24 SEPTEMBER 1988, Page 33

That is their tragedy

Frances Partridge

NOTHING TO FORGIVE: A DAUGHTER'S LIFE OF ANTONIA WHITE by Lyndall P. Hopkinson Chatlo & Windus, £12.95, pp.375 This book can be warmly recommended to anyone needing to be convinced that there are others in the world less able than themselves to introduce some semblance of order into their lives, and more especially their family relationships. Let them read the tangled history of — but what are we to call them, the Botting-White-Glossop- Hopkinsons? Tangled yes, but hardly Bohemian: on the contrary, there is a distinct hint of decorum, and concern for such superficialities as dress and de- meanour.

I must explain that Nothing to Forgive is a biography of her mother Antonia White, the writer and translator, by her younger daughter Lyndall (child also of Tom Hop- kinson of Picture Post), and is said to be a less cruel portrait than that in Now to my Mother, a parallel volume by Lyndall's half-sister Susan Chitty, published a few years ago. However that may be, there was evidently not much love lost between Antonia and her daughters. Nothing to Forgive describes a self-obsessed woman who admits to almost complete lack of maternal feelings, and whose violent tem- Per inspired nothing but terror in her younger daughter, as well as being often discharged on social inferiors and shop assistants. Yet she had talent, brains and charm, and her husbands, lovers, and even her ill-used children seem to have been linked to her by a life-long if tenuous thread of affection. She herself had the valid excuse that all her life she was subject to spells of acute paranoia.

One needs a genealogical tree, including wavy lines for illegitimacy, to follow this complex story properly, for though we are given a host of names there is very little mental or physical backing to remember the characters by. Lyndall Hopkinson's remarkable beauty as shown on the dust jacket predisposes us in her favour, but she tells her story artlessly in every sense of the word, lacking both the power of condensa- tion and of elaboration so necessary to a writer, and tending to pursue her way somewhat ploddingly through the time- sequence of events. This gives the impress- ion that she has been driven along helpless- ly like a piece of paper in successive gusts of wind.

Not at first. Until her parents' marriage broke up she loved her father and had a happy relation with him, which probably made up for the fear her mother's fierce rages caused her, and the fact that her half-sister Susan was only moderately con- genial and inherited Antonia's paranoid breakdowns. These left behind a wake of suspicion of ex-husbands, step-fathers and second wives, as well as obsessions about money matters. Very understandably, Lyndall tried to escape into marriage, but made her choices with amazing casualness. Her first engagement was formally announced in the Times, and its celebra- tion planned to suit conventional parents- in-law, but it ended in panic and a last- minute flight to Italy. She turned against the next candidate almost immediately after marrying him: the sight of him being bowled out by a small boy at a prep-school cricket match destroyed his glamour at a stroke, and he — poor fellow — was later rescued when on the point of throwing himself under a tube train. There followed a number of short and random attachments — to an Italian prince, a sadistic journalist who tried to murder her, an English peer, a much-married film-producer, before her second, childless marriage to Count Loren- zo Passerini, who left her a widow. It is interesting that whereas Antonia invari- ably fell for men a good deal younger than herself, Lyndall was attracted by her seniors; otherwise the patterns of their lives had much in common, except that Lyndall shows fewer signs of mental insta- bility or sense of humour than her mother, as well as a much sweeter nature.

An impression of likeableness and hu- man kindness emerges from the book, but to complete the picture I should add that she (like Antonia) was drawn to the occult, refers often to 'strange telepathy' and premonitions, and appears abnormally concerned with illness. We are told every time this lovely girl developed tonsilitis, cystitis, appendicitis or hepatitis, and also not only when her temperature was taken but what the reading was. All the main characters have undergone psychoanalysis, but are not a good advertisement for it. A sad story.