White, Antonia (1899–1980)

views updated

White, Antonia (1899–1980)

British novelist and translator . Name variations: Eirene Adeline Botting. Born Eirene Adeline Botting in London, England, on March 31, 1899; died in London on April 10, 1980; only child of Cecil George Botting (a senior classics master at St. Paul's School in London) and Christine Julia (White) Botting; expelled from the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton, 1914; attended St. Paul's Girls' School in London, 1914–16; attended Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, 1919–20; married in 1921 (annulled 1924); married in 1924 (annulled 1929); married writer Tom (H.T.) Hopkinson, in 1930 (divorced 1938); children: two daughters, Susan Chitty and Lyndall.

At 14, expelled from convent school; left St. Paul's Girls' School against father's wishes; attended Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for one year (1919–20); actress in provincial repertory; first marriage annulled on grounds of non-consummation (1924); had mental breakdown followed by nine months in mental hospital; became fashion editor and drama critic; published Frost in May (1933); mental instability recurred (1934); recovered using Freudian analysis; during World War II, wrote for BBC and worked in Foreign Office; became prolific translator (1949 on); published first volume of trilogy, The Lost Traveller (1950), followed by The Sugar House (1952) and Beyond the Glass (1954); received Clairouin Prize for translation (1950); became fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (1957).

Antonia White was born on March 31, 1899, to Cecil George Botting and Christine White Botting in London, England. She converted with her parents to Catholicism at the age of seven and received an education at two different Catholic schools. White was a voracious reader but had a troubled academic career. Her first school, the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton, expelled her in 1914 after the nuns discovered a love story White had been writing. She had hoped that the manuscript's overt Catholicism would please her father, but the hints of illicit behavior in her writing overshadowed that element. Finding herself the target of the disapproval of the two most important authorities in her life—her father and the Catholic Church—White stopped writing until those influences in her life diminished. Even when she did resume writing at age 30 after her father's death and the lapse of her faith, she could never shake accompanying feelings of guilt and anxiety.

White's strained relationship with her father did not improve after she left her next school, St. Paul's Girls' School in London, where her father was a senior classics master. She studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London from 1919 to 1920, and acted with a touring company the following year. She accepted a variety of teaching and clerical jobs after leaving the stage and landed more permanently in the field of journalism when she became an advertising copywriter for a magazine. Now writing again, she expanded her style to become a theater critic and fashion editor, in addition to copywriting for an advertising agency, teaching in an acting studio, and working for British intelligence during World War II.

At the same time White was making her mark in the professional world, she struggled with mental illness and failed marriages. Her first marriage in 1921 was disrupted by her breakdown and confinement to an insane asylum for nine months. It was annulled in 1924 on the grounds of non-consummation, and White married for a second time that same year. This marriage fared no better, and was likewise annulled in 1929. Although her third marriage, to journalist H. Tom Hopkinson, ended unhappily in divorce, White received encouragement from Hopkinson in her fiction writing after he discovered her long-neglected first novel. She gradually finished the work which she had begun at age 16, and published it as Frost in May in 1933.

As with the other three novels which made White's reputation, Frost in May was highly autobiographical, recounting her experiences at the convent school and including the details of her expulsion. In it, White attempted to reconcile her own conflicting feelings about faith and the Catholic Church, questioning why people become Catholic and how it is possible for people to subjugate their will to God's. The book was White's only commercial success, and a critic from Commonweal hailed it as a "minor classic" and its author "one of the best Catholic women writers of the generation." White, for her part, referred to the novel as "a kind of legend, the perfect thing I brought off once and never will again." It would be another 15 years before she produced her next book, possibly because of the loss of her "muse" after her divorce from Hopkinson in 1938. Another mental breakdown led her to try Freudian analysis, which she credited with ultimately curing her after four years of therapy. She also reconverted to the Catholic Church in 1940.

Starting in 1950, White wrote three novels in a five-year period, forming what was known as the Clara Batchelor trilogy. It was largely autobiographical, and despite the change of name of the heroine, from Wanda Grey in Frost in May to Clara Batchelor in the trilogy, the three novels are a sequel to her first work. The first of the three, The Lost Traveller (1950), re-explores the traumas of White's Catholic upbringing; the second novel, Sugar House (1952), examines the failure of her marriage; and the final novel, Beyond the Glass (1954), recreates the author's bouts with mental illness and institutionalization. Catholicism remains the underlying theme throughout her writing, yet there is a profound absence of hope. Critics suggested that White hoped to exorcise her own demons through the act of dramatizing her painful memories, but her inability to fully confront those memories resulted in a cold, distant narrative style. White acknowledged her struggle to express herself in writing, saying, "'Creative joy' is something I haven't felt since I was fourteen and don't expect to feel again." The four novels inspired a television series, "Frost in

May," in 1982. White also published an account of her return to the Catholic Church as The Hound and the Falcon in 1965.

In addition to her own writing, White began a career as a translator in 1949, taking the Clairouin Prize for translation the following year. Her English translations of such noted French authors as Colette , Guy de Maupassant, and Marguerite Duras , among others, numbered over 30, and in 1957 she became a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. White died in 1980. One year later her unfinished autobiography, As Once in May, appeared, with an introduction by her daughter, Susan Chitty . Chitty also edited and published White's Diaries 1926–1979, in 1991.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Contemporary Authors Online, 1999.

Schlueter, Paul, and June Schlueter, eds. An Encyclopedia of British Women Writers. NY: Garland, 1988.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Turner, Roland, ed. The Annual Obituary 1980. 1st ed. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1980.

Malinda Mayer , writer and editor, Falmouth, Massachusetts