T H White: A Biography, by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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Reviewed by Helen Parry

Not every writer lives a particularly interesting life (it is, after all, for their sitting down and imagining things that we value them) and not every biographer can take the ingredients of literary works, letters, diaries, friends’ and enemies’ reminiscences, and transmute them into a portrait of someone who lives and breathes. Fortunately, T.H. White was a complex man of towering eccentricity and many enthusiasms as well as deep griefs and a very dark side, and Sylvia Townsend Warner, one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, understood him and recreated him vividly in a work that draws on her powers as a fiction writer as well as her scrupulous scholarship. The result, this book, has rightly been described as a classic of biography and remains as fresh, engaging and melancholy as ever in this new edition published by Handheld Press.

When White died in 1964 aged 57, he was still enjoying the enormous success of his The Once and Future King quartet, of which The Sword in the Stone is the most famous volume, as well as Mistress Masham’s Repose. Nowadays he is also remembered as the writer of The Goshawk, inspiration for Helen Macdonald’s bestselling H is for Hawk. (His other works were mainly poetry, satire or based on his love of outdoor pursuits, and they were patchy in quality.) Yet despite his success and wealth, he remained to the end an unhappy man, tormented and insecure, reliant on others’ approval and quick to take offence.

Born in Bombay, White had a mainly miserable childhood. His parents fought constantly until they divorced, he was deprived of the ayah whom he loved more than anyone and his boarding-school experiences were predictably awful. His grandparents’ house in St Leonards was the one bright spot. He determined to go to university and earned money from private tutoring in order to pay his way. His studies at Cambridge were spiced with a disastrous walking holiday in Lapland (he and his friend nearly froze and starved to death) and an uproarious interlude in Italy where he started on his first novel. 

After obtaining a First with Distinction, he taught at an unnamed prep school and then at Stowe: 

…a sort of robust Harlequin, plunging from one activity to another, self-confident, high-spirited and derisive. ‘His height, his light sarcastic eye, gave him an air of magnificence which he was always ready to deflate by laughter,’ says the Stoic obituary. He was probably one of those people whom we consider amusing because they startle us.

Unconventional (there was naked sunbathing) and often savage to his pupils, White was not really suited to schoolmastering but needed the money to finance his love of gentry pursuits, hunting, shooting and fishing. Once he started earning money from writing, he abandoned teaching to scrape by in a succession of cottages and houses in England, Ireland and Alderney, and indulge his interests. He was endlessly curious. He learnt to fly a plane because he was afraid. He taught himself falconry from a mediaeval treatise and loved his birds but each attempt ended in tragedy or his setting them loose. He sailed. He painted. He sojourned on an abandoned island. He learnt Braille and what is now called Deafblind Manual so that he could host people who were deaf-blind on short summer holidays. He semi-adopted an entire Italian family in Naples. Writing was the constant in a life dedicated to enthusiasms which did not always burn long.

However, he was dogged by depression, alcoholism and dark desires. He was very lonely and the love of his life was his dog, Brownie. Homosexuality was still illegal in Britain when Townsend Warner was writing, and a veil is drawn over that side of White’s life. He did have a few heterosexual relationships but Townsend Warner writes almost nothing about them even though he became engaged several times. (To whom? Why? What did they think of him?) 

Most disturbingly, White confessed in his diaries that he fell in love with young boys. (It was fortunate that he gave up teaching.) He seems never to have acted upon his desires and was racked by fear and guilt. Here, again, Townsend Warner is circumspect; it’s not even clear how often it happened. Only one boy, Zed, is given an alias and a personality. White craved Zed’s attention but not his body; eventually, Zed grew up and lost interest in him, devastating White.

My room is full of the smell of roses and new cut hay and of elder blossom; and coiled up in all this like the snake in Eden, is the smell of long wet winters in Ireland; Tim White’s Irish diaries, written twenty years ago and more, but still exuding a smell of damp and melancholy and a very faint smell of paraffin. I see I shall be leading two lives at once... (Letter from Sylvia Townsend Warner to William Maxwell, quoted in the introduction)

To write this biography, Townsend Warner read all his papers and his diaries, spoke to his friends and acquaintances and visited the places where he lived. She quotes him extensively throughout the book, giving a very strong sense of his personality, although she was conscious at the same time that she was ‘creating’ him almost like a fictional character. Like many biographers, she became haunted by her subject. The experience was ‘like trying to write the biography of a large and animated octopus’, sometimes (in her diary) ‘painful’ or ‘killing me’. In February 1967 she wrote in her diary:

as I walked to the kitchen […] I said to the air, O Tim, I don’t like to lose you; and could have sworn that a large shape – much too tall and broad for the passage – was following me. It has been a strange love-story between an old woman and a dead man.

She writes as if she were a good but critical friend; she is impatient with him, deplores his drinking, his carelessness and occasional cruelties, and laments when he abandons a promising book, while sympathising deeply with his losses, remorse and sadness. Her process is perceptively examined by Gill Davies in the introduction to the new edition. The result is an absolutely fascinating portrait of a tormented man, an outsider with a very dark side who struggled to fit into society and never really succeeded; a tribute to him and to her own writing powers.

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Helen Parry blogs at a gallimaufry.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, T H White: A Biography (first published 1967, new edition, Handheld Press, 2023). 978-1912766741, 338pp., paperback original.

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2 comments

  1. It’s marvellous, isn’t it? A brilliantly written book about a fascinating and complex author – loved it!

    1. Yes it is! I am SO glad I have finally been able to read it, and in such a nice edition too. (The introduction really is great.)

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