Terence Hanbury White, born in Bombay on May 29th, 1906, was an only child.
–Sylvia Townsend Warner - T. H. White a biography - c.1967, 1989
Back in 2017 I read and loved H is for hawk by Helen Macdonald. In that book she talks about T. H. White and his book on training a goshawk. I was already familiar with the name of White, but I had never read his work, not even The Once and future king although you’d think that sort of book would have been one I’d come across. Maybe one day…
And then recently White’s name popped up on twitter, I think someone was saying that they’d come across Warner’s biography and had to buy it because of Macdonald’s memoir. On impulse I put a request on it in the library and a few days later it arrived. So I started reading it.
Maybe it seems a little strange reading a biography of a man I knew nothing about; this book is probably aimed more at people who were familiar with White and his work, nevertheless it was a fascinating book.
I’ll admit that I did feel very sorry for White’s mother. I’d say she never wanted to get married at all, but times and her class being what it was, she was pretty much forced in to it. And the resulting relationship was pretty much as bad as could be expected, yet White never seems to have blamed his father only his mother. And Warner even writes that “the bedding appalled her; she remained resentful and self-pitying”. Self-pitying!
But this is not biography of Constance White, and it is not surprising that living with such parents had an influence on T. H. White, and not for the good.
The one issue I had with the book, apart from poor old Constance1 was that Warner seemed to writing for people who knew who and what she was talking about, the various people in WHite’s life got very little introduction as though the reader should recognise them from their names. It dates the book a little2 and makes it a little more difficult for a modern reader.
Still it is a really fascinating, if sad, story. White seems to have been lonely and alone for most of his life. According to Warner he was possibly “a homosexual and a sado-masochist,” and there are hints((The Cat in the Hamper covers some of Warner’s own thoughts on the matter)) that she left out certain sections of his life out. He was certainly very interested in young boys, which makes for disturbing reading, even if he never acted on whatever those desires were. According to one reference on Wikipedia White did have female lovers((see the David Higham sentence)), but Warner was uninterested in pursuing that aspect. Whatever the truth it does seem that White was never really able to make connections with people, unless via letters. He was a prickly, argumentative, dis-likeable man, and yet people liked him. Defended him. And he does come across in this book as somehow vulnerable and broken, yet maybe not totally unhappy. His closest relationship was probably with his dog, Brownie, a red setter, as you can see from his letter about her death.
Warner doesn’t seem to have had too much time for White as a writer either, I can’t comment on that as I’ve never read his books. And I’ve never read hers either, so I can’t comment on those, but I will say that she certainly can write a book that you want to keep on reading, because this biography of White is just that.