Invisible Ink: No 140 - Terence White
Sunday 09 September 2012
Sadly, good book sales have little to do with good writing, and some of the finest authors featured here have struggled throughout their careers. Terence White was born in Bombay in 1906. His policeman father was an alcoholic and when his marriage ended badly, his fearful son was moved to Gloucester. At college, the lad wrote a thesis on Le Morte d'Arthur, then started teaching. The desire to write grew, and his first volume was a memoir, England Have My Bones. A countryman absorbed in rural pursuits, he loved falconry and fishing, describing his occupation as "keeping out of London and wondering why nobody cares about the country labourer".
White decided to tackle a preface to Mallory's Arthurian legend. The result was The Sword in the Stone, published in 1938, featuring the time-travelling, body-swapping wizard Merlin tutoring young Arthur, a situation reflected in White's own mentoring by the Cambridge scholar L J Potts. The book is a dazzling tour-de-force of imagination that puts contemporary language in the mouths of its protagonists for the first time.
It was to be the first volume in the increasingly powerful and moving tragedy of King Arthur. Over the next two decades three further parts appeared, and the revised, darker whole was published in 1958 as The Once and Future King. Even this was not the complete story; in 1977 the saga's previously unseen natural conclusion finally turned up in The Book of Merlin. Taken as a whole, they constitute one of the greatest works of 20th-century literature. Merlin's character, as White perceived him, has since been borrowed by any number of lesser authors, while The Sword in the Stone was painfully travestied by Walt Disney.
White moved to the Channel Islands, uncomfortable with his sexuality, never forming close relationships, and continued to write. My other favourite novel of his is Farewell Victoria, which covers the changing century of its hero Mundy's life in just 128 exquisitely written pages, starting in 1858. Of the adolescent Mundy he tellingly notes: "The forward maturity of the others had confused his secret manhood; he had been frightened of the freemasonry and difference which they possessed." Of the country classes he says: "Manners, etiquette, regulation; these were a recognition of the pleasures of life, which they respected enough to order it." This moving history of an examined life has utterly disappeared, along with much of White's work. It's time this was rediscovered and republished.
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