Search for Books by:  


Bookshop | Contact Us | Home


Join Our E-Mail Announcement List!

Antonia White

I SUPPOSE IT IS NATURAL FOR AN ONLY CHILD MUCH addicted to reading to take early to writing. I think I was five when I first began to 'compose' on my own, using very pompous language copied from the Victorian children's books on my grandmother's shelves. Like all children, I found it difficult to finish the works so enthusiastically begun. However, when I was seven, I found a most satisfactory solution to this problem: I discovered the blurb. So instead of laboriously composing books, I took to writing highly flattering reviews of works by myself. Nothing of these existed but their titles, but I got as much satisfaction out of the self-written reviews as if I had actually produced the volumes I attributed to my 'versatile pen.' Now, fifty years later, it still gives me a curiously unreal feeling to read press-notices of my own novels. I think I find it hard to realize that the book really exists and is not just a figment of my imagination.

I was born in 1899 and baptized a Protestant. In 1906, my father, who was a schoolmaster, became a Catholic and thereby prevented himself from ever becoming a headmaster of any of the English Public Schools. My mother was converted along with him. It is her maiden name of White that I use as a writer. Her brother, Victor White, emigrated to the United States and became a naturalized American citizen. The portrait of my great-great grandfather by Sir Thomas Lawrence now hangs in the Art Gallery of Omaha, Nebraska, and, if ever I visit the United States, I shall go and look at that portrait which I remember so well from my childhood. I was received into the Church at seven. At nine, I went to a convent school and it was there on my fifteenth birthday, that something happened that affected my whole writing life. It was one of those tragi-comic misunderstandings, but it gave me a shock from which I have never quite recovered. Up to that day, I had thoroughly enjoyed writing. I was monotonously 'top in composition' in class and, on freestudy afternoons, I would write stories and poems for the sheer pleasure of it. These would often be carefully copied into exercise books and presented to my parents and grandparents. When I was fourteen, I planned something really ambitious months ahead as a surprise for my father's birthday,-nothing less than a full-length novel. My father was the person I most loved and feared in the whole world, and I planned my novel to astonish and delight him by being highly edifying as well as sensational. My characters were to begin by being dreadfully wicked and worldly and, after a series of exciting adventures, to end up by being dramatically converted. The worst of all was to finish up as a saintly Trappist. I had written about five chapters of the wicked and worldly part. Being very innocent, I did not know how to make my future Trappist wicked enough so I merely said he 'indulged in nameless vices'. . . a phrase I had read somewhere and which seemed an excellent blanket. Unfortunately, I yielded to author's vanity and let a school friend see these opening chapters. She rashly read them in study-time and a nun confiscated the manuscript. The next thing I knew was that my parents were sent for and I was virtually expelled. I was too paralyzed to explain to my outraged father that I had meant no harm and that all my characters were to end up paragons of virtue. He remained so convinced that I must have a precociously corrupted mind that it was not till long after his death that I ever attempted to write another novel. I put that absurd, yet agonizing, episode into the first novel I ever published, Frost in Ma~d (Viking Press). But that was not till 1934. . . twenty years after it occurred.

From the time I left school, apart from a brief period of being a deservedly unsuccessful actress, I did, however, earn my living by writing in one form or another. I wrote magazine stories and articles; I wrote free-lance advertising for five years and spent nine as a copy-writer in a big London agency. But, apart from two or three short stories, I wrote nothing 'serious.' I felt safe only writing things to order. I was obsessed with the idea that if I wrote anything of my own, something wicked and corrupt would creep into it and I would be faced again with horrified disapprobation.

Frost in Mad was written almost by accident and, once again, to please someone I loved. I was turning out some old papers and found some totally forgotten pages I had written while still at my convent school. My husband read them and said "You must finish this and make it into a novel. I want a chapter every Saturday night read aloud to me." I obeyed. The book was finished, quickly accepted, and is still being sold. Because a loved person had approved of it, I thought the 'curse' on my novel-writing had been lifted forever. Far from it. After I had written a few chapters of my next novel, my husband left me. It must have seemed to my unconscious mind that writing drove away affection and all the old sense of guilt returned I pegged on with articles and advertising copy to order and it was not till a breakdown landed me in nearly four years of psychoanalytical treatment that I slowly and laboriously resumed my interrupted novel. Even so, it was fifteen years in all between the writing of the first and the last chapters of The Lost Traveller (Viking Press), which was published in 1950.

Since then, I have had published two more novels: The SugarHouse (Eyre, 1952) and Beyond the Glass (Regnery, 1954). But, though I can now force myself to write, it is never a pleasure. The old terrors always return and often, with them, a feeling of such paralyzing lack of self-confidence that I have to take earlier books of mine off their shelf just to prove to myself that I actually wrote them and they were actually printed, bound, and read. I find that numbers of writers experience these same miseries over their work and do not, as is so often supposed, enjoy the process. "Creative joy" is something I haven't felt since I was fourteen and don't expect to feel again. I have just had to learn to peg on without this pleasurable sensation. There is, however, a definite satisfaction in finishing a novel, though it is apt to disappear when the proofs arrive. And there is a more solid comfort in occasionally finding in an old book passages that give one quite a pleasant surprise.

Though bad reviews can wound a lot, good ones do not always inflate one as much as they might. So often the flattering remarks seem to bear no relation to the novel one has actually written' so that one feels rather like a cat that has been awarded a prize in a dog-show. What is far more heartening than even the kindest review is the letter from the stranger who has read the book and taken the trouble to write a personal appreciation. Best of all is the stranger who finds something in what one has written that corresponds to their own experience of life or even illuminates it. One such letter from a stranger in New Jersey (she is now a friend of many years' standing) gave me courage to tackle a difficult theme . . . that of insanity. It is to this Catholic woman doctor that I dedicated my last novel, Beyond the Glass.

My novels and short stories are mainly about ordinary people who become involved in rather extraordinary situations. I do not mean in sensational adventures but in rather odd and difficult personal relationships largely due to their family background and their incomplete understanding of their own natures. I use both Catholic and non-Catholic characters and am particularly interested in the conflicts that arise between them and in the influences they have on each other. The fact that I lapsed from both faith and practice for fifteen years is naturally something I bitterly regret. Nevertheless, I think that it has given me a real understanding of those outside of the Church and of problems for Catholics themselves which those who have been spared 'doubts' do not always appreciate. Since I was fortunate enough to recover my faith in 1940, every year has given me a deeper conviction of its truth. If anything I have written or may write one day could reduce some of the misunderstandings between Catholics and non-Catholics, I would be more than rewarded for all the qualms and miseries I have every time I embark on the seemingly impossible task of writing another novel.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Miss White is also distinguished as a translator from the French. In 1949 her version of Guy de Maupassant's Une vie was awarded the Denyee Clairouin Prize; and since then she has turned into English Henri Bordeaux's A Pathway to Heaven (1952), Dr. Alexis Carrel's Reflections on Life ( 1953 ), and Paul Andre Lesort's The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth (1955).

Originally published by Walter Romig in The Book of Catholic Authors

Bookshop | Contact Us | Home

copyright 2002-2005 Catholic Authors