Thursday Book: Mad as the mist and snow

ANTONIA WHITE (1900-80) is a gruelling subject for a biography. Best known for her first novel Frost in May (1933), a chilling description of the apostasy of a convent schoolgirl, and the author of four equally icy autobiographical novels in the 1950s, her reputation will endure as one of 20th-century literature's most self-absorbed and destructive neurotics.

The frustrating intensity of her relationship with her father (she was an only child, with three stillborn sisters) dominated her understanding of her fractured life. She succumbed to manic depression in her early thirties, and faced the recurrent dissolution of her identity. Her three marriages were messy; she caused great suffering to her children. Her life had the extremism and improbability of a soap opera. Making choices paralysed her with fear, and when distraught she ruined the lives around her.

Her parents' conversion to Roman Catholicism resulted in perpetual religious crises. "After I became a Catholic," she confessed, "I have never been free of fear". She was educated at a convent run by ignorant nuns who imposed a regime of rules and punishments that left her with a lifelong fear of the powerful and a compulsion to play power-games. Her education ended in abrupt humiliation when the manuscript of a novel she was writing was detected. Later, psychoanalysis reinvented this incident (together with her relations with her father) as the root of all her complexes.

As a convent girl, White had been obliged to bath in a calico tent down to her ankles. For decades she thought of herself as irredeemably corrupt. Her sexual ignorance resulted in an unconsummated first marriage, annulled after her earliest collapse into madness. "There's one for the Holy Ghost," she said as she hit the family doctor over the head shortly before being committed to Bethlem in 1922. Dunn has obtained the asylum records, and superbly juxtaposes these with White's own vivid account. Though White's experiences were undeniably both vile and involuntary, the memory of them was a sustaining excitement. Like other patients, she seemed reluctant to relinquish the intensity of her mad bouts.

"Actual sex," she later wrote, "became a kind of ordeal mixed up with all sorts of terrors and feelings of extreme guilt." Her amatory adventures were confused and pitiful. After a few years of harmonious second marriage to a homosexual, she threw herself into histrionic infidelities with two younger men: Silas Glossop, who fathered her first daughter, and the photojournalist Tom Hopkinson, whom she married for his money in 1930.

The paternity of her second daughter was uncertain. She had a second abortion at 40 after being impregnated by a youth whose brother she had also been sleeping with. Later she entangled herself in a hysterical mutual obsession with a lesbian who posed as a Dominican monk. They had three- and-three-quarter hour telephone calls about their religious crises.

White submitted herself in 1935 to psychoanalysis. The first concrete result was that she abandoned Hopkinson and her children. She was soon predictably railing against her father as a "filthy dirty beastly old man", and put her seven-year-old daughter into analysis. Her second husband had taught her to see religion as a system of poetic truths, with pleasing logic but no divine authority. This is how she should have regarded Freudianism; instead, it raised her self-absorption to stratospheric heights.

Yet White was also a pioneering career woman who, during the 1930s, commanded an enormous salary as an advertising copywriter. Unfortunately her swings between torpor and hypersensitivity, her alternative charm and rage, ensured that she was sacked from every office job she held.

Her character was not contemptible. She was erudite, avid, brave and generous. She returned to Catholicism in 1940. When not blinded by egocentricity, she showed kindly insight into the suffering of others. But her temper was devastating, and she turned motherhood into a war.

"As an artist," White declared, "I would like to balance and hover for a long time and then fall dead on the prey." The language of her novels is cool and precise. In prose shorn of self-pity, she depicts mental disintegration, spiritual death, human isolation and the countervailing affirmation of the self.

She worked during the last 15 years of her life on an autobiography, producing 70,000 words of taut prose, yet covered little more than her first four years. By contrast her diaries, published posthumously, present an unflinching adult self-portrait. They depict the demands upon her as a working woman and mother, but are shadowed by threats of lunacy.

This searing biography similarly contrasts the daily grind of a woman struggling to pay the bills with great issues of faith and sanity. Dunn, who writes with captivating elegance and piercing intelligence, is tender, scrupulous, ironic and worldly. Her gifts have produced a study of the woman as creative artist - as someone expected to be receptive, loving, abject and good, yet needing to be ruthless and selfish - which surpasses even its subject.