“I hate the idea of sequels. I think you should be able to do it in one book.” (Jane Gardam)

This week I’m looking at two novels by Antonia White, prompted by the pending arrival of next week’s 1954 Club, hosted by Simon and Kaggsy. When I looked at the TBR for 1954 novels, one that I had was Beyond the Glass. However, it’s the final novel in a quartet, and I hadn’t read the middle two…

It’s been six years since I read Frost in May and I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to pick up Antonia White again, because I really enjoyed that first instalment. Frost in May was written in 1933, and White didn’t continue the story again until 1950, going on to write the last two in the quartet in 1952 and 1954.

The Lost Traveller (1950) sees Nanda from Frost in May renamed Clara and returning to her childhood home in West Kensington to attend the funeral of her paternal grandfather. Her father is bereft, but in 1914 emotions were to be controlled absolutely:

“Suddenly he was touched by an old fear of which he had never spoken to anyone, the fear that one day he might lose all control of his mind. Against that there was only one weapon; his obstinate will.”

Mr Batchelor is a teacher who harbours academic ambitions for Clara. His feckless wife Isabel wants Clara to be beautiful. She is both of these things, but not to the extent that either of her parents would like. The complex family relationships are brilliantly portrayed by White: the mismatched parents, the passive aggressive power struggles between Isabel and her mother-in-law (“Mrs Batchelor’s face … assumed a look of patient malice.”) and in the middle of it all, adolescent Clara.

“At home, to be silent was taken for a sign one was sulking.”

After her mother is ill with the mysterious women’s problems that were always so common and yet so unspoken, Clara’s father can no longer pay her school fees (the NHS was over 30 years away) and so she has to leave Catholic boarding school to attend a local Protestant school. She’s actually quite happy there, and makes two friends, although neither of them are Catholic, to the concern of her convert parents.

“Isabel, who would never have come to such a decision on her own, was willing to follow him. Catholicism seemed to her a poetical and aristocratic religion.”

Clara’s religion plays a large part in The Lost Traveller, as she tries to establish what it means for her as a young adult, away from the structures of her convent school.

Of course, with the year being 1914, readers know what the family is about to live through. However, when war breaks out, the only person it really affects is Mr Batchelor, as he sees the population of his old boys steadily wiped out.

“If only he could have gone to the front with them, he would have been completely happy.”

Although Clara prides herself on not being as vacuous as her mother, in some ways she is just as self-focussed and oblivious:

“Since she had nobody at the front in love with her and was too young to be a nurse or W.A.A.C, Clara refused to take any interest in the progress of the war.”

So while the war takes place somewhere else, Clara struggles with her sense of self, trying to work out who she is and how to manage the tumultuous feelings of teenage life in a family where so much goes unspoken. Her father is devout, strict, and given to tempers. Clara adores him and yet there is distance between them:

“Why couldn’t he understand without being told that there was nothing she would not do, cut her hair off, hold her hand to the fire, if it would bring any comfort? Why couldn’t he realise that the one impossible thing was to speak?”

Meanwhile her mother is struggling with her life choices – or lack thereof – and is drawn to one of her husband’s colleagues, Reynaud Callaghan, who encourages her romantic fancies.

“‘But I love Versailles,’ she went on dreamily. ‘I had an ancestress at the court of Louis XVI. I should have adored that life. Those exquisite clothes and the balls by candlelight and the masquerades by moonlight.’”

Isabel is great creation: vain, shallow, a snob, and yet in many ways she sees more clearly than anyone else. She tries to talk to Clara about childbirth and sex, but Clara stops her. Clara’s naivete about both is astonishing yet believable.

An opportunity comes up for Clara to be a governess for six months to an aristocratic Catholic family,  which her family are keen she take up. I found her charge thoroughly unpleasant – an over-privileged, spoilt, entitled little brat. The type that grows up to run the country 😉

It’s there that Clara meets Archie Hughes-Follett, injured in the line of duty. He will come to play a much larger role in her life in The Sugar House.

“When she considered her vanity and duplicity and how little her beliefs influenced her behaviour, she began to wonder whether she might not be insensibly growing into a hypocrite.”

The Sugar House (1952) picks up Clara’s story six years later in 1920. She is an actress, having paid for her drama tuition herself with money made from working in a government office. She doesn’t seem wholly committed to her profession, but she is to her older lover Stephen Tye.

Needless to say, the reader may not be quite so enamoured of a man given to pronouncements such as: “‘No female novelist is worth reading,’ said Stephen. ‘Women can’t write novels any more than they can write poems.’” He then wheels out the tired old misogynist cliché that Branwell wrote Wuthering Heights. Sigh…

Thankfully we don’t have to endure this awful man for too long, as he ends up on a different tour to Clara. I thought the touring life was wonderfully evoked by White:

“Though towns changed, landlady’s sitting-rooms remained the same. There were always round tables with red or green serge cloths, aspidistras, photographs of seaside towns in plush frames and, in lucky weeks, a tinny, yellow-keyed piano.”

Clara often finds herself sharing rooms with fellow actor Maidie, who is at once much more devout and much more worldly than Clara. Religion is not such a strong theme throughout The Sugar House as it was in The Lost Traveller, but it is there as a constant.

When things fall apart with Stephen – as the reader knows they inevitably will – Clara returns to the security of what she knows: home, and Archie. He loves her, and unlike Stephen he respects her writing:

“I didn’t think even you could write anything which got me so much.”

However, he is conflicted and confused. He has the same childlike quality he had in The Lost Traveller, but his self-medicating with alcohol has worsened:

“Often he had sulked like a schoolboy but never had she seen him in this mood of aggressive bitterness.”

Clara doesn’t love him, but she marries him. Although Maidie has helped Clara to become less naïve, she is still hopelessly ignorant and to a modern reader the whole thing is doomed to failure. Probably to 1950s readers too, as this is Clara on her wedding day:

“She wondered if he had really expected her to run away. Her will was too paralysed even to formulate the wish.”

The titular house is their first married home, as Clara is desperate to leave the stifling atmosphere of her parents’ house. She finds a place in Chelsea, the portrayal of which is amusing for twenty-first century readers. Now it is one of the most expensive parts of London, but apparently in the 1920s it was bohemian and considerably less salubrious. This does not go down well with her upright father:

“ ‘No doubt you fill the place with short-haired women and long-haired men. Archie has all my sympathy if he prefers the public house.”

The horror!

Interestingly, what draws Clara to this atmosphere is the evidence of people working. Artists wander the streets with the tools of their trade tucked under the arms, and Clara realises she is desperate to write:

“Oh, God, don’t let me be just a messy amateur.”

However, her increasingly stressful married life where Archie fritters away money and drinks heavily means that she finds it hard to focus on work. The house, with its distempered walls that look like sugar icing, cramped rooms and two untidy people living it, begins to oppress her almost as much as her parents’ house.

“Once this sense of non-existence was so acute that she ran from the basement to the sitting room full of mirrors almost expecting to find nothing reflected in them.”

Eventually things reach a breaking point, at once dramatic and understated, entirely believable and very sad. I wouldn’t normally read books by the same author so close together, but I’m glad I did here. I’ve felt very much submerged into Clara’s world and completely involved in her story.

“Yet here, as there, she found herself both accepted and a little apart. She was beginning to wonder if there were any place where she did perfectly fit in”

All being well, Beyond the Glass next week!

(I should mention there is antisemitism expressed in both novels, particularly The Lost Traveller. However, the characters stating such views are never portrayed as admirable. I think writing in the 1950s, White was reminding a contemporary readership who would have had the holocaust in recent living memory, of the pervasiveness of racism in society).

To end, a song that sums up Clara and Archie’s situation pretty well:

21 thoughts on ““I hate the idea of sequels. I think you should be able to do it in one book.” (Jane Gardam)

    • I’m terrible at remembering the details of books, even those I love. I can remember themes and my experience of reading it, but plot points and character names soon fade!

      From the blurb on the back of the book I am expecting a much tougher read with Beyond the Glass…

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Sequels and series? It depends.
    I think it’s a timing issue. I find that it’s a bad idea to read them one after the other, because, you know, I just want a new book, but also a bad idea to leave it too long between books because then you forget the details.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well goodness Madam B! First off, I am so impressed with your dedication in reading these so you can get to the 1954 one – well done! I have read Frost in May, absolutely decades ago but frankly can’t remember if I read any of the sequels although I do own them all. I have no issue with sequences of books at all, though I think I tend to agree with Lisa that it isn’t always a good thing to read them one after the other. But that doesn’t apply in all cases – for example, The Lord of the Rings which must all be read at once! Conversely, after reading Titus Groan and Gormenghast, I think you need to leave a gap before the third book. It does, of course, all come down to personal taste. Anyway, I shall look forward to your thoughts on the final book very much!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was nice to have the 1954 Club as an incentive Kaggsy, otherwise no doubt they would have continued languishing in the TBR pile!

      Generally I’d always want to leave a gap, but I do tend to leave rather too large a gap… these two novels are quite distinct from each other so they didn’t run into each other, if that makes sense.

      I’ve never read Peake – when I finally get to him I’ll remember your advice!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely reviews, Madame Bibi. I’ve yet to read anything by Antonia White, but the whole series sounds very absorbing – and it must be fascinating to see how the central character develops over the years. Luckily I have a copy of the first novel, Frost in White, in my TBR, so I’m all set to make a start, Probably not in time for the 1954 Club, but hopefully at some point this year!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you’d really like these Jacqui, I hope so. I’ll look forward to hearing how you get on with Frost in May. From reading the first three I would say they are all quite distinct novels, they work on their own as well as in a series, it’s very clever writing.

      Like

  4. Thank you for the reminder of these wonderful books. I loved Antonia White’s writing, and the story of Clara. There was so much emotion and drama in her life. I almost always leave big gaps between the books in a series, often those gaps are too big. 😅

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stark is exactly the word Simon – the novels are very honest and clear-sighted about Clara’s reality. It’s impressive that the four volumes are so distinct but still consistent in their characterisation.

      Thanks for persevering with your comment, lovely to have you stop by 🙂

      Like

  5. I wonder why she left it so long to write the second, and then came out with the third and fourth in quick succession. Clara does sound naive but that was definitely quite normal back then – even still in my day, when sex education was something you got from listening to the older girls while having a sneaky ciggie in the school toilets, or from dirty jokes! Now we teach kids about the birds and the bees in their cots, poor little souls. 😉

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    • I’m not entirely sure but I think the gap may have been due to her own mental ill health. She certainly wrote the last three really quickly.

      Clara is frustrating because she doesn’t want to give her mother an inch, or admit she doesn’t know anything, so she remains woefully naive! There’s certainly more access to information these days but although there’s more knowledge I’m not convinced there’s more understanding – poor kids!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: “A woman happily in love, she burns the soufflé.” (Baron St. Fontanel, Sabrina 1954) | madame bibi lophile recommends

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