Books: Nuns and Cossacks on the road to Bethlem

Click to follow
Antonia White: A Life

by Jane Dunn Cape pounds 25

Jane Dunn is a gifted biographer, teasing out subtle meanings and connections that add up to a rich depth of portraiture. After her studies of Mary Shelley and of the complex relationship between Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell, she has turned her penetrating gaze on one of the most interesting English writers of the mid 20th century.

Antonia White was badly damaged as a child by both her father and the Catholic Church, who between them crushed her spirit, made her feel wicked and worthless, and taught her that love was very dangerous. She never completely freed herself from this bitter legacy, and went on searching for approval even as she resisted needing it.

She had a low opinion of women, yet wrote brilliantly about her own struggle to become a woman and an artist. She suffered from severe and lifelong writer's block yet managed to finish the wonderful four-novel sequence that begins with Frost in May as well as write masses of advertising copy, two novellas, a collection of short stories, many highly praised translations from the French, and a voluminous diary that her biographer calls a masterpiece. She suffered from bouts of madness, yet was able to win the love of her friends. She feared sex, yet got married several times and took many lovers. She neglected her two daughters, yet lavished sensitive attention on her cats. Acclaimed early on in her career as a fine writer, she subsequently slipped into obscurity. Never a feminist, she was rescued by a feminist publishing house and became a star of the early Virago Classic list.

This woman of conflicts, ambivalences and contradictions evoked powerful feelings in everyone she met. She thought of herself as a wild outsider in disguise, like a tiger trapped in a lace-curtained drawing-room. She was severely split between her "masculine" and "feminine" sides, valuing the former, despising the latter, but still trying to conform to the genteel feminine standard she learned early on. Jane Dunn herself admits that at first she found Antonia White quite unpleasant. Only later did she begin to admire the courage of a woman who struggled against madness, terror, loneliness and insecurity, while simultaneously schooling herself to work as a professional, to become an artist.

Born in 1899, she started out in life as Eirene Botting in respectable Kensington, Her clever, ambitious, repressed father taught her Classics and quickly became her god. His male code taught her rigidly to separate thought from feeling, and to disdain as vain fripperies all that her mother represented. She wore a cossack hat, slept with a sword by her side and dreamed of leading armies into battle.

The crisis came when Cecil Botting converted to Catholicism and Antonia followed him: a mixture of crusade and pilgrimage. At convent school, she began secretly writing a novel which was to win her perfectionist father's undying approval by showing how a sinner could be won back from undreamed-of depravity and corruption to the love of God. Of course, the evil-doing had to be described in detail in order to emphasise God's subsequent mercy and forgiveness. Unfortunately, the nuns found the manuscript before Antonia had reached the repentance bit. Cecil Botting betrayed his daughter at this point. He made no attempt to defend her or explain what must have been obvious to a less neurotic man, but colluded in her punishment. Antonia was expelled and returned home to face her father's terrible wrath, whose violence haunted her for the rest of her life.

Cecil Botting seems to have been a psychically abusive father, loving his daughter too intrusively, treating her as his wife and taking her about as such, encouraging her to dream of stepping into her mother's shoes, binding her to him with steely hoops of desire and guilt. As she loved and adored him, so she seems to have responded in fantasy to his fantasy seduction of her. When, as a young woman, she fell easily and happily in love, she retreated quickly into madness, as though the idea of sexual pleasure was too much of a threat, too deeply involved with shame and fear. Her psychosis, which made her both manic and suicidal, led to her incarceration in the Bethlem lunatic asylum, which then, in a strange irony, recognised by Antonia herself in later years, became the Imperial War Museum. She wrote about her descent into madness and her horrifying experiences in confinement in her short story "The House of Clouds" and her novel Beyond the Glass, employing a crystalline prose, clear and sharp, creating extraordinary images that seem like metaphors but which to her were representation of reality.

This excellent biography charts Antonia's return to the normal world and her subsequent strategies for constructing varying masks to hide her split and shattered selves. These struggles retain a contemporary ring, as does her devotion to friendship as a way of choosing a family of her own, relying on people as unconventional and passionate as herself: writers like Emily Coleman, Djuna Barnes and David Gascoyne. The rigours of wartime probably contributed to her decision to return to the Church from which she had lapsed, but renewed belief seems to have functioned as another straitjacket. Not the least of her tragedies was her cruel neglect of her daughters when young, which led to their later estrangement. In old age, however, Antonia seems to have attempted some kind of reconciliation. Reading this fascinating story of a woman novelist driven by demons, which I could not put down from start to finish, I found I better understood both the woman and the novels.

Perfection of the life she may have failed to attain, but perfection of the work she certainly achieved. That's the effect of this moving and compelling account: to send the reader straight back to Antonia White's own words.