My final read of 2014 was Strangers, a collection of short stories which take as their theme; those boundaries between love and loneliness, madness and sanity, growing up and faith.
This slight volume of only just over 170 pages contains eight – largely autobiographical stories and a few pieces of poetry. My previous experience of Antonia White was in her novels that make up her famous quartet which begins with Frost in White, so I already knew I enjoyed her writing. Having completed that quartet of brilliant novels Antonia White produced no further novels, but these stories very much continue in the same vein, the themes recognisable to readers of those novels.
“She had come away for this holiday determined to shake off the shadow. With all his vigorous sanity, Richard himself had lately begun to look moody and careworn. She guessed it was for his sake as hers that he had made her give up work for a time and go away alone to the country. It had been dull misery being away from him, yet now that she saw him again she felt more shut away than ever, as a drowning man feels his isolation more bitterly when he can see people walking on the shore. There were moments when she hated him, but they were nothing to the loathing she felt for herself”
(From The Moment of Truth)
In the opening story; The Moment of Truth the reader enters the mind of woman suffering from mental illness, she’s young still, but her marriage is already in the process of breaking down because of her illness. While staying at a guest house surrounded on three sides by water, Charlotte finds evidence of her husband’s betrayal. The House of Clouds recalls rather terrifyingly the Bethlam section of Beyond the Glass, it’s tautly atmospheric, no one write about Psychiatric hospitalisation like Antonia White, it really is the stuff of nightmares. In the final story of the collection, A Surprise Visit, Julia Tye, is a woman who for fifteen years has been living a quiet, unremarkable life, holding down a good job, nobody knows that she spent most of her twenty third year incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. Julia learns that the hospital of her nightmares has been turned into a war museum, and considers paying a visit. This story is based loosely on the visit Antonia White made to the hospital she herself spent time in, and was added to the collection later.
The Saint, the third story in the collection set in a girls’ catholic school, is naturally reminiscent of Frost in May. The girls all adore Mother Lucilla, who is sadly dying of consumption. The girls are all sure that Mother Lucilla should be declared a saint, and when her replacement arrives in the form of Mother MacDowell, none of the girls takes to her and compare her very unfavourably with their favourite. Naïve, but fervent, the girls eagerly look for acts of miracle, that they could attribute to Mother Lucilla. In another story centred on the Catholic faith, The Exile, a lonely woman recounts the story of her exile from the church to another woman over a cup of tea in a college refectory; a story Hermione Lee calls a disturbing little satire in her introduction.
“Sad men in Norfolk jackets dropped in at intervals, poured themselves out cups of strong tea, drank them hastily, and departed as if to catch imaginary trains. A waitress peeled off the checked cloths and exposed the tables in their iron nakedness; the plain, unvarnished clock ticked on, the scum settled in my half-empty cup, and still Miss Hislop talked.”
(From The Exile)
The woman at the centre of Aunt Rose’s Revenge is a retired English governess in Vienna, a woman whose fierce temper is legendary in family stories. When her niece finally able to take a holiday in Vienna goes to visit her aunt, she finds a woman with inflated ideas of the world she has left behind in England. Aunt Rose imagines, her niece and everyone at home are far wealthier than she is, far wealthier in fact than they are in reality. The distance between married couples that was explored in The moment of Truth, is explored further and with huge subtlety in the title story Strangers. A woman receiving a phone call informing of her husband’s accident, rushes to the hospital to be at his side. She sits, chillily holding his hand, recalling their relationship. In The Rich Woman, White gives her central character Belle Chandler an oddly malevolent presence. The older woman seems to exert a strange power and fascination over the young Laura, who is about to be married, Laura’s subsequent marriage and very peace of mind affected by the ageing beauty.
In each of these stories, Antonia White shows herself to be a brilliant chronicler of life; her characters are real, and her stories perfect miniatures, in which the reader believes in a past and a future. She has a wonderful eye for detail, which sometimes help to create a sense of the sinister as well as the everyday.