Antonia White died eight years ago aged 81. In the past three years, two biographies or memoirs of her have been published, each by one of her two daughters. She is best known for her convent school novel Frost in May, which Elizabeth Bowen admired for being both a ‘minor classic’ and a ‘work of art’. It was published in 1933; by 1954 its author was complaining that it hung ‘round my neck like a withered wreath’. She would have liked her three subsequent novels and book of short stories to be equally successful, but they weren’t. They are perhaps more so now, having recently been reissued and made into a television serial.
Susan Chitty, the elder daughter, was first off the mark in 1985 with ‘a very personal memoir, not a biography’.‘Antonia White was not a good mother to me,’ she begins, and goes on to say that her ‘four novels were largely autobiographical, so much so that some might question the necessity of writing anything about her at all.’ Still, the novels take their heroine only into her twenties, so there is more to be told. The second biography, by the second daughter, Lyndall Hopkinson, is meant as an answer to the first, in some ways a refutation, especially of Chitty’s claim that as children, ‘Lyndall and I hated our mother. We hated her plump little hands and her small feet in their high-heeled shoes.’ There was, indeed, a cruel discrepancy between Antonia White’s fluffy blonde appearance (one of her husbands called her his gosling) and her tormented, ruthless nature.
Each sister is icily polite about the other in her acknowledgements chapter, and Chitty’s shows that she knew Hopkinson had begun on her book at the time she was publishing her own. When Hopkinson’s appeared this summer, it was reviewed in the Sunday Telegraph by her father, Sir Tom Hopkinson, Antonia White’s third husband and formerly editor of Picture Post. He announced that it had been ‘produced in secrecy and haste for fear of copyright proceedings by Susan’, and went on about ‘a long-running dispute between the two daughters [which] now centres on their mother’s diaries and the question of who is to edit them’. Some years before her death, White had warned her younger daughter: ‘You may be shocked by what you read there one day.’ She meant about feelings, not events.
Neither memoir needs the bush of a literary row. Antonia White’s over-eventful life turns out to be not less but more interesting for being illuminated from different angles. Both daughters throw in large slices of autobiography, and Hopkinson’s book in particular is really a journey into her own interior to discover what made her the way she is. Chitty and Hopkinson were psychoanalysed as children and know their way around the landscape of symbols. So Antonia White’s works and the two memoirs together make up a Rashomon-type triple portrait with a Laocoon-type family romance thrown in.
It is gripping not only because of the goings-on, but because all three Women are born writers. Hopkinson has never published before, but her book is carefully, even cunningly constructed, beginning with a flash-forward to her mother’s deathbed. Towards the end, haste begins to show in the over-accumulation of detail. An awful lot of Antonia’s dreams are summarised, presumably from the unpublished notebooks. Chitty is brisker, more slick, and good at vivid vignettes, like this one of her three-year-old sister:
She was a gentle brown child with a thick fringe. She still cried easily, whenever I hit her in fact, which was quite often. She was equally affected by the sight of suffering in others. She can’t have been more than four when she ran up to an old tramp in the street and gave him her new watch.
This miniature double portrait foreshadows the different nature of the two memoirs, a difference signalled by their respective titles: Chitty’s ironically vindictive And now to my mother and Hopkinson’s Nothing to Forgive. The surprise is that the same Antonia White emerges from both. Each daughter, moreover, began by thinking there was plenty to forgive. But so did White. ‘I was a hideously selfish and incompetent mother to them when they were little,’ she wrote when they were in their teens. And in her last excruciating illness she scrawled a note begging their forgiveness.
Antonia White’s life was unhappy. She made it so and knew it, and that made her unhappier still. She had two bouts of insanity, chronic money problems, writer’s block, psychoanalysis, three marriages, two of them annulled for non-consummation, one divorce, two abortions, a number of lovers, and a love-hate, in-and-out relationship with the Catholic Church, into which she was received at the age of eight, shortly after her father’s conversion. Her real name was Eirene Botting; her father was a master at St Paul’s School, and half of the Hillard and Botting partnership whose Classical textbooks were once in universal use.
‘The trouble with my mother was her father,’ says Chitty. It’s always our Mum and Dad who fuck us up, and in the sisters’ case it was their Mum. When Hopkinson forgives her for ‘the way you never bothered to find out who I really was, because you ignored me in babyhood, terrorised me in childhood and slighted me in adolescence’ she is making a classic accusation. It is made by people whose parents never divorced or remarried, who were never left to nannies (quite normal in the Thirties) or sent to boarding-school (Susan and Lyndall were dying to go). Still, they did have a bumpy childhood, and Chitty a grim start, being born between her mother’s second and third marriages, neither of them to her father. She spent her first eighteen months in a children’s home and with foster-parents, but soon after her half-sister was born she was brought home to share her excellent nanny and father. ‘Tom was the bright spot in my childhood,’ she says. ‘Lyndall and I dreamed of having him to ourselves.’ Equally affectionate, concerned and responsible towards both children, tolerant and wonderful company, Tom Hopkinson is the hero of both books until he falls under the spell of Dorothy Kingsmill, who later became his third wife.
Dorothy Kingsmill enters the story married to the writer Hugh Kingsmill, who died in 1949. She was an amateur psychoanalyst, a dangerous species, but she managed to get Antonia White out of her worst writer’s block. A guru called Baba Meher counselled her telepathically from India, and was soon counselling White as well. Kingsmill was the most dominant of the ‘dominating women’ who dominated White at various periods. The most colourful was Benedicta de Bezer, an ultra-devout Catholic transvestite given to dressing up as a monk in her room in Belsize Park. Both White and the 17-year-old Susan fell in love with de Bezer. She was a tertiary of the Dominican Order, and under her influence – or, rather, in its backwash, because mother and daughter soon began to feel satanic influences radiating from her – White became a tertiary too. The ceremony took place at Easter 1947 in Paris, with Susan in attendance. When she got back to London, White bought a black and white kitten (the Dominican colours) and called it Domina.
Both her daughters were brought up as agnostics during her 13-year lapse from Catholicism. When she returned to the Church, she naturally wanted to take them with her. Susan was received when she was 15, but Lyndall was put off by the bon-dieuserie in the Catholic shop. She speaks with contempt of the ‘mathematics of mercy’ whereby the torments of hell can be shortened by torments of remorse on earth – a consolation proffered by the nun in charge of the home where Antonia White died in torment. Hopkinson was converted to the Church of England through developing a crush on the Classics mistress at Headington High School, which she attended while living in the country with her father and his second wife, Gerti Deutsch. Gerti was a refugee who, says the acerbic Chitty, ‘had finally left Vienna with her parents and a prodigious quantity of lace mats’. Gerti was kind to Lyndall, but Lyndall preferred the two little half-sisters she produced for her. When she was 14, she was baptised by her grandfather, the Reverend Henry Hopkinson. The two sisters had spent several periods of their childhood in his North Country rectory, over-exposed, Tom Hopkinson thought, to his parents’ ‘withering influence for good’.
But Lyndall, on the evidence of her own and her sister’s books, was good anyway: anima naturaliter Christiana – and not just Christian but open to all spiritual experience. It was clever of Fred Zinnemann to pick her to play a penitent novice in his Audrey Hepburn film The Nun’s Story. This was during her picaresque period as a bolter from several rich lovers and fiancés, when she was earning her living as an extra at Cinecitta. Photographs show a girl of austere and melancholy beauty, with spectacular legs.
As it goes along, Nothing to Forgive reveals itself as a spiritual journey. This is where the artfulness of its constructions comes in: it is a sort of holy trap. The trap is set with the opening at White’s deathbed, to which Hopkinson – who lives in Italy – had felt herself summoned by ‘a strange telepathy’. She found her mother wracked by cancer and a variety of geriatric ailments, but even more by screeching devils and dead acquaintances who peopled her bouts of delirium. Clues to a revelation to come crop up from time to time in the narrative: ‘Before starting to write this book, I had always felt as if a black cloud spread over my life like a pall from the moment I was born.’ ‘1977 was an eventful year for Antonia. In April I was able to tell her that I finally believed in God.’ Enlightenment comes in the Epilogue. One of Antonia White’s many literary friends was Kathleen Raine, a vice-president of the College of Psychic Science. A year after White’s death, she wrote to Hopkinson in Italy to say that the medium Ena Twigge had reported a call from an ‘Eileen or Irene’ in the beyond. Raine thought it might be Eirene Botting. So Hopkinson made an appointment, ‘not an easy task, for Mrs Twigge was world famous and fully booked for many months in advance’. ‘Well, dear,’ she inquired after a few minutes’ friendly conversation, ‘do you want trance or not?’
Hopkinson couldn’t face trance, so Mrs Twigge had to relay the messages from the other world in oratio obliqua. To her client’s amazement, the first was from a former lover who had died of cancer. She took it as proof of authenticity: ‘It could not have been telepathy, because [Mrs Twigge] was not saying anything that was in my mind.’ The lover was interrupted with characteristic urgency by Antonia White. ‘Nothing to forgive,’ she said. ‘It was meant that way.’ So Hopkinson is able to sign off with a cheerful conflation of spiritualism and Buddhism: ‘I went home joyously. Any lingering self-pity from the past had gone. If fate, or karma, had meant things to be that way, then of course there was nothing for either of us to forgive.’
Antonia White and her daughters can be seen as three types of religiosity: hard, soft, and aesthetic. Chitty doesn’t say much about her soul – her reticence can be taken as a sign of hardness. Her sister describes her as a ‘lukewarm Christian ... still married to the man she had met as a virgin student at Oxford [with] four children by him’. Substitute ‘matter-of-fact’ for ‘lukewarm’, and the description fits the kind of no-fuss Christian the nuns in Frost in May aimed to produce.
The trouble with soft religion is that it can turn out like a short-cut recipe for easy hollandaise: you get a similar taste, but the consistency isn’t quite right. Besides, unstructured religion doesn’t suit people brought up in a Western tradition. It looks silly on them, like saris on Anglo-Saxon ladies. But Hopkinson disarms one by being funny about her visit to Mrs Twigge, and she comes across as such an engaging character that one wants any religion she chooses to work for her.
But Mrs Twigge has no aesthetic appeal. Antonia White’s novels and even her absurd tangle with Benedicta de Bezer suggest that, like her father, she was drawn by the aesthetic allure of the Catholic Church: not just the candles and rites, but the logical beauty of the doctrine and the regulated orderliness of the Catholic life if properly lived. Like Evelyn Waugh, she saw a daily beauty in the lives of well-born cradle Catholics – a style she could not emulate. Her Schwärmerei was compounded of religious aspiration, romance and snobbery. All the same, she understood what Catholicism was about. Pascal pointed out that the only sensible thing for a human being to do is to take a gamble on ‘the harsh mathematics of mercy’ in case they should be true. White had the same kind of insight at the time of her reconversion, when she ‘perceived the necessity of faith’ – just the necessity. ‘It is not as if I had any miraculous revelation or had arrived by my own reason at a satisfactory reconciliation of all the problems. All that I know is that an eye seems to open somewhere inside me; an eye very filmed and feeble, seeing nothing definite, but yet knowing that there was something to see.’