Since her death in 1980 the reputation of Catholic novelist Antonia White has enjoyed both a literary renaissaince and public controversy
Antonia White Diaries 1926-1957 edited by Susan Chitty (Constable, £19.25)
IN old age, Antonia White was asked whether her life had been happy. Not happy, she answered, but "interesting". In Susan Chitty's introduction to the first of these two edited versions of her ' diaries, she notes that even the most unfortunate event would be described by her mother as "interesting". It is this writer's curiosity in her herself, other • people and the spiritual meaning ' behind it all which makes this • book so absorbing. She noted "something in my nature craves for violent surprises ... an ' unexpected happening, even if it is painful, sharpens my sense of life."
In another woman, this might sound like a cheap search for sensation but in Antonia White it ' recalls her period of breakdown in '1923 when "life" was denied her • for six months. Wh..m this diary • 'opens, she has already had two marriages which have been annulled and her third, to Tom • Hopkinson, is not going to last much longer. She has two daughters, Susan Chitty by Silas • Glossop to whom she was never married, and Lyndall Hopkinson.
They have each written a memoir of their mother. Lyndall's Nothing to Forgive, was written in response to what she considered her half sister's unfairly harsh picture of their mother's behaviour. In her memoir, Lyndall refers to these diaries saying that Antonia "wrote almost exclusively of her changeable attitude to herself and those close to her. Once a jproblem, an idea or a person became ensnared in the machinery of her mind it risked becoming an obsession and being transformed."
This seems a good definition of the art of fiction and these private diaries echo much in Antonia White's novels. In the 1920s and 1930s she had
temporarily abandoned the Catholic Church in a desperate search for love and sex. She became involved with a startling assortment of men, including, with most physical satisfaction, two brothers, the youngest being 21 and 17 years her junior. She records her unsuccessful struggles to reconcile the physical and spiritual sides of her nature.
In 1941 when she had given up sex and returned to the church, she wrote "Certainly my chief difficulties about the church centre round her attitude to sex. So a case could evidently be made out for the church being an alternative to sexual life. Whatever the truth is, it is certainly a fact in my own life that I have always had an either/or attitude about sex and the sin' itual life. For years I felt I would not be able to write if I had a happy sex life."
Perhaps the saddest aspect of her nature was her inability to give or take joy from her two daughters who should have been her natural companions for life
The tangled web of Antonia White's unhappiness, which had its roots in her relationship with her Catholic convert father, Cecil G Botting, caused her most pain by its strangling grip on her writing. For the first half of these diaries she is desperately seeking to follow the success of Frost in May with another novel but only finding herself capable of lightweight journalism. In the 1930s she undergoes Freudian analysis which is recorded, in all its pain, in her "Analysis Diary". By the time the war started, she was finding it easier to write, easier to pray and her sexual involvement with men was over.
Nevertheless the obsessive side of her nature led her to become involved in a semilesbian relationship with Benedicta, a tortured Catholic who, for a while, managed to make very difficult what could have been consolation.
Antonia also tried various other forms of religious worship including becoming, fairly briefly, a follower of Meher Baba, an Indian holy man from whom she once received a divine message to eat a turd from the cat's litter tray as a penance.
Antonia White never lost the longing for a happy marriage in which her contradictions, anxieties and loneliness might be assuaged. In 1951 she wrote "I feel very much that my next stage is as it were marriage. Actual marriage has of course been a hopeless failure for me. I can see that I am always after fathers or sons, not husbands..."
Perhaps the saddest aspect of her nature was her inability to give or take joy from her two daughters who should have been her natural companions for life. When young her neurotic selfabsorption makes sure they figure little in the diaries, but later on she makes an effort to do better. However she admits "where I have failed my children most is in a morbid terror of their annihilating me ... it is hard not to see them as enemies out to take everything I have".
When Susan tried to commit suicide before her Oxford finals and was eventually released from hospital home to Antonia, she found herself unable to cope with her daughter's mood swings and threw her out. This led to a complete break in their relationship for five years which caused her immense grief.
The second volume which follows this one will take us up to Antonia White's death at 81. This collection, ending as she approaches 60, still shows a woman battling her demons, both on a spiritual level and on other matters she cared about very much indeed, like being too fat.
Susan Chitty who had to fight a legal battle to have this book published, has edited the work immaculately and produced some witty biographical sketches on the strange people in her mother's life. It is not for an outsider to judge whether the intimate revelations will cause pain to those involved. But there is no doubt that the content of these diaries amply justifies publication.