Thursday Book: Mad as the mist and snow

ANTONIA WHITE: A LIFE BY JANE DUNN, JONATHAN CAPE, pounds 20

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf