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An Extraordinary Life 1

Antonia White’s Beyond the Glass, the last in the sequence of autobiographical novels which began with Frost in May, was briefly reviewed on this blog last year; a biographical sketch of the author herself appeared at the same time. In the book, White fictionalises the experiences of her early adulthood: her dysfunctional relationships, mental breakdown, treatment at Bethlem Hospital, subsequent recovery and discharge, and religious disaffection. According to the preface of the 1979 edition, her “relationship with Catholic belief and practice has always been intense, a wrestling to live within its spiritual imperatives in a way which accorded with her own nature, clinging to her faith, as she says, ‘by the skin of my teeth’.”

“To a modern reader”, the preface continues, “these could be seen as experiences intimately connected with [her principal character’s] slow progress towards madness, but to Antonia White they were influences which were also profoundly enriching, in no way negative, part of an extraordinary life which she recalls with a mixture of astonishment and laughter”.1

The letters which were published as The Hound and the Falcon: The story of a reconversion to the Catholic faith form a fascinating counterpoint to Beyond the Glass. In 1942 White was asked by the editor of Horizon to write something about her recent return to the Catholic fold after fifteen years away from it. She did so diffidently, conscious that her non-Catholic friends were “extremely kind” to her whenever the subject arose in conversation “as they would be to someone suffering a distressing illness or a mental aberration”.2 In the event, the editor refused to publish the piece she wrote, saying that reading it “was like watching a person making desperate attempts to retain their reason and finally lapsing into insanity”.3 Many years later, it was published alongside a series of letters written by White to a confidante in 1940-41, the time of her reconversion. These letters demonstrate an earnestness, a warmth and a humanity which gives the lie to any lazy, blanket equation of intense religious concern with mental imbalance – an equation with as little genuine foundation, but perhaps as much intellectual allure, as the one that is sometimes posited between creativity and ‘madness’.