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In the Spotlight: Antonia White

22 April 2011

Philip O’Connor, the writer highlighted in last month’s In the Spotlight, wrote of his sense that “a thick glass pane…had been fixed between [him] and the world” upon his departure from the intense, even ‘intellectual’ environment of the Maudsley Hospital.

To another author of the same generation, who experienced the equally heightened atmosphere of the wards of Bethlem Hospital, the divider that mattered most was not a metaphorical one that separated her emotionally from others, but the window pane of her room at hospital, through which “she could see into a garden” in which “women and nurses were walking…like figures cut out of coloured paper”.

“And she could see birds flying across the sky, not real birds, but bird-shaped kites, lined with strips of white metal, that flew on wires. Only the clouds had thickness and depth and looked as clouds had looked in the other world. …They would take shape after shape to amuse her, shapes of swans, of feathers, of charming ladies with fluffy white muffs and toques, of soldiers in white busbies.”

Upon her departure from Bethlem, her perspective was reversed to that of someone on the outside looking in. “She no longer belonged to the world beyond the glass. There were moments when she almost wished she did. … Beyond the glass, however agonising the nightmare experiences, they had had a peculiar intensity.”

These quotations are from Beyond the Glass, the last novel in a trilogy of autobiographical fiction written by Antonia White (1899-1980). Nine months’ residence at Bethlem in 1922-23, when the hospital was located in Southwark, is vividly represented in this novel. This is not the place to attempt a summary either of the work or the life of its author. The dust-jacket of Jane Dunn’s 1998 biography of White promises a study of a “single parent and working mother” who “wrestled with the large questions of faith … Catholicism … being a woman and an artist”, not to mention “the threat of madness” (Antonia White: A Life). This is sufficient reason, we think, to read White’s novels (maybe Dunn’s biography too). In them White gives evocative, and at times searing, accounts of her experiences in and out of hospital.

Then for the short story ‘Surprise Visit’ (published in an anthology entitled Strangers), White drew upon her experience of returning, out of curiosity, to the Southwark site of her hospitalisation, some time after Bethlem had relocated to Beckenham and the Imperial War Museum had moved in. There White attributed to her protagonist the “peculiar satisfaction” she no doubt felt “to measure how far and how successfully she had travelled since that deplorably bad start”.

Antonia White

Used by kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery

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