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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Daffodils in February and putting the cart before the horse with Antonia White

I have photographed my copy of Jane Dunn’s “Antonia White: A Life” with a vase of daffodils not because they reflected my mood whilst reading the book, but because I needed cheering up. A dear friend has been bullying me for years to read White’s classic novel of convent school life Frost in May. I finally acceded and thought it deserving it of its reputation. I can understand why this book was chosen as the very first Virago Modern Classic. Aware that Frost in May is heavily autobiographical, I then jumped feet first and with much speed into its author’s biography.

As a cursory glance at this blog will show – I do love a good biography. But sometimes, just sometimes, reading a biography of a writer before one has read most of their work can be a shame. I suppose that the reason for this is that knowledge of the life and demons of a writer can taint the way we see their work. Jane Dunn’s biography of Antonia White is excellent, but I wonder if I should have waited.

Antonia White – the first Virago lady was a remarkable talent. Born in the last year of the 19th century, Antonia’s life changed when her father converted to Catholicism when she was seven years old. Her father’s conversion was the defining spiritual event of Antonia’s life and she would turn it and its implications over in my her mind for many years and in the midst of doubts, rebellions and reconversions. Her father took to his new faith with gusto and Antonia was sent to be educated at the Convent of the Sacred Heart at Roehampton. Her account of the cruelties and bigotries of convent school life – where children were encouraged to fall asleep with their hands clasped in prayer lest they should die in the night still has the power to shock us today.

It was not simply Antonia’s spiritual landscape that was laid out at Roehampton. So too, her identity as a writer was formed. The dramatic events at the end of Frost in May (which I will not spoil for readers who have not read it) left Antonia with a profound, tormenting sense of personal victimhood and an inability to write fiction. Although her writing was outstanding, she would never, even as a grown up woman be able to write purely fictional work. Like another Virago writer of the same period – Barbara Comyns – her writing was cathartic and based on her own life. For Antonia – writing was associated with the greatest injustice of her life and this changed the way she worked forever. She suffered from extended periods of appalling writer’s block. She destroyed huge amounts of her work. This account of her life as a writer has left me wondering what she would have produced if she had been able to tackle fiction. Was it her early experiences at the convent that put the fire into her writing? Or did the convent partly stymie a talent that was always there?

This tussle between pain and creativity speaks of the dominating factor in Antonia White’s life. As was evident from her very early adulthood, Antonia White was severely and brutally bi-polar. She suffered from extended periods of crushing mental illness which sapped years from her life and poisoned most of her relationships with others – even, or rather especially – those closest to her. For me, the most striking part of Jane Dunn’s biography was where she compares the medical reports from Antonia’s most dramatic breakdown, with her own fictionalised rendering of the same event. The clarity of vision and vivid language that White used to describe her darkest moments are staggering and the reader will watch anxiously for the strange interlacing of her depression and her startling creativity throughout this splendid record of her life.


The other pictures that I have used here are a publicicty shot of the adult Antonia White - and also a school photograph of one of the Scared Heart's other famous old girls - Vivien Leigh.

18 comments:

  1. This autobiography of Antonia White is undoubtedly a great read Hannah, albeit a harrowing one, and your review literally sent shivers down my arms! What an incredible story, her battle with bi-polar must have been so difficult at a time when nothing was known of the condition. A great post and photos - enjoy your daffodils!

    Jeanne x

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  2. I really enjoy Antonia White - I've read the first two of her autobiographical books and I thought they were wonderful. I need to finish the series and I'd also like to read her short stories. She was a remarkably talented and fascinating woman and this biography sounds like a must read - your tags inside show you've found lots of interesting bits to note!

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  3. I must say that I really enjoyed reading your review. Your words paint a very powerful picture and I am now very interested to learn more about her. Beautiful photographs and interesting connections. Thank you.

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  4. Yes, I agree that I prefer to read an author's body of work, or a least a good deal of it, before a biography or autobiography. Good review, though!

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  5. What an excellent review! I did read Antonia White many years ago, and I think it's time for a reread. I had completely forgotten about this writer.

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  6. I remember this being a fascinating read - it really put her novels in context. What a great review!

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  7. How interesting. I didn't realise there was a biography of Antonia White available. I read Frost in May in 2008 and yes I can understand why it was the novel that started the Virago Modern Classics.

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  8. Dear All - thanks for your lovely comments, I do love receiving them. It is a great read and well worth it - although it left me feeling very unsettled. I have also read "Of this our time" by Tom Hopkinson - who was one of Antonia White's husbands - but that was no where near as interesting. thanks all, Hannah

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  9. I was just picked up three Antonia White novels (including Frost in May) this weekend in a used bookshop. I had no idea who she was, I bought them just because they were Virago Modern Classics. Little did I know.

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  10. Excellent, excellent review! I am really interested in reading this biography after reading your review, though I had not really known much about this author before. So sad to think that her forays into fiction were cut short by her experiences at Sacred Heart. I bet she could have produced some lovely work, had she not been so traumatized. I am adding this book to my wish list and will be stopping by again. You have a great site here, and it's decorated in my favorite color!!

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  11. Hannah, thanks for visiting my blog! I'm looking forward to reading your blog and to experiencing my first Virago novel...even if I don't read it until June! Happy reading!

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  12. Thomas at My Porch - thank you for your comment - I do hope that you enjoy them and suspect that you will - although, like you I have often bought books just because they are VMC - I almost always enjoy them!

    Zibilee - thanks for stopping by - yes, I really wonder what Antonia White would have produced had her experiences been different.... Thanks for your kind comments about my blog. I love this colour but cannot wear it due to being red haired and pink cheeked - so I use it on my blog.

    Read the Book - Thanks so much for your comment and do enjoy your Virago - whenever you get around to it (I know the feeling!)

    Thanks all,

    Hannah

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  13. Thanks for signing up to follow Rose City Reader. I signed up to follow your wonderful blog too.

    I love that you read older books! I will visit often. I also like your images. I'm a fiend for vintage images.

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  14. Hi Rose City Reader - thank you very much! It is a pleasure to have you as a follower. I keep my eyes peeled for vintage images and am just reading a great book about the Omega workshop - so more to come! Happy blogging, Hannah

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  15. I read this review with great interest, Hannah. It connects with my thoughts that much of what is today called life writing stems from hurt and rage.

    I'm new to your blog and look forward to reading many more of your wonderful reviews. These last two are stunning.

    Are you as yet familiar with Jim Murdoch of the Truth about Lies, http://jim-murdoch.blogspot.com/? He too writes wonderful reviews. I think you'd enjoy them.

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  16. Dear Elisabeth,

    Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comment and for visiting my blog. i will certainly take a look at Jim Murdoch's blog - that sounds very interesting.

    Yes - I think that most life writing falls into one of three main categories - 1) self promoting (eg politician memoirs and the like) 2) staggering events/historical interest - where a person has been at an extraordinary place in history and so is worthy of biography for this reason - and 3) cathartic writing which effectively memorialises hurt and rage - many many life writers fall into this category - including Antonia White (who i do regard as a life writer because all of her nominally fictional work is ho autobiographical.

    Thank you so much for visiting.

    Hannah

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  17. I have Frost in May sitting on a neglected shelf somewhere. Is it odd to say that your review of this biography makes me want to dig out her fiction? I generally like a well done bio myself but if I have no knowledge of the author at all, it seems like I'd miss too much to make the bio worth the time yet.

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  18. Kristen - I hope that you enjoy the Frost in May - and the other novels... I suspect that you would get more out of the bio if you went to the novels first - but the bio is also worth reading!

    thanks for stopping by

    Hannah

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