“Nothing better can be hoped for” – T H White: A Biography by Sylvia Townsend Warner

IMG_2023-1-16-085551Literature has styles in the same way other art does, but somehow it’s harder to see, perhaps because people read less books during a lifetime than they watch television or look at photographs. Photographs, of course, are the modern style over paintings, and for good reason – art adapts to whatever technology is the most accessible, i.e. the easiest for someone broke to use. Biographies of artists also have styles. Specifically, the current trend for biographies of writers is to include within the timeline of the artist’s life criticism of the author’s work. That is to say, the biographer does a parlour analysis of the reasons why the author was compelled to write a particular book at a particular time based on the life events of the author up to that point.

It’s easy not to realise this is the current style of literary biography until you read a work which does none of this. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s biography of TH White (which was originally published in 1967 with a foreword by John Verney, and has been reissued by Handheld Press based on a scan of the original text, and with a further, modern introduction by Gill Davies) is based on several years’ research inside White’s diaries and unpublished works, as well as interviews with the people who knew him best – including school chums, his cleaning lady and the neighbourhood children around his home in Alderney, Jersey. Her work has been reissued because it’s difficult to imagine a modern biographer being willing to tackle White’s life, for two reasons: his personal life (by which to say, his emotional and sexual one as an adult) was virtually non-existent; and the reasons for this as expressed in his diaries were so creepy and sad that they are difficult to grapple with.

It appears that the people who, as the biographer, chose Warner – a lesbian who was in her seventies at the time of writing this work, and whose technique makes her come across as being quite solid in herself, regardless of how much she had to keep her sexuality hidden from the wider world – chose her because they thought her experience of desires which must be kept hidden would make her sympathetic to the darker sides of White’s nature. A modern biographer would have made great hay of some of the formative incidents of White’s life, whereas Warner chose to mention them almost in passing in a direct quote from White’s diary.

“I am told that my father and mother were to be found wrestling with a pistol, one on either side of my cot, each claiming that he or she was going to shoot the other and himself or herself, but in any case beginning with me. If I woke up during these scenes, the censor of my mind has obliterated them as too terrible, but I believe they happened. It was not a safe kind of childhood.”

Warner allows this bombshell to drop on page 15 without comment, letting the effect of the blast slowly reverberate throughout the rest of the book. White was born in India in 1906, to an alcoholic Irish father and a Anglo-Scottish mother, herself born in India, who’d married Garrick White after telling her family, who taunted her for an old maid, that she’d have the next man who asked her. Terence Hanbury White was initially brought up by an ayah who Constance sacked when she realised her toddler preferred the ayah to his parents. In 1911 the family ‘returned’ to England but eventually Garrick returned to India. When Constance followed she left her little boy in the care of her parents. Eventually he was sent to boarding school, where he acquired the nickname Tim, which his friends used for the rest of his life. There used to be a chain of pharmacies called Timothy White’s, and the realisation that this is where his name was drawn from is almost as shocking as his family’s behaviour.

As an adult, White began as an a schoolteacher, but some early literary success convinced him to give up teaching and focus on flinging himself into his passions. These included animals (the only reciprocated affection in his life seems to have been from one of his dogs), hunting, dodging the tax-man, learning to sail, and providing respite care for deaf-blind people during summers in his home. His books, despite being his major source of income, come across as almost beside the point, and are discussed primarily in quotes from White’s correspondence about the experience of writing them. The later literary successes are primarily mentioned via their aftermath, as the money comes in and is spent on cars, remote houses, birds of prey, and some travel (including an extended stay in Naples, where White met the young man who discovered his body when he died on a cruise ship in Athens in 1964).

Warner also, slowly, throughout the text, attempts to figure out White’s tortured emotional life, as well as anybody ever could. Thanks to his schoolboy experiences of being caned in boarding school, he was certainly a sadist, but he seems to have been so horrified by these urges that he apparently never acted on them, except in his thoughts. Was he gay or straight? No one seems to know for sure, starting with White himself. There were occasional relationships with women that went as far as called-off engagements, but Warner mentions them tactfully, not naming names, primarily because it’s unclear how genuine these relationships were. There were young men who White fell hopelessly in love with, though whether or not the young men knew the extent of White’s feelings for them (as expressed in his private writings) remains unclear. And also certainly White self-medicated with alcohol, drinking violently enough he was still getting into bar fights with strangers into his fifties. His friends made allowances for his rages and his melancholy. When White got sick his neighbours looked after him. All the descriptions Warner provides of how he moved through the world come across, drop by drop, as incredibly sad. However he was too intelligent to be fully pathetic, and the vigour with which he flung himself into his various sportsmanlike and research activities kept him occupied (and gave his friends plenty of other things to be annoyed about). And yet White is buried in Athens because none of his extended family or friends wanted to claim him closer.

Anyone looking for a modern description of White’s personal life will come to understand the limits anyone, even a biographer as skilled and sympathetic as Warner, can have in describing the truth of someone else’s life. This makes the reissue of this biography incredibly important for the current moment. Our current style of living is to do so in front of an audience of strangers via social media, as if any of those moments can truly capture what is felt by the person doing the performance. There is always a gap between our private selves and that which is perceived by others (if others care to perceive us, of course). And there is always a gap between what we want, what we need, and what we have. In White’s life it is apparent these lacunae were larger than they are for most, and in Warner’s careful explanations of what she found in his private papers we come as close as it is possible to understanding another’s complicated, devastated, hungering mind. It makes you want to return to White’s books (the best ones are The Goshawk and The Once and Future King) and read them with the knowledge of what he went through in order to create them. (Warner’s most famous novel, Lolly Willowes, is like a bewitched little sister to The Once and Future King, and worth re-examining on its own merits too.)

Any Cop?: With this book, a modern audience can revisit White’s work in the full knowledge of how hard he fought against the darkness that began annihilating him when his parents fought with a gun over his cot. For a writer’s biography, nothing better can be hoped for.

Sarah Manvel

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