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“My novels and short stories are mainly about ordinary people who become involved in rather extraordinary situations. I do not mean in sensational adventures but in rather odd and difficult personal relationships largely due to their family background and their incomplete understanding of their own natures.” – Antonia White
Antonia White was born in London March 1, 1899 in London under the name Eirine Bottling to parents Cecil and Christine Bottling. (She later took her mothers maiden name, White and Tony was a name she was known by amongst her friends.) Her father was a professor of Greek and Latin at St. Paul’s School. She was baptized a protestant and then converted catholic at age 7 because her father converted to Catholicism. She struggled with religion and did not feel that she fit in with the other catholic children. She did not find faith in the church as a child although she was educated at a catholic school, The Convent of the Sacred Heart, Roehampton.
Although she is remember as a modernist writer, she developed a terrible fear of writing after a misunderstanding when she was 15. She had been working on what was going to her first novel. It was to be a present for her father. She wanted to surprise him with a book about wicked people whose lives are changed as they discover religion. She attempted to give a detailed description of the evil characters, but, because of her lack of experience, she was unable to describe their wickedness except to say that they “Indulged in nameless vices”. This dark story was found unfinished by officials at her catholic school and she was then expelled from the school without being given the opportunity to explain her book. She describes this incident as being her most vivid and tragic memory. “My superb gift to my father was absolutely my undoing” she remarked in an interview. She did not begin writing novels again until 20 years later, when her father died.
After she left school, she attended her father’s school St. Paul’s for the next few years. She attempted to be an actress but was unsuccessful. She then wrote in magazines and worked in advertising where she earned 250 pounds a year advertising Mercolized wax. She spent nine years working as a copy writer in London and she also worked for the BBC as a translator.
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In 1921 she was married to the first of her three husbands. The marriage was annulled only 2 years later because of “nonconsummation”. She immediately fell in love again with a man named Robert who was an officer in the Scots Gaurds. Their relationship brief but intense which led to her to experience a severe mental breakdown. She was committed to Bethlem, a public asylum where she spent the next year of her life. She had described her breakdown as a period of “mania”. After she left the hospital, she spent four years participating in Freudian studies. She struggled the rest of her life with mental illness which she referred to as “The Beast”.
Her second marriage was to a man named Clive Hernon and was also annulled and by the age of 30, she had been married 3 times. During her second marriage, she had fallen in love with two men: Tom Hopkinson, a copywriter and S.G. who is described as “a tall handsome young man with a slightly melancholy charm”(Susan Chitty). She had trouble deciding who she should marry next and she married Tom Hopkinson in 1930. She had two daughters, Lyndall Hopkinson and Susan Chitty, who have both written autobiographical books about their hard relationship with their mother.
In 1933, Antonia White completed her first novel Frost in May, which fictionalized her experiences at Catholic boarding school and her expulsion. She also began writing a second novel, but a failed marriage and mental illness hindered its completion. Fifteen years later, she completed her second novel The Lost Traveller, which was published in 1950. In the subsequent five years, after undergoing treatment for her mental illness and reconverting to Catholicism, she completed the Clara Batchelor trilogy, which includes The Lost Traveller, about her relationship with her mother and father, Sugar House, about her first marriage, and Beyond the Glass, about a love affair and her mental illness. As with her previous work, the trilogy was fictional, but
mainly autobiographical. The four novels together narrate her life from age nine to age twenty-three. In 1966, she published a collection letters entitled The Hound and the Falcon: The Story of a Reconversion to the Catholic Faith. She also wrote Three in a Room, a three-act comedy, as well as many short stories, poems and juvenile fiction. Her career as a writer seems driven by the desire to cope with a sense of failure resulting initially from her first attempt at writing and a mental illness. She was quoted as saying, “The old terrors always return and often, with them, a feeling of such paralyzing lack of self-confidence that I have to take earlier books of mine off their shelf just to prove to myself that I actually wrote them and they were actually printed, bound, and read. I find that numbers of writers experience these same miseries over their work and do not, as is so often supposed, enjoy the process. "Creative joy" is something I haven't felt since I was fourteen and don't expect to feel again.”
With regards to the content of her writing, White remarks, “My novels and short stories are mainly about ordinary people who become involved in rather extraordinary situations. I do not mean in sensational adventures but in rather odd and difficult personal relationships largely due to their family background and their incomplete understanding of their own natures. I use both Catholic and non-Catholic characters and am particularly interested in the conflicts that arise between them and in the influences they have on each other.” Two of the main themes in White’s novels are her relationship with her father and her faith in Catholicism.
It was very difficult to find any literary criticism about Antonia White’s work. However, I did find Frost in May on the “UCLA Lesbian, Bisexual and Gay Reading List.” White’s work seems to be associated with lesbian literature. With regards to modernism, there are elements of her work that would associate her with modernism but she does not seem to be widely canonized.
In the introduction to Frost in May, Elizabeth Bowen describes the novel as a school story. She comments that the novel is written for adult readers, but that the language is comprehensible to an intelligent child of twelve. She writes, “We have Nanda’s arrival at Lippington, first impressions, subsequent adaptations, apparent success and, finally, head-on crash.” This plot deviates from what Bowen refers to as the normal school story only in that it does not have a happy ending. Frost in May was written during the rise of anti-school school stories after World War I. With regards to her writing style, Bowen writes, “Antonia White’s style as a story-teller is as precise, clear and unweighty as Jane Austen’s. Without a lapse from this style Antonia White traverses passages of which the only analogy is to be found in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” This comparison suggests that White’s writing is both reminiscent of 19th century realism and indicative of modernist tendencies.
White, Antonia. Frost in May. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1948.
White, Antonia. Antonia White : diaries. New York, N.Y., 1992