Posts Tagged ‘Antonia White’

Antonia White: the author of the Frost in May quartet – a truly wonderful series of novels – suffered all her life from terrible writer’s block. It was only after her death that this short autobiography was discovered – she had spent the last fifteen years of her life working on it. The book is edited by her daughter Susan Chitty. As Once in May deals with just the first six years of the author’s life – and it is quite extraordinary in its recall and its ability to recreate those so long ago childhood feelings.

The opening few chapters – as is usual I think with autobiographies – concerns Antonia’s parents and grandparents and their parents. Her father Cecil Botting: a classics schoolmaster, came from a family of Sussex farmers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. It was from her mother that Antonia (actually born Eirene Adeline) took her surname, hating Botting, and all the childhood teasing that went with it, and who could blame her. Both of her White grandparents had sadly died by the time she was a baby, so she never knew them. The Whites were upper middle class, and Antonia’s mother’s mother who died when she was a baby, had been the second wife of a much older man.

Eirene – or Antonia as I shall continue to call her was born in 1899, the only child of Cecil Botting and Christine White. The family lived in Perham Road in London for many years, from where Cecil Botting was able to easily get to St. Paul’s School where he taught, and from where he often tutored students in the evenings. Here the family had just one servant Lizzie, who adored Antonia and could never bear to see her reprimanded. Despite having been a little disappointed not to have had a son, Cecil Botting believed he could just as easily turn his daughter into a good Classics scholar and set out to do so from the time she was very small.

“I know for certain that I was three when my father decided once again to try and impress something on my memory. This time his effort was not wasted as it had been over Queen Victoria’s funeral. I could not forget the first line of the Iliad if I tried or the circumstances in which I learnt it.

He must have been longing from my birth for the day when he could begin my classical education.”

One thing that really made me sit up in surprise (I don’t know if I disbelieve this or not) was Antonia’s assertion that she had a couple of very clear memories from babyhood. She calls these her first lucid moments – the black rails of her cot above her surrounded by white hangings. Later, questioning her parents it was revealed that she did indeed sleep in such a cot. Antonia herself seems more surprised by those things from very early childhood that she cannot remember that she would have thought would have made more impression on her but clearly didn’t.

However, what she does remember is remarkable. No doubt her memories are fuelled by those conversations about the past that occur in all families, but considering she was writing this book well into her seventies, her recall and feeling for those long ago years is perhaps surprisingly sharp.

Antonia White recounts those first few years of childhood through a series of delightful vignettes. She writes with great affection of the toy dog Mr Dash that her mother presented her with on her parents return from a holiday. There is Antonia’s experience as a bridesmaid and the glorious hat which her mother later appropriated for herself. Then, at four years old in Kensington Gardens Antonia falls in love – the object of her affection a little boy, who at seven years old seems almost grown up to her. The two become almost inseparable visiting one anther frequently for years – but in these early days the game of Mr and Mrs John Barker is invented in the nursery.

Most evocative of all though is Antonia’s description of her summer life at Binesfield, the country home of her father’s family. The cottage in West Sussex gave Antonia a taste of a very different life – the toilet was outside to begin with. Here her grandmother’s sisters Agnes and Clara lived, and Antonia looked forward all year to her summer visit.

“The night was cloudy, though here and there in a rift twinkled a star or two, the first I had ever seen, for I had never been out of doors so late. The excitement of driving at night through the damp, sweet-smelling air almost made up for not being able to see the country I was so longing to see. The light from the fly’s lamp, in whose aureole fluttered moths and tiny insects, showed u hedgerows and now and then a white gate or a cottage. I kept asking eagerly ‘Is that Binesfield?’ every time a dark bulk with a glimmer in some of its windows loomed up ahead of us. But the answer was always ‘Not yet dear.’”

It was also here where religion was first put on the agenda. Up to this point Antonia had received no religious education at all, at Binesfield it was suddenly suggested she say her prayers before bed. Of course, we know that later in childhood Antonia and her father converted to Catholicism (Frost in May was also very autobiographical).

It seems that Antonia White originally intended this to be a longer work of autobiography, and it is tantalising to imagine what she might have written had she be able to go on. Still, what remains in the most beautiful evocation of childhood, which is a must for those of us who loved the Frost in May quartet.

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One of the best things about social media is how it allows us to share our enthusiasms and discover new ones.

Over on Twitter just lately I have been very much enjoying the #NeglectedLadyNovelists tweets from writer Judith Kinghorn – and the conversations resulting from them. Now I do like a good bit of Twitter banter.

I found the World cup of #NeglectedladyNovelists particularly good fun. Several rounds and a semi-final have come and gone – with Twitter folk having to vote for who they consider the most neglected of the lady novelists in each round. Now, I have always taken my democratic responsibilities very seriously – and so I naturally thought very carefully over my choices. For women writers of a certain period – whether neglected or not – are very much my thing. It was really, really hard – and sparked a bit of debate – for instance in group 1 we had Elizabeth Taylor pitted against Anita Brookner, Jean Rhys and Rosamond Lehmann, while in group 3 the choice was between Sylvia Townsend Warner, Flora Mayor, Storm Jameson and EM Delafield, to me it seemed quite impossible to choose. In each group there were at least two writers I wanted to vote for. In all seriousness I want all these writers to enjoy a resurgence in popularity, that is why I love Persephone books and the VMC publications of the 1980 and 90s so much.

I began to wonder how people were voting – surely if we were looking for those women writers who have become truly neglected then I would have expected the likes of Flora Mayor, EH Young or May Sinclair to have made it through to the final. May Sinclair made it to the semi-finals but neither of the other two did terribly well. It’s hardly surprising that people ended up voting for writers they loved most – and I was guilty of this myself. I couldn’t help but vote for Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann as I love them so much. I do, also consider them to be rather neglected, however in truth some of their novels are still in print. Virago still publish three or four Rosamond Lehmann titles – and Selina Hastings’ biography of her is also available. VMC print on demand editions of some Sylvia Townsend Warner novels are available – as well as some NYRB editions (though why they felt it necessary to change the title of Mr Fortune’s Maggot is a mystery) – so are these writers truly neglected? Knowing all this I cast my votes – perhaps wrongly. In truth it is perhaps those writers who work is only to be found on second hand book sites, and on the shelves of (very good) second hand bookshops that are truly neglected – so in some rounds I voted with my heart and not my head. I do feel a little guilty – but at least it has got us all talking about these wonderful women writers, and that can’t be a bad thing. I didn’t vote for Elizabeth Taylor despite my great love of her writing because I can’t honestly say she is as neglected as she once was – that is definitely a good thing. How many of these writers’ works can be found in high street bookshops though is another matter – easily bought from a certain online seller perhaps – but how many times do readers get a chance to idly pick up Sylvia Townsend Warner or Rosamond Lehmann in their local branch of Waterstones I wonder?

When I start thinking about the list of #Neglectedladynovelists I would compile – it begins to get very long. Two writers I have been enjoying during this past week would definitely be on the list; Pamela Frankau and Pamela Hansford Johnson, both very good writers and excellent storytellers.

Many of the other novelists considered under that hashtag however – are exceptionally good writers, women who really did have something to say – they were not merely the tellers of good stories – although they did that too. When I consider the likes of Rebecca West, Olivia Manning, Antonia White and Winifred Holtby and others I am reminded what amazing, varied lives, they all lived. They each had so much to tell us – worlds to show us, so much to say – of course I want more people to read them.

I have wondered before how it is that some writers fall out of favour – while others endure – fashion and tastes change I suppose, and new writers come along. It is sad how many wonderful writers get forgotten during that process – when it comes to books I might sometimes be swayed by a pretty new edition, but I don’t much care about fashions. It is probably unrealistic to expect lots of these writers to be re-issued in shiny new editions – the cost for a publishing company would I suspect be prohibitive.

Still no reason why we who love these #NeglectedLadyNovelists shouldn’t continue to scour the bookshelves of second hand bookshops and celebrate our finds on our favourite social media sites. That way these wonderful voices will still be heard – at least by some of us.

Should you still want to get involved in the chat – the final of the world cup of #NeglectedLadyNovelists is at the end of the week. Make sure you are following @Judithkinghorn if you don’t want to miss it.

The original list has now been whittled down to Sylvia Townsend Warner and Jean Rhys – both truly wonderful writers – but I wonder if you can guess where my vote will be going? If neither of them take your fancy (and why wouldn’t they) who would be your choice of most NeglectedLadyNovelist?

(Incidentally, Sylvia Townsend Warner will be the Libraything Virago Group’s author of the month in December – and I am going to be re-reading Lolly Willowes as I have persuaded my very small book group to read it in December.)


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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.


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Beyond the Glass is the final novel in Antonia White’s series of novels which explore the schooldays, girlhood and early married life of Clara Batchelor, the daughter of a Catholic convert. I have loved these books and had been looking forward for some time to this instalment. It didn’t disappoint. Antonia White’s writing is brave and evocative, and endlessly compelling. The third novel in the quartet; ‘The Sugar House’ concluded with Clara and her young husband Archie agreeing to separate, their relationship more like that of siblings playing house. ‘Beyond the Glass’ – written, following lots of appeals from her readers to provide a conclusion – takes up the story exactly where ‘The Sugar House’ left off.

“Now that the trap had been sprung, she felt a perverse desire to remain in it. Instead of going upstairs to pack, she began to tidy the dishevelled room. She paused in front of the armchair where her father had sat so upright on the orange cushion which concealed its broken springs. There was a dent where Archie’s untidy red head had rested, less than twelve hours ago. Hesitating to smooth it out, she found herself suddenly confronted with her image in one of the mirrors artfully disposed to make the room seem larger. She was as startled as if she had discovered a stranger spying on her.”

Clara has a difficult time explaining her situation to a her father whose approval she always sought – his often strict, unyielding attitude and Catholic certainty hard to live with. However Claude Batchelor’s stubborn adoration of Archie, in the face of mounting evidence that the marriage was in trouble, make it doubly difficult. The truth is that Clara has grounds for a dissolution to her marriage, an annulment, the only kind recognised by the Catholic Church. For Clara’s marriage was never consummated, not an easy conversation for a young woman in the early 1920’s to have with her Catholic father. Claude takes Clara to Paget’s Fold, the family home in the country, a small rural idyll, where Aunt Sophy and Aunt Leah live quietly and companionably, proudly caring for the place until such time as Claude requires it for himself. Clara has always loved her summer holidays at Paget’s Fold adores her aunts and the life they live there. Claude, decrees that Sophy and Leah should not be told of Clara’s separation, and persuades her and his wife Isabel to pretend that all is well and that Archie is merely off rehearsing a play and unable to join them. Clara has always had a difficult relationship with her mother, and when Isabel tries desperately to reach out to her daughter and talk honestly to her about her own relationships Clara is shocked at the revelation, and Isabel is left feeling she has given her daughter more ammunition against her.

Following the holiday, Clara finds herself living back in the parental home, almost as if she never left at all. As Clara embarks on the long and humiliating process that should lead to her marriage annulment, she meets Richard Crayshaw. Clara dives head first into this new highly passionate relationship, revelling in an extreme and all-consuming happiness. Clara’s fragility and sense of identity cannot cope with this heady mix and suddenly and tragically descends into what in 1920’s is termed “madness”. This gradual slide into mental illness is brilliantly portrayed by White, as Clara becomes erratic with even the besotted Richard finding reason to worry about her behaviour. When Richard goes away for a week, Clara’s final decline is terrifying and Claude and Isabel have no option but to seek help for their daughter. Clara is sent to a public asylum – where for almost a year she exists in a frightening and confused world – where she’s not even sure who she is.

“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 till she fell, she lay at last on the straw in her stable and waited for death. They buried her as 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. Again she woke on the mattress in her cell. She looked and saw that she had human hands and feet again, but she knew she was a horse.”

Antonia White uses recurring images of glass and mirrors to portray Clara’s growing mental instability, in this brave and ambitious novel about mental illness. Antonia White herself spent ten month in Bethlem Asylum in 1922-3, a time she apparently was able to later recall every moment of. Her quartet of novels is famously autobiographical, and certainly the second half of ‘Beyond the Glass’ feels very personal, intense and real. Clara’s experiences are harrowing and very frightening, although surprisingly I found this section of the novel utterly compelling, after all it is so brilliantly written.

This was a wonderful conclusion to a brilliant quartet, Antonia White was a wonderful writer, who sadly produced too few books. I have a small volume of her short stories sitting here tbr – which I am certainly looking forward to.


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