Lyndall Hopkinson is the daughter of Tom Hopkinson (author, journalist, editor of Picture Post), and the novelist and poet Antonia White (her real name was Eirene Botting, but she never used it so let’s stick to Antonia). This 1988 biography of Antonia is mainly about, and trying to explain, if not excuse, Antonia’s destructive awfulness as a mother, so for that reason I’m going to assume that Antonia’s stature as a novelist is accepted. Her writing doesn’t come into this biography much, except as a mirror to her character and life. Interestingly, Tom as a father seems to come off far more gently, despite other human failings, because he is consistently kind and generous to his daughters, whereas Antonia was resentful about Lyndall from her birth. Since Lyndall was not a boy, so we are told, she was routinely disliked in a way that feels shocking today.
Lyndall’s elder sister Susan was told in her early adolescence that she wasn’t Tom’s daughter, since Antonia never quite married Susan’s rather hapless but devoted father Silas. Tom came along while poor Silas was struggling to earn enough abroad to be able to afford to marry. Susan seems to have hated Antonia, with good reason (see this review of her own 1985 biography of Antonia, which I really do not want to read), and it seems that her relationship with Lyndall wasn’t that great either. (She liked Tom: everyone seems to have liked Tom.) Antonia’s own family were downright peculiar: her father (as we can read in the shattering Frost in May), was a monster, and her mother used fantasy and coyness as a means for self-protection. Tom’s parents were extremely suspicious about Antonia, this alarmingly promiscuous and volatile ‘artist’ of no particular background. (Tom’s father was a vicar, a vocation he took to rather late in life, going into it with a powerful commitment to self-abnegation, becoming his own son’s curate at one point.)
Antonia suffered terribly from psychotic episodes as well as chronic mood swings, and was hospitalised several times to regain her sanity. She was a very difficult person, as well as being a charming, glittering, passionately-desired lover to a succession of younger men, to her own bemusement. Her maternal instincts were not strong. After she had Susan out of wedlock, she parked her in an orphanage, until Tom, by then Antonia’s third husband (I am skipping a great deal here) suggested that the baby might be better off with foster parents who would look after her properly. When Lyndall was born a few months later, Susan was brought into the household to be looked after with the baby by a much beloved nurse. Thank goodness for that.
My distaste at the general atmosphere of fecklessness in the lives of these people comes from my impatience with intellectual Bohemian lifestyles, and simmering fury as a mother. If you can force yourself not to obsess over Antonia’s damaging parenting style, even with trying teenage daughters who took right after her (Lyndall seems to have spent a lot of her twenties getting engaged, then running away), there is something missing from these troubled lives that makes this biography feel unbalanced, and gives me hope that they may possibly not have been as awful as they appear (even Tom goes wrong by marrying one of Antonia’s oldest friends and her former psychologist, estranging everyone).
Nothing to Forgive has a similarity with A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson. In this the last two generations of women born to or married to Nicolson men defined themselves by their terrible, destructive relationships with their fathers and their husbands, even though they had professions and responsible jobs of their own. It’s obviously the period: before second-wave feminism, women of the privileged class that Antonia, Lyndall, Susan, and the Nicolson women came from, or moved into, were expected to marry as their primary function, and to conduct their personal dramas under cover of the respectability of marriage. No living with anyone then, poor things: if they’d had the social freedom to move in with a bloke to try them out, they would probably have had much easier lives. Antonia married three times, nearly four, and Lyndall and Tom both racked up an awful lot of marriages. Susan married once only, for life.
Nothing to Forgive is not consciously partisan, in the sense that Lyndall as narrator conscientiously strives to be fair, and to tell the truth as supported by the facts in her parents’ notebooks, diaries and letters, and in diaries and letters written by their friends and relations. Lyndall’s determination to be fair to her mother is painful at times, because it must have cost her so much, and reflects a worrying lack of natural resentment. So my distrust of the veracity of Nothing to Forgive as a biography is mainly down to incredulity: can one person really have been such a nightmare, to so many people, for so long? It is also partly realism; what else was there in these lives, apart from endless affairs and parties and dramatic runnings-away and taking expensive taxis despite having no food in the house?
The book annoys me as a historian, and as a devourer of biography. The daily bread of daily life is rarely recorded in diaries and letters and notebooks, whereas personal crises, love affairs, spending money unwisely and not even enjoyably, getting drunk, epic breakdowns and terrible arguments, are. This makes such sources unreliable as the only sources for a life. So much more must have happened in these lives that would have diluted the drama and smoothed out the agonies. But we don’t get to hear about any of that; we just get given the drama, pages and pages and pages of it.
If you like drama, you’ll like Nothing to Forgive. I didn’t.