Wednesday, November 12, 2014

T. H. White on Guinevere

I want to share one last piece of T. H. White's writing from Sylvia Tonwsend Warner's biography of him before I turn to something else. White's thoughts on the other crucial character in the Lancelot story, Guinevere, are less astute, and, frankly, less interesting, than his thoughts on Lancelot. At great risk of oversimplifying, I would say it's not unreasonable to attribute his relative lack of perception to a mix of the simple fact that White wasn't a woman, wasn't drawn to women romantically or sexually, and had a complicated, painful relationship with the most important woman in his life, his mother. Nonetheless, his thoughts about Guinevere are far from without interest:
She must have been a nice person, or Lancelot and Arthur (both nice people) would not have loved her. Or does this not follow? Do nice people love nasty ones? Arthur was not a judge of nice people or he would not have had a child by Morgause. And Guenever hardly seems to have been a favourite of Malory's, whatever Tennyson may have thought about her.

She was insanely jealous of Lancelot: she drove him mad: she was suspected of being a poisoner: she made no bones about being unfaithful to Arthur: she had an ungovernable temper: she did not mind telling lies: she was hysterical, according to Sir Bors: she was beastly to Elaine: she was intensely selfish.
So much taken on faith there! And on the word of men, honor-obsessed men who have agendas of their own! While Lancelot's infidelity, even as he chooses it, is described by White as "wrong and against [his] will," Guinevere's is something she "makes no bones about." This court is beginning to seem a bit unfair (and, in the question of whether nice people love nasty ones, impressively naive).

It does get a bit better for Guinevere, who
had some good characteristics. She chose the best lover she could have done, and she was brave enough to let him be her lover: she always stuck to Arthur, though unfaithful to him, possibly because she really liked him: when finally caught, she faced the music: she had a clear judgment of moral issues, even when defying them, a sort of common sense which finally took her into a convent when she could quite well have stayed with Lancelot now that her husband was dead.
But White instantly backtracks:
Was this a piece of clearsightedness or was it cowardice? One way to put it would be to say that she grasped the best of two men while she profited by it, but afterwards betrayed them both. When there was no more to be got out of the Arthur-Lancelot situation she preferred the convent. The other way to put it would be to say that she finally recognized her ill influence and thought it best to shut herself up.
Not a lot of generosity there. No acknowledgment of the limited choices available to a woman, even a former queen, no sense that her heart might actually have been in conflict, a conflict that, rather than being settled by Arthur's death, was made more violent, even toxic by it.

White goes on in that vein for another couple of diary pages, giving with one hand ("She was brave, beautiful"; "She exercised control, demanded return, felt jealousy"), then taking away with the other ("Could she be a sort of tigress, with all the healthy charms and horrors of the carnivore? Is she to eat Lancelot as Morgause ate Arthur?"). Warner describes White's equivocations well:
Like a man on boggy ground, who leaps from tussock to sinking tussock, he zigzagged from conjecture to conjecture.
What I don't recall at this remove--a decade since I last read The Once and Future King is what Guinevere he ultimately ended up with? I don't remember her being a monster, but is she described convincingly? With any sympathy or understanding? Do we see why the two men would fall for her, and what it costs her to be the cause of their rupture? Don't suppose any of you folks have read the book recently and want to offer an opinion?

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