Antonia White: Diaries 1926-1957, edited by Susan Chitty

I found these diaries very difficult to read. I haven’t read any of White’s novels yet, though I know that her Frost in May was one of the initial “lost” women’s masterpieces rescued by Virago Press in the 1970s. Apparently, the diaries were not written to be read by outsiders. Instead, they seem to serve mostly as a place where she can work out just what is going on with her.

She doesn’t use the diaries as a writer’s notebook, with character sketches and plot vignettes. Nor does she use them as a memory box, with descriptions of friends and happenings. She alludes to many friends and lovers. In fact, the number of people cited in these snippets left me floundering, even with the help of the biographical sketches in the back. White certainly knew a lot of interesting people, and I would have welcomed more information about many of them, such as Julien Green, George Barker, and Graham Greene, but they are only mentioned in passing. There are a couple a brief references to World War II starting, but nothing else of the interesting times that she lived through.

Of course, she wasn’t trying to write a narrative with these diaries. Or perhaps she was: the story of her life. More than anything else, she writes in the diaries in order to understand herself and her experiences. Born in 1899 as Eirene Botting, she came of age in the wild years after the Great War, with three marriages and a number of lovers, two daughters, and a nervous breakdown.

The influence of her resulting years of pschoanalysis is evident in these diaries, as she records her dreams and explores her memories of her parents. Even towards the end of this volume, when she is in her fifties, she is still going back over childhood events, trying to work out their effect on her life. There is much about her financial difficulties and writer’s block. She complains about how her pen works, the way the light falls, feeling depressed.

What I valued most was her bluntness. I may have found it hard to like her when she goes on about how much of a burden her children are and how finally, after many years, she might be starting to love them a little bit, yet I appreciated such sentiments much more than a pretense at more conventional maternal feelings.

On the other hand, her reconciliation with the Catholic Church in 1940 made for sticky reading. Between talk of making God the center of her life and breast-beating over the conflict of the church’s teachings with her “over-sexed” nature, I was tempted to put down the book entirely. Then there was the bizarre relationship with another convert, with the two of them trying to out-Catholic each other and fighting over White’s oldest daughter, Susan.

Another difficulty I had with the book is that has been edited by Susan herself. Since much of the second half has to do with Susan—analysing her personality, admitting to jealousy of Susan’s beauty, lamenting their falling out—I began to question the editing that went into producing this volume. There are many ellipses in every passage which appear to mark excised phrases rather than being White’s writing style. I couldn’t help but speculate about what was missing. A comment on the end flap (I always read the end flaps last) leads me to think that the other daughter opposed the book, making me wonder what sort of book might have been produced by a less biased editor.

And what kind of picture of White might have come out of a different selection. This book makes her seem completely self-centered, thinking only of herself and her needs, trying to dominate former husbands and lovers even after leaving them, ignoring her daughters except to complain that they don’t love her enough. Perhaps she was an insufferable egotist, but surely she was also a victim of changing cultural mores, struggling to balance the strictures of her parents and the church against the sexual freedom and spiritualism of the years between the wars. And White, like Elizabeth Smart, another single parent, obviously struggled to find the emotional and intellectual energy, not to mention simply the time, to write. Was it the writing that made her a bad mother, as Alice Walker’s daughter has famously accused? Or is the writing just a convenient scapegoat?

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