Virago's tagline, at least on an older copy of one my books reads "enduring works by women novelists" and I have to concur--certainly when talking about the work of Antonia White. It's not surprising that she was the first woman to be published by Virago, and I have been reading her Frost in May sequence of books for a little while now. I just finished the third of the quartet, The Sugar House, and am well into the last book, which I will easily finish this month. Her books are as fresh as the day they were published, and if you like coming of age stories, well-written, thought provoking novels that are filled with flesh and blood characters who could easily step off the page and into the real world, do give her a go. Sometimes the characters are not always likable, but they feel so real, conflicted and flawed and surely White must have drawn from her own life to tell these stories. They are weighty and substantial and I am enjoying them (especially the last one) immensely.
The Sugar House refers to the little house in Chelsea where Clara Batchelor and her husband Archie Hughes-Follett are living. It's a Hansel and Gretel-like house that is at first refreshing and inspirational and artistic and a place of hopes and dreams, but quickly turns into an oppressive space that Clara feels is ready to engulf her. Slowly but surely it comes to represent all that she comes to hate about her life.
It's 1920 and after a tragedy that occurred in the last novel (four years previously), a game that resulted in the death of her charge-a young boy she had been acting as a governess to, she and Archie decide to marry. It's ill-timed and an act that comes as a result of the tragedy--Archie being a good friend and comforting to her since he was there when the accident occurred. They are saved in the end from such a misguided decision and when The Sugar House opens Clara, still single, has taken to the stage, her wedding having been called off at the last minute.
Against the better wishes of her parents she has joined a theatrical group and writes stories and articles on the side. Both activities are more an ends to a means rather than a passionate dedication to the arts, though her writing shows a natural talent. Her passion has been saved for a fellow, and slightly older actor. The two are in different plays and not traveling the same circuit, but Clara is not just smitten but thinks she is deeply in love and looks with eager anticipation towards each meeting. Stephen Tye was in the war and somewhat jaded and is always reminding a twenty-one year old Clara of their difference in age and his experience compared to her youth. But Clara is tenacious and willing to work at their relationship no matter how exhausting. And it seems to be exhausting to watch it from arm's length.
Is it real love or infatuation? She would love him and marry him if he let her, but he throws her over and she finds out in a most ignominious way. After several years and an ocean's-distance apart, she and Archie had just reconnected, but it is with dread that Clara met up with Archie. He was looking and acting worse for wear after an unsuccessful handful of years abroad. He returns home with no plans and no money despite having an allowance and wealth to look forward to in only a few years if he can simply get by until then.
". . . Archie had certainly changed. She remembered him as an odd creature, clumsy and kind, who did not fit into the grown-up world. Often he had sulked like a schoolboy but never had she seen him in this mood of aggressive bitterness. Tonight he had hardly smiled: in repose, his face was set in lines of angry discontent. She felt a pang of guilt."
Clara feels a revulsion not only against herself but also Archie. He's sad and pathetic and reminds her of her old unhappiness, and while she feels she shouldn't be so critical, as her own current situation isn't particularly successful, she wants nothing more than to get away. Archie still feels a passion for Clara, certain she is the only woman he could ever love while Clara thinks the same of Stephen. It is only gratifying to think there is someone in the world who feels about her as she does about Stephen. So it's only natural that when Stephen first calls off their relationship, and then weds, it is towards Archie that she turns.
And unsurprisingly it is a marriage that can only ultimately be disastrous for both Clara and Archie. If Clara's mother is only resigned to the situation, her father is ecstatic. Like the Batchelors, who converted to Catholicism, Archie is Catholic and finally Clara is marrying a wealthy, or soon to be so, Catholic young man of good family. Clara feels like she is going to be welcomed back into the fold and into her father's good graces. It is, however, a poor return on what will follow.
They move into the 'sugar house', thinking all will be perfect now. A house Clara had wished for.
"If she could only live there, feel this atmosphere all round her, she might be able to begin to work properly herself."
But there are no jobs for either, no money and the marriage quickly begins looking like the failure it was promising to be. Archie begins drinking more and more and Clara is unable to keep house and loses whatever inspiration and ability to write that she had. It's a situation that starts out bad, only to get worse. It's what happens next that the last book, Beyond the Glass, explores. If the sugar house is meant to be a symbol of childhood and safety, the dissolution of their marriage and leaving the dreadful sugar house is a first step towards adulthood. There is so much to this story, so many issues to resolve and try and understand--Clara's relationships with both parents, but especially her feelings towards her father both guide her trajectory in life and cause endless stumbling blocks. And how she feels towards the two most, thus far, significant men in her life, for such a young woman, are so paradoxical, but then so is life in general for everyone. Lots to chew on in this story!
I'm so curious to see how Clara's story ends. Antonia White was a fascinating woman and she certainly tells a fascinating story. By the way, my copy has the illustration on top with the black cover, and the other illustration below it is of the current edition. I think I prefer the book with the painted illustration, not exactly the sugar house but I can imagine it as a room inside!