposed on her, and which made her feel both ‘horror’ and ‘shame’ in spades. Even the annulment of her first marriage had been conducted by the Church in a way she thought ‘obscene’: the first, or civil part was ‘searching but impersonal – I don’t think I’m exaggerating, but there seemed to be a definite element of gloating in the other’ – religious – part. And it worked from the start to wreck her pleasure in her work. One priest suggested that she give up writing ‘as a penance for her immoral life’. Another publicly inquired if she had written any ‘dirty’ books recently: morose confirmation of what she feared herself – that God did not intend her to write, that her work was unedifying, that she was corrupting, sinful, base and shameful.

Certainly the Church contributed something quite disgusting to her life. It also joined her with some fairly gothic types. Having invited White to contribute something to Horizon about her reconversion at the end of 1942, Cyril Connolly was appalled by what he received: ‘it was like watching a person making desperate attempts to retain their reason and finally lapsing into insanity.’ One has to agree: sanity is a long way off as White signs on to become a cleaning lady at her favourite church, gets her flat exorcised, believes a black beetle is the incarnation of Our Lady, and becomes convinced that the Indian mystic Meher Baba is ‘telling’ her to do things: like give up smoking for a day, or demonstrate her obedience to him by eating a turd from the cat’s litter tray in the corridor outside her bedroom door.

So, a life lived in ‘bad taste’, as White described it to an Observer interviewer in 1978, though what she meant by that was ‘messy’ and ‘complicated’; not ‘creepy’, or ‘unwholesome’, as so much of it was: the sex in particular, which was at least as unhealthy as the religion, though it featured (in compensation perhaps) such gruesomely comic scenes as the heir to the Keiller marmalade fortune begging her to hide in the laundry basket dressed only in a mackintosh while he poked at her with a furled umbrella (she refused); and Bertrand Russell slipping to his knees in a taxi and ‘bleating like a sheep “Please, p-l-e-a-s-e” ’ (she refused). White felt she had encouraged her one-legged seducer because he was wearing her father’s dressing-gown; in the murky light and in her hazy state, Dunn suggests, she might have thought he was her father. Her most successful marriage, in the end, was to a rigidly controlled (and controlling) homosexual with whom she did not have sex, and who addressed his letters to her ‘Dear daughter’, signing off ‘poor Master’.

White thought that sex was a failure in any case, and had little trouble giving it all up at the age of 40, noting that her affairs always ran ‘the same course: a violent beginning on one side or the other; reluctance on one side or the other; sexual intercourse in which one or the other is frightened, frigid or disappointed. Then comes a period in which I consciously provoke disaster.’ She was not much drawn to tender behaviour either, preferring the stuff in her nature that was ‘tough, harsh and, to many people, repellent’, to anything that might be thought of as feminine. What she disliked about her mother is almost the fact that that is what she was: a woman. ‘A woman is more corruptible, I believe, than a man because of the slower rhythm of her life, as still water breeds scum.’ She was so bamboozled by her attempts to be wifely while on holiday with her lover Ian Henderson that she had ‘had to work out on paper what other women knew instinctively’.

Not ideal mother material then. Dunn makes it clear that White didn’t like being pregnant, was terrified at the prospect of giving birth, and revolted by breastfeeding; and though she had wanted a child, she hadn’t really wanted an individual: only ‘the security and love which the idea embodied’. White wrote worriedly to Russell about her lack of maternal feeling. Russell wrote back: ‘I shouldn’t worry if I were you, over not feeling the correct emotions as per copy book – very few women do, especially with a first child, they lie about it as a form of boasting. You will find that affection will grow: it is a result, not a cause, of the care one takes of the child. At least that is usually the case with civilised people.’

In the event it didn’t ‘grow’ until her children were more or less adults. Nor did she really ‘care’ for them in the way that one imagines Russell meant. For one thing, Susan was placed in a residential nursery shortly after her birth, while Antonia agonised about which of her two lovers she was going to marry, Silas Glossop, Susan’s father, or Tom Hopkinson, by whom she said she was now pregnant (though she was in fact pregnant by Silas again). Nothing she offered her children could be unconditional and without cost, Dunn writes. ‘She was physically absent and prone to unpredictable and transforming rages.’ She seems to have preferred her cats. Neither girl ever felt she was loved. Both had periods of depression and instability. Susan attempted suicide.

No wonder, perhaps, that Susan’s husband thought White a bad influence. Nor that Susan withdrew from her mother for nearly six years, not telling her about her marriage or the births of her children (White had to scour the newspapers for announcements). Nor that she would write in her memoir five years after her mother’s death:

Lyndall and I hated our mother. We hated her plump little hands and her small feet in their high-heeled shoes. We despised her for not being able to swim or ride a horse or even a bike. She could hardly walk more than a few streets without hailing a taxi

– the passage that Hopkinson objected to.

Dunn doesn’t conduct a rigorous defence, but she makes sure we know the problems White faced. We are not to forget that she was mentally ill, impoverished and a single mother at a time when children were not considered ‘smart’ and unmarried motherhood was desperately unconventional as well as difficult. Glossop was abroad, supposedly earning money as the manager of a mine in Timmins, in Ontario, but not much money ever came, and White felt uncertain of him. He had still not brought himself to tell his own mother that he was expecting a baby, which cannot have been encouraging. White had to work in the advertising agency where she spent much of her employed life, right up until the last months of her confinement, and had had to appeal to her father for £30 for the baby (he had been happier to pay for her abortion). She was also getting a divorce, which was painful and embarrassing – and Glossop didn’t manage to send her a sympathetic letter about it. When she finally gave birth, it seems everyone was disappointed. Her ex-husband wrote: ‘I wish you had not added yet another woman to the army of sinners.’

Dunn also makes it clear that White came to love her children very much. If she wasn’t much of a mother to begin with, she was by the time she observed in her diary: ‘How terribly wrong it was of me to let Sue be with strangers, however kind, the first 18 months of her life. How can I wonder that she hates me now.’ And if her love for them was not unconditional, it was also not unintelligent. She was much affected by something W.H. Auden had written – ‘To be wellbred means to have respect for the solitude of others, whether they be mere acquaintances or, and this is much more difficult, persons we love’ – and felt it applied to her relationship with Susan. ‘I do not see how I can love what is bad in her any more than I can love it in myself,’ she wrote, believing herself and Susan to be psychically almost alike. Which is surely as it should be. Perhaps Susan was hard to like. It often looks that way. She was clearly hard to live with. White confided to her journal:

Incredible vanity and conceit: out to exploit everyone ... She has worn me down till I am tired and trembling ... There are times when it is extremely difficult to believe that the whole suicide and Maudsley episodes were not quite consciously and coldly planned and executed.

Perhaps it was that White was unlucky and got a difficult daughter – and not that Susan was unlucky and got a tricky mother.

But Dunn doesn’t say that. The dust may have settled, but White’s daughters are still alive. And Dunn is courteous and even-handed, signalling her allegiance perhaps only by following some of Lyndall’s words so closely, and by making some sharp distinctions from Susan’s. ‘Joan Souter Robertson rang daily to enquire about the progress of the book. “Bored me to tears, darling. But it seemed the only way your poor mother could work,” ’ Chitty reports. Dunn calls Souter-Robertson ‘a kindly and eminently practical woman’ who ‘had agreed to stand over her and make sure she finally finished the novel’. Kindly and practical herself, perhaps, Dunn saves some of her sharpest words for Tom Hopkinson (and his third wife) – ‘foolish’ and ‘narcissistic’ – who has got off relatively lightly in the blaming game, though he contributed quite thoroughly to the mess.

Having nothing to forgive White, Dunn is always forgiving. She takes as one of her epigraphs the bound upon a fiery wheel bit from King Lear, her point being that White had no choice but to continue with her writing. But she might easily have taken the bit about being more sinned against than sinning: her Antonia White is arguably more damaged than she was damaging; and her biography occasionally overflows with tragic feeling. The end is particularly hard to take, as White grows old and ill, scavenging friendships with lodgers, suffering from cataracts and accidents, at one time falling flat on her face, bashing her nose, splitting her lip and breaking all four fingers of her right hand. She felt abandoned by her daughters, and a failure as a writer. And she lay bedridden in unconsolable terror of her death, plagued by nightmares, and by visions of screaming demons, ready to punish her for her failure as ‘the good daughter ... the good wife and mother, the good Catholic, the good writer’.

Except White didn’t fail in the latter, though she may not have had any real moments when she realised that. Aged 40, she had written that what she most wanted to have was ‘a great, indisputable, demonstrable creative talent’ and added: ‘I also want money, a few nice enviable possessions, to be popular, desired and powerful.’ Her first and last books clearly demonstrate her talent, but it is not equally clear that the struggle was worth it for her (she didn’t have money, nice things, and she wasn’t popular or powerful). At a Society of Authors party in 1960, someone came up to her and said how much they loved her books. It turned out that she had been mistaken for Noel Streatfeild. Noel Streatfeild came up to her and said how much she adored her books. It turned out she had mistaken her for Antonia Ridge. Rebecca West did recognise her and said: ‘ “My dear, you must meet a friend of mine from S. Africa who is DYING to meet you.” So I was duly introduced to a lady who was indeed dying to meet me, not because she’d read so much as one word I’d written, but because she’d been staying with Tom and Dorothy & was dying of curiosity to know what Tom’s first wife had been like.’ Only in 1969, when an article was being written about her for the Times Literary Supplement did she say that she felt like ‘a Real Writer!!!’, though it was 14 years since she had published her last novel, and her books were out of print. Strange, then, that Dunn’s biography doesn’t really restore the balance. Dunn should be thanked for bringing White’s life into perspective with such clarity and intelligence and in so readable a book, but the life still swamps the novels, and in some peculiar way they appear diminished by it. Could it be any other way? Maybe not.