SHE is Antonia White to the millions who have read her books, but her real name was Eirene Boning.
She was born, on March 31 1899, the only child of a rather stern Sussex schoolmaster and his more frivolous, socially superior wife. It was a serious, perhaps fun-starved childhood: Cecil Botting taught his daughter the first line of the Iliad when she was three, and in her remarkable autobiography of her childhood, As Once In May, Antonia also recalls how he refused to allow her to keep a half-sovereign given to her by one of his students. "After 72 years I have not forgotten that breathless moment of possession and the bitter sense of injustice when the treasure was snatched away," she writes.
It was Antonia's astonishing ability to remember events, in minute detail and many decades afterwards, that was to prove one of her greatest attributes as a writer. Combined with her intense obsession with herself and her own life, this provided her with the material she used to such brilliant effect in not only her best-known work Frost in May, but also the trilogy which followed.
The experiences which gave Antonia her basic material for these later novels, though lesser known than the convent school reminiscences on which she based Frost in May, were every bit as extraordinary. In 1921, following jobs as a governess, advertising copywriter and actress, she married a penniless aristocrat called Reggie GreenWilkinson. The two had little in common, save a passion for playing toy soldiers at their Chelsea home. It seems to have been their only passion, since the marriage was unconsummated.
After three years, it was annulled.
Antonia returned to live in Kensington with her parents, and fell in love with a young army officer with whom she appeared to have almost telepathic powers of communication. The pair seemed destined for marriage but then, three weeks into the relationship, Antonia went mad, and was admitted to Bethlem Royal Hospital, a tragic adventure related in what many regard as her best book, Beyond the Glass (1954).
Her recovery, which was almost as unexpected as her illness, was followed by more emotional upheaval when her first sexual encounter, with a journalist named Jim Dougal, resulted in a pregnancy and subsequent abortion. Some time later, Antonia married a civil servant, Eric Earnshaw Smith, who remained, even after their break-up, her closest friend.
Around the time of her second marriage, Antonia cut her links with the Catholic church, though she was later, during the Second World War, to return to her faith. She took a lover, Silas Glossop, and had her first child, Susan. The death of her father, and her third marriage to the journalist and Picture Post editor Tom Hopkinson followed. In 1931 a second daughter, Lyndall, was born.
Tom nurtured her writing ability, and in 1933 Frost in May was published. But writer's block, which was to haunt Antonia throughout her 81 years, stifled further attempts to commit her life story to paper, and it was not until almost two decades later that the later volumes were written Joanna Moorhead Antonia White's five books have been republished by Virago this month.