I’ve been a bit quiet on here lately… Life, as usual, getting in the way of plans. But also because every spare minute has been devoted to reading. I am a big reader, anyway, always have been. Since I was 16 years old, I’ve kept a record of every book read – largely because my memory is hopeless and I can’t remember what I’ve read otherwise. I once read a book twice and didn’t realise the second time until about two-thirds of the way through – and it shows that on average I read about 25 books a year, sometimes a lot more, sometimes a lot less. (At the start of a love affair, I hardly read at all.)
As I want to pursue more writing around the period of the 1920s, I’ve been reading around and about that time. At first I thought I was looking forward to re-reading some of my favourites from that time – A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh, The Moon and Sixpence by W Somerset Maugham, the Collected Works of Dorothy Parker. But I’ve read each of those several times, and as enjoyable as reading them again always is (I keep them by my bedside at all times, like a jar of peanut butter in the cupboard, there for when quick comfort is needed) I’m hungry for new details, new stories, new people.
So I’ve been reading the famous quartet by Antonia White, I’m halfway through the last one now and already dreading the final page because I don’t know what will satisfy me afterwards. It may mean another six months of colour supplements and newspapers because nothing can compare, so why bother? Hopefully, it’ll drive me on to read more and even better, or best of all, it’ll inspire me to write.
The first book is Frost In May, based on White’s early years at a Catholic convent school. Published in 1930 it was an instant hit. The following three books, which all feature the same heroine, were written more slowly, thanks to Antonia’s suffering from various mental conditions – from writer’s block to nervous breakdown. She also married and divorced in the 1930s.
The four books were republished by Virago in the early 1980s, after her death, and were an instant bestseller. I remember my mother reading them then and her devastation when she’d finished them all. (She didn’t read anything for six months afterwards.) All my life I’ve waited to share this experience with my mother – she became ill with premature senile dementia in 1998 and died almost eight years ago. It’s been a strange feeling, to read the words I knew she read and loved, and think about how they affected her, what they might have meant to her and what they mean to me. It’s a reminder that books pull us all together in so many different ways.
As well as that, the first-hand feeling of being alongside someone living in that time is exquisite. The language used – binge, old girl, fancy, my dear –descriptions of the clothes worn, the passions felt, the ambitions of the young women, the repressed, frustrated emotional lives of the men…. So much the same, so much different.
White’s writing is subtle in its brilliance: deceptively simple, you think it’s almost childlike to write things down just as they happened. And then you realise how hard that is to do. She’s at her best when her heroine is frustrated in her ability to communicate with those around her – whether they are stunted in their understanding because of their religious orthodoxy, or because they are men with their own ideas for her, or because they are drunk. Equally, she is kind to the sweethearts who deserve it and chillingly cold with the stupid, who don’t. It’s a lesson in how to write and be so sublimely easy to read, as delicious and intoxicating as a Pimms on a hot day.
You can start here: Frost In May by Antonia White