‘T. H. White: A Biography’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner

It took me a while to read this excellent biography of the author of The Once and Future King – not because it was lengthy or written in ‘difficult’ prose (quite the contrary), but because it often made me sad and I kept needing to put it down to have a bit of a think about what I’d read. Terence Hanbury White had an awful childhood – born in India in 1906 to feuding parents who frequently threatened to shoot one another, and him, and who then bitterly separated in an era when divorce was a great scandal. His father abandoned the family, and his mother alternately smothered and maltreated her only child. White was sent to a sadistic English boarding school, then worked as a private tutor until he had enough money to put himself through Cambridge, with his studies interrupted by a life-threatening bout of tuberculosis. After achieving a First Class with Distinction, he worked as a schoolmaster for a few years, then spent the rest of his life writing, interspersed with various short-lived enthusiasms – for hunting, fishing, falconry, gardening, flying aeroplanes, sailing yachts, making documentary films about puffins, learning everything there was to know about Irish Catholicism or Arthurian mythology or the Emperor Hadrian …

'T.H. White: A Biography' by Sylvia Townsend WarnerBut as passionate as he was about facts and technical skills, he was not very interested in most people (“How restful it would be if there were no human beings in the world at all”) and he lived a hermit-like existence in various remote cottages for many years. His friend John Verney (author of Friday’s Tunnel), who wrote the introduction to this biography, noted that, “With strangers he could be quite odious; rude and suspicious if he thought they were lionizing him, still more so if he thought they weren’t; shouting down anyone who disagreed with his more preposterous assertions or even ventured to interrupt.” White himself admitted he was “a sort of Boswell, boasting, indiscreet, ranting, rather pathetic” and admitted to “trying to shock people” (to repel them?), although he also had very old-fashioned ideas about modesty, women and sex. Another writer friend, David Garnett, accused White of having a “medieval monkish attitude” and White didn’t disagree. He wrote to Garnett, “I want to get married … and escape from all this piddling homosexuality and fear and unreality.” He tried to fall in love with a barmaid who had a “boyish figure” but this was unsuccessful, as was a later engagement to another young woman. She (sensibly) called it off; he wrote her anguished letters, but his biographer says “his torment in so desperately wanting something he had no inclination for is unmistakable”. He tried psychoanalysis and “hormone therapy” as a cure for homosexuality, which also didn’t work; then he tried to blot everything out with alcohol (“I used to drink because of my troubles, until the drink became an added trouble”). Unfortunately, he wasn’t attracted to men (which would have been bad enough at a time when homosexuality was illegal) but to boys, and he spent years obsessing over a boy called Zed:

“I am in a sort of whirlpool which goes round and round, thinking all day and half the night about a small boy … The whole of my brain tells me the situation is impossible, while the whole of my heart nags on … What do I want of Zed? – Not his body, merely the whole of him all the time.”

He never told Zed of his true feelings, or acted on them (“I love him for being happy and innocent, so it would be destroying what I loved”), but Zed’s parents grew wary and eventually the boy himself broke off contact. To further complicate matters, White told Garnett that he (White) had managed to destroy every relationship he started because he was a sadist and “the sadist longs to prove the love which he has inspired, by acts of cruelty – which naturally enough are misinterpreted by normal people … if he behaved with sincerity, and instinctively, he alienated his lover and horrified and disgusted himself.” Whether White actually acted on his “sadistic fantasies” is unknown (he had a great talent for self-dramatising and might have been trying to shock Garnett), but he blamed it all on his mother and his boarding school experiences.

The greatest love of his life, though, was Brownie, his red setter. She slept in his bed, was fed elaborate meals, wore a custom-made coat and accompanied him everywhere. (There’s a photo here of Brownie with White, the two of them looking as though they’re posing for a formal engagement portrait.) Brownie eventually became as eccentric as her human:

“She used to kidnap chickens and small animals and keep them as pets, and insisted on taking her pet rabbit to bed with her – in White’s bed. The rabbit bit him freely, but he submitted. She had geological interests, too, and collected stones which she kept under the kitchen table.”

When she died, he sat with her corpse for two days, then at her grave for a week, wrote her an anguished love poem, and forever after kept a lock of her hair in his diary, next to her photo.

White seems to have been a mass of unhappy contradictions. He railed against the British Labour government because he hated paying tax, and he moved to Ireland, then the Channel Islands, to avoid taxes, but he could be very generous with his money and time when it came to charitable causes. He claimed to hate people, but hosted week-long parties at his house in Alderney each summer and his friends all seemed to love him, despite his many faults. He was often miserable, but was “always capable of being surprised by joy” and his writing is full of humour. He announced in his forties that he was done with “forcing myself to be normal” and he gave up drinking – but not for very long, and he died at the relatively young age of fifty-seven of coronary heart disease, probably exacerbated by his drinking and chain-smoking.

This biography includes a discussion of each of White’s books, but I don’t think you need to be familiar with his work to find this book fascinating. I’d only read The Sword in the Stone (which I liked because it was full of animals), but I’m now curious about The Elephant and the Kangaroo, a satire set in Ireland. White, according to his Cambridge tutor, was “far more remarkable than anything he wrote” and his biographer seems to have agreed.

6 thoughts on “‘T. H. White: A Biography’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner”

  1. Fascinating, Michelle! The Once and Future King was a favourite adolescent read of mine (and it filled a whole flight to the UK once too), though The Sword in the Stone was my favourite part. I’ve just finished reading H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald, which is partly a kind of sympathetic critique of TH White’s memoir about training a goshawk (which he did very badly apparently, and giving full rein to those sadistic impulses you talk about above). I think you might find it interesting.

    1. I was actually prompted to read this by recent reviews of H is for Hawk, although I think that book might be a bit too intense and depressing for me at the moment! I will definitely avoid The Goshawk, although I wonder how much of his terrible treatment of that poor bird was due to his impatient, impulsive nature, rather than sadism. His bird-handling skills did improve, although his falconry phase didn’t last much longer than any of his other enthusiasms.

  2. This sounds like an excellent literary biography and Sylvia Townsend Warner was the right sort of author for it. He does seem to have been a very tormented figure. I guess interst in him will grow because of the success of H Is For Hawk.

    1. Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote this a few years after White’s death, and she was chosen by his friends and publisher because she was one of White’s favourite novelists. She did an excellent job – I’d recommend this for anyone interested in White’s work (or anyone interested in reading about tormented writers!).

  3. The Sword in the Stone is one of my favorite books of all time — most of the rest of The Once and Future King is too sad and intense and depressing for more than one read, but I go back to the first volume every few years. Do you know anything about different manuscripts? I have 2 different editions, and parts of the story are different in each. I’ve never sat down and catalogued these differences, but I might now. In one book Merlin turns the Wart into an ant, in the other he doesn’t, and I think the Robin Hood part is different, and several other sections. Curious. I was also going to mention H is for Hawk, in which I learned things about White I’d never known. It was indeed a difficult book to read, but I’m glad I did.

    1. I didn’t realise there’d been two versions of The Sword in the Stone till I read this biography. I think I must have read the earlier, stand-alone version, which I think is lighter in tone? The biography discusses the changes he made to it after writing the final book of The Once and Future King – he wanted them all to fit together, and his ideas about the characters and themes had changed significantly since he started writing it.

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