Posts Tagged 'Beyond the Glass'

A Sporting Chance 3

We fear that our occasional posts on asylum-inspired sports and pastimes have yet to attract the interest of the International Olympic Committee. There will be no billiards and no baseball at London 2012. Undeterred, we persevere with our suggestions, and this month highlight an Olympic sport discontinued after the 1900 Games. Croquet was a popular pursuit at Bethlem Hospital in the Victorian and Edwardian eras and beyond (as evidenced by the photograph that accompanies this post). In a novel based on her experience as a patient in the 1920s, Antonia White relates a moment of fearful insight precipitated by a match played in the company of strangers with little regard to the rules:

‘In vain Clara tried to explain the rules of croquet…But it was hopeless. No-one could understand. In the end she left them running gaily about the lawn, hitting any ball they saw and usually all playing at once…the next moment, it came to her. These women were mad. All the women she saw at mealtimes were mad. No wonder she could make no contact with them. She was imprisoned in a place full of mad people.’1

Taken in isolation, and with too much seriousness, a quotation like this one might seem to support a stigmatising dichotomy between ‘them’ and ‘us’, the mad and the sane, as well as an unsupportable shortcut in mental diagnostics whereby disregard of sporting rules was a positive indicator of insanity. Yet what we have in Clara is not an omniscient, inerrant narrator, but a character whose grasp of the rules of croquet may have been impeccable but whose purchase on her own memories and perceptions sometimes proved faulty.

1 Antonia White, Beyond the Glass (London, 1979), p. 243.

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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’.

1 Antonia White, Beyond the Glass (Virago, 1979), p. 6.

2 Antonia White, The Hound and the Falcon: The story of a reconversion to the Catholic faith (Virago, 1990), p. 162.

3 ibid., p. xix.

Book Review: ‘Beyond the Glass’ and ‘The Vet’s Daughter’

Following our call for book reviews from our readers back in February, Michelle Kopczyk contributed this post from Canada, which coincidentally builds on our recent In the Spotlight on novelist Antonia White:

“Clara Batchelor is twenty-two. Her brief, doomed marriage to Archie ended, she returns to her parents hoping for comfort. But theirs is a strict Catholic home, and its confines form a dangerous glass wall of guilt and repression between Clara and the outside world. Clara both longs for and fears what lies beyond, yet when she escapes into an exhilarating and passionate love affair, her fragile identity cracks. An extraordinary portrayal of a woman’s descent into madness.” May Quartet

Beyond the Glass is the last book in a trilogy-sequel to Frost in May (which I feel is White’s strongest novel).

The central theme in Beyond the Glass is the main character’s (Clara) mental deterioration–absence of identity, depression, great exultation, delusions, incarceration–and recovery. White experienced this in her early twenties, an affliction that revisited her a few times during her life.

The story is tragic. It is about loss and the reluctant acceptance of it. It also evokes a strange sense of hope, that Clara is moving towards developing a sense of self. In contrast, Barbara Comyn’s novel The Vet’s Daughter is similar in feeling, but it has a fantastical element that, unlike Beyond the Glass, mitigates the sense of tragedy for the central character and reinforces, what I believe to be the Vet’s Daughter‘s central theme, the sense of doom of being a human being. White’s novel is unbridled and hard to take in parts—on my third try, I got through it.

White, A. (1980) Beyond the Glass, Virago Press, London

Comyns, B. (1981) The Vet’s Daughter, Virago Modern Classics, London

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In the Spotlight: Antonia White

Philip O’Connor, the writer highlighted in last month’s In the Spotlight, wrote of his sense that “a thick glass pane…had been fixed between [him] and the world” upon his departure from the intense, even ‘intellectual’ environment of the Maudsley Hospital.

To another author of the same generation, who experienced the equally heightened atmosphere of the wards of Bethlem Hospital, the divider that mattered most was not a metaphorical one that separated her emotionally from others, but the window pane of her room at hospital, through which “she could see into a garden” in which “women and nurses were walking…like figures cut out of coloured paper”.

“And she could see birds flying across the sky, not real birds, but bird-shaped kites, lined with strips of white metal, that flew on wires. Only the clouds had thickness and depth and looked as clouds had looked in the other world. …They would take shape after shape to amuse her, shapes of swans, of feathers, of charming ladies with fluffy white muffs and toques, of soldiers in white busbies.”

Upon her departure from Bethlem, her perspective was reversed to that of someone on the outside looking in. “She no longer belonged to the world beyond the glass. There were moments when she almost wished she did. … Beyond the glass, however agonising the nightmare experiences, they had had a peculiar intensity.”

These quotations are from Beyond the Glass, the last novel in a trilogy of autobiographical fiction written by Antonia White (1899-1980). Nine months’ residence at Bethlem in 1922-23, when the hospital was located in Southwark, is vividly represented in this novel. This is not the place to attempt a summary either of the work or the life of its author. The dust-jacket of Jane Dunn’s 1998 biography of White promises a study of a “single parent and working mother” who “wrestled with the large questions of faith … Catholicism … being a woman and an artist”, not to mention “the threat of madness” (Antonia White: A Life). This is sufficient reason, we think, to read White’s novels (maybe Dunn’s biography too). In them White gives evocative, and at times searing, accounts of her experiences in and out of hospital.

Then for the short story ‘Surprise Visit’ (published in an anthology entitled Strangers), White drew upon her experience of returning, out of curiosity, to the Southwark site of her hospitalisation, some time after Bethlem had relocated to Beckenham and the Imperial War Museum had moved in. There White attributed to her protagonist the “peculiar satisfaction” she no doubt felt “to measure how far and how successfully she had travelled since that deplorably bad start”.

Antonia White

Used by kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery