Lizzie Hutton

The Example of Antonia White

In her addictive novel The Bell Jar and her more memorable late poems, Sylvia Plath does what she does best—she sets us scoffing at the mythologies of her time, especially the claustrophobically close nuclear family and its impossible ideals. Showing a brainy disdain for the confining roles of wife, “career girl,” mother, and daughter, she models very well the hurt and vindictiveness of a clever girl betrayed by a vacuous world. And—as a recent novel, biography, film, and play attest—the fury of her work and devastating culmination of her life continue to hold us in their grip.
     Plath’s appeal is understandable: for many women, the conflict between the self and the world is accompanied by the sort of existential crises that Plath describes; however, Plath’s particular narrative—her self-crowned martyrdom, her unnuanced despair—is by now in serious need of complication. Our culture, high and low, too readily accepts, even encourages, the story that female energy of the creative or inspiring sort must necessarily turn out to be hopeless or suicidal—and therefore, in the end, inscrutable and unknowable. For, like Jeffrey Eugenides’s literary lollipop The Virgin Suicides, Plath’s work and recorded life would seem to represent a set of highly controlled mystifications of female darkness and light rather than the unmediated account of the dangerous realities and spiritual strivings recorded by her fellow confessionalists. What intrigues us most about Plath is everything she refused to say, explain, or analyze—it is the current of our own imaginations that electrifies our readings of her. We should know by now that we are likely to make exotic what we prefer not to look at too closely; yet we continue to endorse, invite, and reward versions of the familiar story that Plath has made so morbidly fashionable.
     In 1973 Irving Howe hit the nail on the head: “in none of the essays devoted to praising Plath,” he wrote, “have I found a coherent statement as to the nature, let alone the value, of her vision.”(1) It seems to me that this criticism still holds true—Plath’s writing contains no cogent revelations about the genuine worth of a woman’s life or the possibilities of her legacy. What she has left us with, instead, is a cool-but-gloomy kind of narcissism that would rather self-extinguish than engage with the world. Such a worldview does not disturb anyone’s idea of a woman’s self so much as confirm the dead-endedness of a woman’s lowest-common-denominator options.
     To this pattern the work of the English novelist Antonia White offers a bracing alternative.
     White’s fiction—four sequential novels and an out-of-print book of short stories, Strangers—comes to terms directly with the very topics that writers in the Plath vein prefer to bury in mystification. Her subject is a young woman’s endlessly forestalled coming-of-age; this is, in some ways, “confessional” work, but out of keeping with the recent trend to equate the memoir with the maudlin, White’s work is deadly sincere in its sympathetic exploration not only of the self but of the larger world in which its heroine moves. For White’s technique is not a form of exposé. Instead, her novels dissect the particular ways that experience shapes and binds her heroine, and the minute adjustments that character makes, within these obligations, to articulate a self. Though the action of these works takes place almost a century ago, I can think of very little written since that is as thoughtful and edifying about a woman’s spiritual, emotional, and intellectual growth.
     Indeed, White also deserves a new contemporary readership for the contrasting model she offers for a woman writer. Though this author’s work demonstrates complete political engagement, it does not indulge in any heart-pounding polemics. On the other hand, though much of her writing is extraordinarily subtle, nothing in it is small: she is never clever or virtuosic, qualities that (in writers ranging from Marianne Moore to Diane Johnson) tend to limit a woman’s attentions to a cheerfully trivial sphere. In fact, White’s fictional world, a complex and in some ways a pitiable one, is eerily familiar to that of today’s educated, centrist bourgeoisie—a world of warmly heated and well-stocked houses, in which a cautious, middle-class kind of materialism and an emphatic awareness of status threaten to trump spiritual and intellectual sincerity, and in which familial loyalty is so deeply ingrained as to become almost romantic in its insistent expectations. This is also a culture so profoundly shaken by the implications of the first World War that its characters can hardly bear to speak of it directly. But while in too many of the works of twentieth-century women’s literature, revolutionary zeal has authorized the middle-finger approach to middle-class realities (a gesture both unproductive and, at bottom, condescending), Antonia White’s fiction is unfailingly aware of the individual’s inescapable, ordinary, complex desire to arrive at some sense of peace—with all the compromises and difficulties that this desire, in a modern world, and with a modern consciousness, entails.
Antonia White was herself an ordinary girl—ordinary in a way that, once taken apart, explodes the possibility of such a thing. Born in 1899 in London, she came of age with the century, and so her growing up took place against the threat and then the shattering reality of war. The loss of English lives was doubly poignant because her father was a schoolmaster—the war for him involved seeing most of his past students die. White’s connection with her father ran deep; she was an only child, and he seemed to have for her ambitions that were both lofty and deeply conventional. He held her, her entire life, in powerful thrall. In time, she finally found within herself the strength to displease him. But she never seemed able to escape him.
     When White was nine, her father converted to Catholicism, taking his wife and daughter with him. White was sent to convent school, for a proper education in the practice of the Catholic faith and in the ways of the old world aristocracy to which an English convent boarding school, in the 1900s, would cater. This world was new and entrancing to the middle-class White. Tensions between the individuality of the self, the ties of family, and the demands of devotion to a “living God” would define her life even from this early age. Nevertheless, the surface details, if little else, attest to a childhood that was comfortable and animated. White’s daughter Susan Chitty has described her mother, rather wryly, as possessing in her youth a “fluffy blond charm.”(2) This sense of a surface frivolity White would later confirm in a letter: “I think I was what you call ‘pretty’ when I was a girl,” she writes, and then qualifies this significantly—“at least I was certainly treated as if I were pretty.”(3)
In 1921, White married; two years later, her marriage was annulled by the church, on the grounds that it had never been consummated. Three weeks following this annulment, White suffered what we might now call a psychotic break—she was hospitalized, straitjacketed, and certified insane. A year later, her psychosis lifted, as abruptly as it seemed to have arrived, and she returned home to her parents. She was twenty-three.
     Her adult life as it then unfolded is impossible to summarize. A tangle of marriages and infidelities, deep friendships and betrayals, disavowals and reconciliations, that life is recorded, with all the diligence and heat of a devotee of psychoanalysis, in her two-volume set of diaries, edited and published, after her death, by her daughter. White lived in fear of a recurrence of her psychosis, and accordingly underwent years of Freudian analysis; she also struggled mightily with her faith, even leaving the Catholic church for twenty years (returning at the advent of World War II). As for her vocation as a writer, she supported herself with advertising copy jobs, magazine pieces, and translation work (many of Colette’s novels and stories are still published today in her versions). In 1965 John Guest of Longmans in London encouraged into print The Hound and the Falcon, a collection of the letters White had written to a young journalist who had contacted her in the early 1940s inquiring about her faith.
     Yet she produced her finest and riskiest work—her fiction—only intermittently, and with the greatest difficulty. Though a quick, successful journalist and a probing correspondent, in this area of “serious writing” she was plagued by uncertainty and writer’s block. She published her first novel, Frost in May, in 1933 (she was thirty-four), but seventeen years would pass between that and her next, The Lost Traveller. Frost in May afforded her a bit of fame—it was praised by Elizabeth Bowen, who suggested that the book’s quietly “disturbing” quality was a bit ahead of its time, and it also introduced White to many of the artistic circles of her day. Over the years, the author became friends with Djuna Barnes and Peggy Guggenheim, Dylan Thomas and Cyril Connolly; she was a passing acquaintance of fellow Catholic convert Graham Greene. Nonetheless, she remained a self-consciously minor voice in the company of more obvious genius—and one wonders how much that surface fluffiness, blondness, and charm may have compounded this self-consciousness. By 1954, her third and fourth novels were published (The Sugar House and Beyond the Glass), as well as her startlingly original book of short stories, Strangers; however, though she wrote a few children’s books, she never returned protractedly enough to adult fiction to complete any more of it. She died in 1980, one year after Carmen Callil at Virago Classics reissued her four-novel masterpiece. And yet these immensely accomplished books still are not given the recognition they deserve.
     White appears, then, as a woman whose circumstances—and temperament, too, one could argue—allowed her to take nothing for granted, neither her writerly self nor her right to stand as an equal among her peers. She never created the persona that so many early twentieth-century writers—and especially women writers—relied on to help guarantee their fame. She was neither enough of an insider, nor privileged enough, to play a man’s game in a man’s world; nor was she prickly and single-minded enough to establish a firm foothold in some archly self-conscious “margin.” Even so, though this uneasy status did keep her minor in her lifetime, it also seems to have contributed a great deal to her work’s independent vision and integrity.
     For, given her biography and her subject, what is radical about White’s writing is its lack of an explicitly radical aspect. In her diaries, one finds the Freudian obsessions with mutilation and the oedipal furies one would expect, and one sees reflected in her personal struggles the various spiritual, intellectual, and social crises of the twentieth century. Still, even while she takes as her subject the “uncertain, straying mind”(4) of her heroine, in her novels she writes about that vague mental life with the certainty and focus of a surgeon. She is analytical where others are lyrical; she observes with precision where others are reflexively deterministic. It is with a straightforward and sympathetic realism that she tackles the great unplumbed subject of modern girlhood.
     Indeed, one of the more refreshing aspects of reading Antonia White’s quartet of novels is how little she invites her reader to biographize her work—to find its value in the harmony it makes with the actual facts of her life. Instead, her books make their own complex music, independent of the events from which they seem so clearly to have sprung. She writes with a philosophical rigor that is rare in fiction of such an intensely personal nature: in keeping with this clarity of observation, her books are remarkably free of faddishness or self-pity. On the other hand, White’s work retains the deeply interior and intuitive quality of “personal” writing. Though her psychological realism does not have the formal perfection and tragic Jamesian scope of, say, an Elizabeth Bowen, it is emotionally far riskier work. As with the experience of childhood, so with White’s imaginative vision—there is no irony, no “high style” to keep its reader safe.
     Frost in May, White’s first and best-known novel, begins with Nanda Gray’s solemn entrance, at age nine, into the Convent of the Five Wounds. It ends, four years later, with her expulsion. As a study of the refined and peculiar atmosphere of convent school—all female, highly controlled—Frost in May is unique in its refusal either to sentimentalize or to condemn such a place. The emotional attachments developed at the Five Wounds are tinged with all the romantic possessiveness and subtle masochism found in any overly circumscribed childhood. Yet the book is determinedly apolitical and unprogrammatic in its assessment. Nanda’s growing awareness of the constraints of the Catholic Church are as finely drawn as is her sincere dazzlement with its ritual and cultivation—such as her fascination with the unforgettable Mother Frances, whose “three-cornered face was white and transparent as a winter flower,” but whose “ironical” beauty was “touched with frost . . . too exquisite to be quite real.”(5) Though critiques, in passing, are made of the various social systems described by the novel—1910's fading but still luminous upper class, the church itself, Nanda’s own bourgeois parents—Nanda’s enchantment and expulsion function, for the most part, on a far more emotional and intimate level. White returns our attention, again and again, to the disturbing fact of human isolation, which a fitful reality, the novel suggests, can force upon any one of us at random.
     For, as it happens, however oppressive these worlds that Nanda moves in may be, she always comes to hold them as beloved. It is in relation to this theme—a beloved world from which the self is expelled—that the next three novels play out their nuanced variations. In them, White’s receptive heroine—now renamed Clara Batchelor—moves from adolescence, spent at public school in London, to a doomed but complex early marriage, through an inexplicable and vivid bout of insanity, to arrive at the uncertain relief of her recovery. None of these narratives is as crystalline as Frost in May, whose schooldays structure endows it with a particularly refined silhouette. However, these later, much neglected books—The Lost Traveller (1950), The Sugar House (1952), and Beyond the Glass (1954)—are also much less insular than that first novel, and thematically more ambitious, each playing on and overturning the concerns and desires of the last. Read in sum, they seem to argue that the sense of irrevocable expulsion—with its reverberating effects on the sense of self—is not merely a function of early childhood sensitivity, though perhaps it is most precisely captured and remembered there. Though White never indulges in intellectual grandstanding, Clara’s finely detailed story has a cumulative effect which is almost epic in its scope. In retrospect Clara’s is a growth as intellectually torturous and emotionally convincing as that of any protagonist in Tolstoy.
     Elizabeth Bowen described White’s heroine as “quick-witted, pleasing, resilient, normally rather than morbidly sensitive”(6)—traits which confirm the sense that Clara is more an impressionable young woman than a victimized one, a fact that keeps her story from feeling at all programmatic. Still, over the course of these four books White manages to investigate the limits and possibilities of nearly every world available to a “normally rather than morbidly sensitive” young woman. The depiction of Clara’s father reveals both the intellectual appeal and the bedrock misogyny of his educated-middle-class values; Clara’s mother shows the coyness and claustrophobia that result from marriage to such a man. Clara’s brief stint as a governess (a job she takes despite the disapproval of her socially conscious parents) affords her some deep breaths of independence, but the experience also introduces her to the perilous romance of maternal feeling—and her early, loveless marriage shows her that, as has been previously implied by her relationship with her parents, sexual attraction is not the only basis on which a soul-threatening kind of emotional codependence can be founded.
     A great breadth of experience is encountered—and yet when Beyond the Glass ends and Clara has returned home from her yearlong institutionalization, she is still a virgin. Or what the church doctors call, upon the annulment of her unconsummated marriage, a “virgo intacto.” This seems a remarkable endpoint for a book so focused on the full realization of female identity. There is no implication that Clara’s problems would be solved by a good shtup—nor is there the implication that they wouldn’t. But by taking sex (and its connection with “successful” marriage) out of the books’ psychological equation, White manages to return our focus to those other, more overlooked aspects of a woman’s life that need, just as profoundly, to be expressed and explored. Moreover, this chasteness is not confined to Clara alone. Almost all of White’s characters are “intact” in their way—despite their intellectual, emotional, or artistic sophistication, this is a group of people unable break out of their own loneliness to find any lasting communion with another human being.
     The fact of Clara’s virginity is also a notable conclusion for a book so fixated on obligation and guilt. It makes a persuasive case for the concept of original sin, intimating that our darkness is within us, not imposed by an unfeeling world, and that redemption is possible only through the lifelong struggle to be good.


      Such a philosophy is quite different from the romantic individualism and feminist revisionism on offer in most contemporary Women’s Studies staples, from Kate Chopin to Alice Walker. Most “rediscovered” women writers are read as if their heroines had nothing else to concern them except the articulation of their own female selves, as expressed through their sexuality. But one of the more limiting aspects of such romantic distortion is that its staunch individualism relies, in many way, on a failure of sympathy. Even Charlotte Brontë, that tenderest of writers, cannot help playing up the more melodramatic and maudlin aspects of Jane’s persecutors. She centers the pleasure of the book in the fact that Jane manages to “find herself” despite the world’s great unfairnesses. Thomas Mann has been quoted as saying that a writer is one for whom writing is difficult—but it seems lately, according to popular representations, that a Woman Writer is by definition a writer for whom life itself is difficult—indeed, almost impossible. Again, I think particularly of the way female creativity is portrayed in the movie version of The Hours—as something for which there seems to be no outlet except the suicidal impulse. (A feeling woman, the film implies, can either express her feelings by dabbling with suicide, or project her feelings upon others—driving them to suicide.)
     Antonia White’s life—like Clara’s life, as the novelist depicts it—was undeniably difficult; but White, to her credit, subordinates this fact to her larger philosophical exploration of a woman’s worth and its connection to her world. The delicacy with which she handles the potentially melodramatic episodes of Clara’s life—the hapless, impotent husband; examination by church doctors; force feeding undergone during her stay in a mental hospital (an underplayed echo of the force feeding suffered by imprisoned, hunger striking suffragettes)—makes the sequence of novels more intensely poignant and complex in their final vision, in that they focus more on the heroine’s persistent attempts to make sense of her life than on the routine reporting of her misuse by the Forces of Society at large.
     But White’s books also speak more directly to the profoundly isolating danger of an atheistic and romantic self-reliance. White defines the modern existential condition as a state in which there is no imaginable higher power to release one from one’s suffering, and this is a state in which more than one of Clara’s acquaintances find themselves. The anguish of this situation is later echoed within Clara’s madness. In the throes of psychotic delusions, she arrives at the conviction that she is “no ordinary human being but Lord of the World,” and soon realizes that suicide is the only release from such a position of absolute power. In her madness, she then carries this logic to its fantastical extreme: she imagines that she has allowed herself to be “fettered . . . down on some stones, just under the bows of a huge ship that was about to be launched.”(7)
     The suicidal wish—the “ship about to be launched” . . . a feminist critic could make much of this. And yet what is most significant about this particular delusion of Clara’s is that it does not save her, as it supposedly saves so many of our favorite female suicides, from Plath herself to Thelma and Louise. In White’s account, following this fantasized death, Clara is thrust into a frenzied cycle of rebirth—she is freed of her power and her pain, but also of the very concept of an identifiable self. This, then, is no transcendent leap into oblivion, which would confirm, if nothing else, the self-immortalizing power of the will; instead, Clara is swept into the seemingly endless sea of reincarnation. These chapters describing her madness deserve particularly close analysis, considering their psychological, theological, and feminist implications. Short of that, we might merely argue that the view of madness, religion, and identity presented by this author thoroughly complicates the whole notion of self-determination—a notion that so many of the more popular theorists of women’s writing hold dear, and altogether beyond scrutiny.
     This romantic notion of self-determination is further complicated by Clara’s religiosity—which holds a promise of transcendence quite different from that identified with suicide—and especially by the fact that Clara is a convert. Like psychoanalysis, conversion asserts the human ability to improve, by urging one to become, paradoxically, what one more properly is. Successful conversion asks, are we awakened to our identity, or do we adapt ourselves to it? Is it taken on or given? And if given, by whom? The parent? God? Or fate? One might wonder, then, whether White’s heroine is converted—or if she succeeds in converting herself. For all these worlds of which Clara becomes a part, one after another, have their effect: they come to take on a meaning for her beyond mere obligation. It is almost on the level of genetic inheritance that she takes on her father’s adopted religion. Similarly, though her marriage to a kindhearted but dissolute aristocrat does not blind her—her analytic facilities are fully intact, and she knows that this is not the sort of man to whom ideally she should be married—her sense of emotional responsibility to him cannot and will not be shaken. As White understands her, Clara is neither victimized by her world nor entirely in control of its effects.
     The pleasure of the books, then, is not that Clara “finds” herself, for at no point does she articulate and embrace a role more pure or unequivocal than any other—not in love, not in madness, not in marriage, and not in art. The pleasure, rather, is that this mysterious and amorphous self, impressionable and convertible as it is, proves to have some resilience. Clara’s status as a novice, as a child, as a woman, does not suggest (except at the moment of her descent into madness) that she is selfless, a tabula rasa. She is, instead, for all her inner conflicts, “one of those children who could not help behaving well”(8)—a phrase which by the end of the novels comes to have a significance beyond mere good manners. Taken together, White’s books suggest that in a world of conflicting and overlapping social, sexual, and religious identities, there is no place for unconditional romantic independence, for the willful seizing and ceding of exclusive responsibility. This good behavior, a trait still expected of all but the rarest of young women, is shown not as a sign of Clara’s social indoctrination, but of her attentiveness to others and her profoundly good (if strife-riven) faith. In White’s vision, “good behavior” is transformed into an act of humanity, of generosity, of wishing peace upon others before one wishes it upon oneself—of remaining not only aware of the world, but endlessly impressed by its unfolding.
     Like Gayle Jones or Christina Stead, White is under-read perhaps because of this very devotion to society: she seeks to define the self as it exists within its community, not against that community, in defiance of its needs. Such a stance allows for a subtler and more far-reaching account of the interplay of a woman’s romantic life, intellectual pursuits, and possible religious devotion—but it also makes White’s work (like Jones’s and Stead’s) hard to pigeonhole politically. These are writers who resist reducing a woman’s life to a choice between the sleep of repression and the self-promoting glory of “awakening.” Where our introspective Jane Eyre or our rageful Plath are presented to us as ignored and undervalued, Clara is seen as overburdened with opportunity; where Jane and Plath constantly feel their own otherness, Clara exists in a more complex and liminal place, in which she is aware of her own uniqueness, but unwilling—as most of us are—to relinquish altogether her desire to be a source of pleasure to others.
     In a 1973 essay, Joyce Carol Oates connects Sylvia Plath, in fruitful and complex ways, to what she aptly calls the “death throes of romanticism,” and she concludes that Plath is edifying for her “cathartic” quality, arguing that her work “not only cleanses us of our personal and cultural desires for regression, but explains by way of its deadly accuracy what was wrong with such desires.”(9) However, without delving too deeply into Oates’s argument here, I would question the extent to which Plath’s influence over time has “explained” anything at all, rather than providing a general cultural model understood to require no further examination. While Oates locates Plath in her place and time, and dates her, so to speak, countless other writers have seized on her “transcendent” qualities, regularly emphasizing the seeming paradox of modern femininity that she supposedly continues to represent. What we think would save her (good looks, success, and psychological help) effectively destroys her, and what would seem to destroy her (sadomasochism, suicide) in the end saves her—if the transcendent blather of her suicide poems and fans like Sandra Gilbert are to be believed.
     The most underexplored dilemma of contemporary feminism is the woman’s personal identity crisis, the recognition that the self, bound as it is by the facts of the world, may, despite our best intentions, remain inarticulate, lost. To insist on responding to this crisis simply with the removal of the self from any of its earthly entanglements is both reductive and arrogant. It is our responsibility at this point to question more rigorously the implication that we ought to—or can—be “through,” as Plath so famously was. Confronted with too complicated a web of opportunities—a snug bed, doting parents, and forms of chauvinism grown too subtle to be conclusively called out—young women, at present, are understandably tempted to prefer the smoke and mirrors of self-pitying mystifications to a genuine analysis of a woman’s many restraints and possibilities. However, such mystifications ultimately prove to be as silencing as the conventions they purport to overturn.
     Truth be told, the most popular Women Writers of the last two centuries, Charlotte Brontë among them, tend to appeal to the adolescent in us, whereas Antonia White’s novels, though they end with Clara only twenty-four, have the analytical gravitas that marks both childhood and middle age. Seen in this context, the books are less about the trials associated with the general condition of childhood than about the specific trials of the emerging childhood self—its interiority, its impressionability, its only half-recognized complicity with the world around it. And, indeed, it is this very combination of complicity and aloneness that makes White’s account of experience so accurate, and so compelling. “Why should I be bound to thee/ Oh my lovely mirtle tree?” quotes one of Clara’s friends, early on in this remarkable novelist’s sympathetic and, yes, deeply disturbing quartet. It is in response to Blake’s haunting question that White’s books speak so eloquently.



1. Irving Howe, “The Plath Celebration: A Partial Dissent,” in Modern Critical Views: Sylvia Plath, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Main Line, 1989), 15.
2. Antonia White, Diaries 1926–1957, ed. Susan Chitty (London: Constable, 1991), 2.
3. White, The Hound and the Falcon (London: Longmans, 1965), 10.
4. White, Beyond the Glass (New York: Dial Press, 1979), 113.
5. White, Frost in May (New York: Dial Press, 1948), 22.
6. Elizabeth Bowen, introduction to Frost in May, by Antonia White (New York: Dial Press, 1948).
7. White, Beyond the Glass, 215–216.
8. White, Frost in May, 17.
9. Joyce Carol Oates, “The Death Throes of Romanticism: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath,” New Heaven, New Earth (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1974), 120.