Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Sylvia Townsend Warner on T. H. White

Some recent library browsing--I went there to pick up one book and returned to my office with eight--led me to read Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1965 biography of her friend T. H. White this week. It's an odd book in that way that a certain strain of earlier British biography can be odd: it's deeply rooted in quotation, largely from White's letters and diaries, and it's more interested in giving an overall sense of White than of enabling us to understand a timeline or trajectory.

For a writer like White, who is primarily known for one book (The Once and Future King, which I rank with Watership Down as the most interesting and rewarding of the small subset of books that live on the knife edge between childhood and adult reading), such an approach works well: we see, clearly, how White as a person enchanted and exasperated; how his energy, intellect, and charm drew people in, but his reticence, drinking, and rebarbative tetchiness pushed them away. His was a lonely life, but it's not entirely clear that it was an unhappy one; Warner's great achievement in the biography is to let that ambiguity remain while allowing us to feel we've known the man.

People who follow me on Twitter will have noticed that the book is full of quotable lines, as both Warner and White can reliably turn a phrase. But one bit is far too long to quote there, yet far too good not to share: it's an early passage about a summer in White's undergraduate years when he visited Lapland with a friend, and Warner uses it to give a clinic on how to write in compact but memorable fashion:
Both of them now wanted to visit some uninhabited desert; neither of them could afford to spend a great deal of money getting to it. Studying maps of population densities, they decided on a walking tour in Lapland. They consulted a travel adviser and learned that in midsummer the snows are melted, the climate temperate, the rivers teeming with trout, the moors rich with game-birds feeding on cranberries. They could camp where they pleased and live off the country; some measure of protection against mosquitoes was advisable. It was the travellers' own good idea to add meat concentrates and some chocolate to their 80 lb. weight of equipment. They set out--a handsome high-spirited pair, all laughter, enterprise and romantic friendship. But the climate of Lapland cannot be vouched for, and in 1926 the flush of summer was belated. The snow had not melted, or only melted into freezing slush. The trout were torpid in the icy streams. The game was scanty and evasive, the cranberries not ripe. Only the mosquitoes lived up to their report. Veiled and muffled, hungrier and hungrier, tormented by inflamed insect bites, their faces swollen as though with mumps, their tempers strained, the two young men wandered over the waste in search of food and fuel--for a camp fire was essential, both to keep off the mosquitoes and to save them from dying of cold. The rationed chocolate was almost exhausted and they were barely on speaking terms when White with a long shot brought down a merganser--a species of duck with rudimentary teeth. He threw it across a stream, and while he was searching for a place where he could ford the torrent pictured his companion devouring it raw.
Either Warner polished this one unimportant paragraph multiple times or she was a savant: the rhythm, feel, and sound of it are so effective, even as none of those aspects gets in the way of the primary goal of relating a whole travel adventure in less than a page.


  1. I don't have anything intelligent to add here except to say that I love the passage you cited, and I'm intrigued by the White bio. I've often wondered where his Lancelot and Pellinore and others came from (beyond Malory), but maybe I'm better off not knowing...

  2. Glad you enjoyed it. Warner's book is interesting on the ways that White drew on and adapted Malory and other sources (though Malory was definitely the backbone and most of the skeleton of White's Round Table). You may find today's post of interest: it's some thoughts about Lancelot from White's diary. I may end up doing something similar later this week with his thoughts (much less convincing and less well-formulated) about Guinevere, too. (Clearly Lancelot was a character in whom White saw parts of his own self; Guinevere wasn't.