Hermione Lee

Hermione Lee on Antonia White

The Lost Traveller

By

Virago 256pp £2.25 order from our bookshop

The Sugar House

By

Virago 320pp £1.95 order from our bookshop

Beyond the Glass

By

Virage 288pp £2.25 order from our bookshop

When Frost in May, Antonia White’s remarkable novel about her childhood in a London convent school, was published in 1933 it immediately became a minor classic. The ambience of the school – its physical atmosphere, its knowing, authoritarian, calculated disciplines, its bias against the will and the imagination clashing with the aristocratic, cosmopolitan, romantic temperaments of the girls – and the presentation of all this entirely through the eyes of Nanda Grey, a nine-year-old convert when she enters in 1908 and a thirteen-year-old rebel when she leaves resulted, as Elizabeth Bowen wrote in 1948, in ‘something intense, sensuous, troubling, semi-miraculous – a work of art.’

Antonia White had begun the novel […] when she leaves – resulted, as Elizabeth published until she was thirty-two. The death of her father (Senior Classics Master at St Paul’s School), her own mental breakdowns in the ’twenties, and her marriage had intervened. And there was an equally long gap before the sequels to Frost in May appeared in the early ’fifties. Her work as a journalist and as a translator (notably of Colette, by whom she was evidently influenced), the break-up of her marriage, and long periods of mental illness had prevented her from continuing her fictionalised autobiography.

To turn from Frost in May to The Lost Traveller is a peculiar experience, which reflects the intervening gap. ‘Nanda’ has become ‘Clara Batchelor’, and she is still at the convent from which Nanda was expelled so dramatically at the end of the earlier novel. The whole manner of the narrative has changed, from being entirely enclosed within one point of view (and one place) to a more conventionally episodic, diversified approach. This was intentional: ‘I wanted to do something more ambitious, what I thought would be a “proper” novel.’ But the effects are disappointing, and the sequels seem, initially at least, more ordinary, less arresting than Frost in May.

But that loss of focus and intensity is in a sense what the ensuing novels are about. In Frost in May Nanda is securely contained within the convent. She may resist its disciplines, particularly as they affect her growing sense of her own intellectual strengths and of the amorality of art (‘I don’t want poetry and pictures and things to be messages from God. I want them to be complete in themselves’) but she is mentally concentrated and exercised by them. The search for that discipline can never be relinquished: each of the later novels presents another enclosed world which turns out to be a travesty of the convent’s security. As Clara grows up she is increasingly possessed by lassitude and indifference, by a sense that her life is ‘expanding shapelessly’, and by ‘an overall sense of guilt, not localised, as if … for some mysterious sin she did not remember having committed.’

These legacies from a Catholic education are compounded by Clara’s relationship with her father, her involvement in a tragic accident, and her catastrophic marriage. In The Lost Traveller, set in 1917, Clara’s emotional dependence on her father’s good esteem and her scornful dismissal of her mother are weighed ironically against her obliviousness of their problems: the father’s anguish at the deaths of his ex-pupils in the war, the mother’s battle against her love for another man. Clara becomes the temporary governess of the heir to an aristocratic Catholic family. Entranced with this little boy (who comes across as rather more of a pain in the neck than as the charmer Antonia White intended him to be), she regresses into his childhood, and with him and ‘Archie Hughes-Follett’, the clumsy, affectionate near-simpleton son of a neighbouring Catholic family, she plays games of wars and spies, during one of which the child is accidentally killed. Out of panic and guilt Clara agrees to marry Archie; but her mother for once rises to the occasion, and puts a stop to it.

In The Sugar House Clara is now, in 1920, a bad actress in a touring company, stupidly in love with a narcissistic actor reappears; this time she goes through with the marriage and they live, like children playing at adults, in a tatty claustrophobic little Chelsea house. Archie drinks and has no money, Clara becomes increasingly lethargic and demoralised, and the marriage is unconsummated. In Beyond the Glass Clara is living at home and has started humiliating annulment proceedings. She feels entirely inert, ‘incapable of thought’, roused only by talks with a witty, sceptical, asexual friend and by a meeting with a handsome young soldier. This ‘love at first sight’ catapults her into a violent exhilaration which collapses, after a short time, into ‘madness’. The bulk of this novel charts with extraordinary precision and intensity Clara’s breakdown, her treatment (in Bethnal Asylum, where Antonia White spent ten months), her gradual recovery and her return to the disappointments of the ‘real’ world.

There are weaknesses everywhere. The symbolism of mirrors, used for Clara’s sense of unreality, is laboured. ‘Love at first sight’ (for Clara and her mother) is cloyingly done, and in some areas (theatrical life, Chelsea bohemia) the writing is pedestrian. But the father, a Catholic convert late in life, prissy, self-pitying, emotionally demanding, is a brilliantly unattractive portrait, and the process in Clara from apathy to breakdown is remarkably’ achieved: this part of Beyond the Glass deserves comparison with Rachel’s delirium in The Voyage Out or Esther’s in Bleak House. And, though Frost in May is certainly the outstanding book, all three novels are impressive for their treatment of guilt. Antonia White, like Graham Greene, can make even non-Catholic readers feel its force. Clara’s fears that her mental state may be mortal sin are memorable: ‘Could this deadness of hers, she thought in sudden panic, be deadness of the soul? She searched her mind for some definite lapse. There was nothing concrete; only the diffused general state of weariness and apathy; this sense that something in her had died and already exhaled a faint odour of corruption. A terrifying text slipped into her mind: “The lukewarm He shall spew out of His mouth”.’

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter