Beyond the Glass is the final novel in Antonia White’s series of novels which explore the schooldays, girlhood and early married life of Clara Batchelor, the daughter of a Catholic convert. I have loved these books and had been looking forward for some time to this instalment. It didn’t disappoint. Antonia White’s writing is brave and evocative, and endlessly compelling. The third novel in the quartet; ‘The Sugar House’ concluded with Clara and her young husband Archie agreeing to separate, their relationship more like that of siblings playing house. ‘Beyond the Glass’ – written, following lots of appeals from her readers to provide a conclusion – takes up the story exactly where ‘The Sugar House’ left off.
“Now that the trap had been sprung, she felt a perverse desire to remain in it. Instead of going upstairs to pack, she began to tidy the dishevelled room. She paused in front of the armchair where her father had sat so upright on the orange cushion which concealed its broken springs. There was a dent where Archie’s untidy red head had rested, less than twelve hours ago. Hesitating to smooth it out, she found herself suddenly confronted with her image in one of the mirrors artfully disposed to make the room seem larger. She was as startled as if she had discovered a stranger spying on her.”
Clara has a difficult time explaining her situation to a her father whose approval she always sought – his often strict, unyielding attitude and Catholic certainty hard to live with. However Claude Batchelor’s stubborn adoration of Archie, in the face of mounting evidence that the marriage was in trouble, make it doubly difficult. The truth is that Clara has grounds for a dissolution to her marriage, an annulment, the only kind recognised by the Catholic Church. For Clara’s marriage was never consummated, not an easy conversation for a young woman in the early 1920’s to have with her Catholic father. Claude takes Clara to Paget’s Fold, the family home in the country, a small rural idyll, where Aunt Sophy and Aunt Leah live quietly and companionably, proudly caring for the place until such time as Claude requires it for himself. Clara has always loved her summer holidays at Paget’s Fold adores her aunts and the life they live there. Claude, decrees that Sophy and Leah should not be told of Clara’s separation, and persuades her and his wife Isabel to pretend that all is well and that Archie is merely off rehearsing a play and unable to join them. Clara has always had a difficult relationship with her mother, and when Isabel tries desperately to reach out to her daughter and talk honestly to her about her own relationships Clara is shocked at the revelation, and Isabel is left feeling she has given her daughter more ammunition against her.
Following the holiday, Clara finds herself living back in the parental home, almost as if she never left at all. As Clara embarks on the long and humiliating process that should lead to her marriage annulment, she meets Richard Crayshaw. Clara dives head first into this new highly passionate relationship, revelling in an extreme and all-consuming happiness. Clara’s fragility and sense of identity cannot cope with this heady mix and suddenly and tragically descends into what in 1920’s is termed “madness”. This gradual slide into mental illness is brilliantly portrayed by White, as Clara becomes erratic with even the besotted Richard finding reason to worry about her behaviour. When Richard goes away for a week, Clara’s final decline is terrifying and Claude and Isabel have no option but to seek help for their daughter. Clara is sent to a public asylum – where for almost a year she exists in a frightening and confused world – where she’s not even sure who she is.
“She lost herself again; this time completely. For months she was not even a human being; she was a horse. Ridden almost to death, beaten till she fell, she lay at last on the straw in her stable and waited for death. They buried her as lay on her side, with outstretched head and legs. A child came and sowed turquoises round the outline of her body in the ground, and she rose up again as a horse of magic with a golden mane, and galloped across the sky. Again she woke on the mattress in her cell. She looked and saw that she had human hands and feet again, but she knew she was a horse.”
Antonia White uses recurring images of glass and mirrors to portray Clara’s growing mental instability, in this brave and ambitious novel about mental illness. Antonia White herself spent ten month in Bethlem Asylum in 1922-3, a time she apparently was able to later recall every moment of. Her quartet of novels is famously autobiographical, and certainly the second half of ‘Beyond the Glass’ feels very personal, intense and real. Clara’s experiences are harrowing and very frightening, although surprisingly I found this section of the novel utterly compelling, after all it is so brilliantly written.
This was a wonderful conclusion to a brilliant quartet, Antonia White was a wonderful writer, who sadly produced too few books. I have a small volume of her short stories sitting here tbr – which I am certainly looking forward to.
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