The life of T.H. White (1906-1964), if brutally reduced to a negative version of his homosexuality, can be narrated in no time. A sad life is easily boiled down to next to nothing, if that is what one wants to do with it.
He was, by his own admission, [not only a sadomasochist but] a homosexual as well. This perversion seems to have its roots both in the behaviour he observed at Cheltenham [College] and in his mother’s attempt to force all love within him towards herself. When she no longer required his constant attention, he had no place to go with the love he had to give, for ‘she managed to bitch up my loving women.’ But White also kept fantastic chains upon this homosexuality. He received psychiatric help in 1936, kept it in check for twenty years, but fell in love with a young boy, Zed, in the last seven years of his life. Because he would not pervert the boy, who never understood his feelings, White’s final years verged constantly on emotional explosion. During the intervening twenty years, however, he ‘solved’ his problem through drink and through a fantastically loving devotion to his setter bitch, Brownie.
[John K. Crane, T.H. White (Boston: Twayne, 1974), p.18. Crane refers to Cheltenham College as ‘the Cheltenham military school’.]
Brownie died in 1944, and White endured twenty further years ‘of sheer misery’. This downbeat paragraph was worth quoting in full, since it is such a selective misreading of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1967 biography of White. Of course, there was sadness in his life, probably more than in most people’s, even most writers’—the middle of the twentieth century was hardly a paradise for the homosexual, paedophile sadomasochist—but, for a man who, in keeping with the opinion of his day, considered homosexuality an inherently tragic condition, he managed in his letters to provide an undercurrent of pretty cheerful irony even when claiming extreme depression. And it is clear that the company of boys, with whom he appears to have behaved with a punctilious sense of how they must view him, gave him great pleasure for much of his life. No less so did the company of the animals—not just Brownie—he wrote about with such vivid empathy. The other emotional dimension to his sexuality which the above account does not even begin to recognise is anger—anger at the mass abuse of boys by masters at Cheltenham in the name of discipline; anger at sexual law; sometimes anger at his own inadequacies. He could have been an early ‘homosexual novelist’; indeed, he almost was. In 1928 he wrote the first chapter of a book which Townsend Warner describes as ‘a novel of homosexual love; a long, serious novel; a declaration’. It was the year of The Well of Loneliness and Orlando. In T.H. White’s notebooks, for a short while, it was also the year of Of Whom the World. An autobiographical piece he was writing at much the same time shows how seriously he was thinking about the social context of his topic (much as Hall’s book would but, really, Woolf’s would not): was homosexuality inherent, assumed or imposed? Should the homosexual person have children? And, above all, ‘What makes the homosexual’s life inevitably more tragic than the great percentage of quite normal people’s’? In Warner’s account, he provided several thoughtful responses to the latter question, including: ‘loss of environment from choosing to fly in the face of the majority; social prejudice and a legal code compelling homosexuals either to go disguised into the world or to live as in a ghetto; the narrowed field of choice’ and so on. He was thinking along much the same lines as Radclyffe Hall. Responding to the scandal about her book, he wrote: ‘Miss Radclyffe Hall’s book about sexual perversion has been called a stream of garbage by the Daily Express and banned by the Home Secretary, a combination of which should be proud’. However, perhaps because of the reception of The Well of Loneliness, he gave up his homosexual novel, but reused some of its elements in a novel he called First Lesson (1932). According to Warner, ‘A youthful reader said of it that it was a good story except for the heroine, who was more like a boy’.
At the end of 1931, a year after leaving Queen’s College, Cambridge, White was dismissed from his first job, teaching at a boys’ prep school, for failing to take seriously enough the case of two boys who had been caught in bed together. The school expelled them and made White travel with them to London. On the way, he asked about the incident: what had they been doing? If he had been expecting sexual detail, he was surprised—but pleasantly so—by their innocence. They said they had just been talking, and when he asked them what about, they replied: ‘Buses and trains’. White’s rage at the way boys were treated in such schools boiled over into a satirical poem (if not much more) which he sent to L.J. Potts, a friend from university. It begins as quite jolly, uranian fare:
This pretty boy, mischievous, chaste, and stupid,
With bouncing bum and eyes of teasing fire,
This budding atom, happy heart, young Cupid,
Will grow to know desire.
Actually, that ‘bouncing bum’ is rather more jolly than most uranian fare, which is generally coyer, even if coyer eyes still stray to the same parts. At this stage it is not clear whether the future delineated in the fourth line should be regarded as a good or bad thing. In the second stanza that begins to grow clear:
Anxious Mama, discern the signs of rapture,
Observe his sensuous wriggles in the bath.
His plump brown legs design their future capture,
Their virgin quelled, their tenderness and wrath.
The naked body of the boy is itself the mannequin, as it were, to which will be shaped the long trousers of his adolescence. Growth itself will demand confinement and limitation: the ‘future capture’ of what you might call socialisation into adulthood. The anxiety of the mother is undefined. Thus far, either ‘future capture’ or, on the contrary, future freedom may be causing her to worry. By the third stanza, we know which:
Happy, immoral imp, if this continues
He will, no doubt, grow up a shameless sensualist,
He won’t despise his genitals and sinews,
Won’t know that it is ‘beastly’ to be kissed.
The dangers of untrammelled growth are self-evident, and need to be ruled out; and if happiness and immorality are wiped out in the same process, so be it. The boy must be made, like any good Englishman, to distance himself form his own physicality- and that means suppressing desire. Paradoxically, it also means focusing on the body, but in a new way: the channelling of all energy into team sports. In short, the budding sensualist must be sent to school.
Stuff him in Etons quick, and send him packing
To Dr. Prisonface his breezy school.
That old rheumatic man with threats and whacking
Will justly bring this body to the rule.
(Etons are school uniforms.) By this advising the conscientious mother to send her son to the kind of place he had both studied and taught in, and where he received beatings which, in his view, accounted for his later sadomasochistic tastes, White offers her the conventional route by which the boy can sign up to mainstream English life. What such a school will do to ‘bring this body to the rule’ will also serve to rule his mind. The advice goes on:
Send your bright dreaming angel then to Dr Prisonface
So that he may be taught his ‘beastly’ loins to rule,
So that he may be learned what is and isn’t cricket,
So that he may be a product of the good old school.
Prisonface’s legacy will be a libido only imperfectly suppressed—‘for you can’t quite kill his angel, / He’ll fall at intervals and take a whore’—and a shame for sexual practices which he will carry with him to the marriage bed—‘Surreptitiously wrestling with his wife in the darkness, / Putting her with averted eyes through hasty shameful paces’. For the rest of his life, ‘Dark and remorseful and dirty will be his copulation’. But that will not matter because ‘he’ll be a credit to the nation’. In this scathing mood, for all that he had been put through the same education, White knew he had had a lucky escape. He had failed to be moulded into acceptable conventionality. However, in his later flirtation with psychoanalysis, acceptable conventionality appears to have been precisely what he was seeking. His own homosexuality, like his sadomasochism, was just another aspect of Prisonface’s perverted legacy.
In October 1935, White reported to L.J. Potts that he was ‘doing exactly three full-time jobs’: writing, teaching and being psychoanalysed. The analyst had come with exactly the recommendation White felt he needed: ‘the man who gave me his address was a sadistic homosexual, and is now married and has a baby’. White had fallen in love with a barmaid and was absurdly spending much of his time sitting in the pub and staring at her. By this evidence, he judged that the analyst—‘a very great man’—was working his magic. Thus began the period in which, as our abbreviated sexual biography of him put it, he kept his homosexuality ‘in check for twenty years’. This was, after all, what ‘psychiatric help’ amounted to. If nothing went amiss until he fell in love with the boy Zed, even so there was never any successful relationship with a woman, and certainly no baby. For all the superficial modernity of his profession, whether or not White noticed the resemblance, the great psychoanalyst was of the school of Dr Prisonface.
On 18 September 1957 T.H. White wrote in his journal that he had ‘fallen in love with Zed’. The rest of his journal entry for the day was anxiously self-justificatory, concerning both now he intended to behave and how he might have wished to. He will not tell the boy he loves him:
It would be unthinkable to make Zed unhappy with the weight of the impractical, unsuitable love. It would be against his human dignity. Besides, I love him for being happy and innocent, so it would be destroying what I loved. He could not stand the weight of the world against such feelings- not that they are bad in themselves. It is the public opinion which makes them so.
So, for the sake of the boy, even if the expression of love would do no harm, White is determined ‘to behave like a gentleman’. By the same token, of course, there is no question of sex, although, again, White does not believe it would harm him:
I do not believe that some sort of sexual relations with Zed would do him harm- he would probably think and call them t’rific. I do not think I could hurt him spiritually or mentally. I do not believe that perverts are made so by seduction. I do not think that sex is evil, except when it is cruel or degrading, as in rape, sodomy, etc., or that I am evil or that he could be. But the practical facts of life are an impenetrable barrier—the laws of God, the laws of Man.
(He is quoting from A.E. Housman here.) In other words, to put it crudely, he would do it if he thought he could get away with it. Imagining that the boy would ‘probably’ think sex with his fifty-one-year-old friend ‘t’rific’ is an especially myopic piece of vanity. White knows he could hurt the boy physically—hence the mention of only spiritual and mental well-being—but by distinguishing whatever he means by ‘some sort of sexual relations with Zed’ from sodomy and rape, he persuades himself that his desires are pure. Indeed, by finessing physicality out of the account, he adopts that common paedophile stance of assuming that his own lust is somehow more spiritual, more child-friendly, than that of other adults; indeed, that he, uniquely, would be able to relate to the child at his own level, with some kind of polymorphous play which the child would find no less ‘t’rific’ than he. Here, White is half-way to the child-lover’s fantasy of the insatiable, puerile appetite: the boy who asked for more.
All that said, there is no reason to suppose that White did not conduct the friendship with Zed in anything other than the gentlemanly manner he intended from the day of that journal entry. Like the declaration of love, the subsequent affair took place entirely in White’s mind. His head was full of it through 1958, while his Arthurian novel sequence The Once and Future King was selling well on both sides of the Atlantic, and into 1959, when he was having to cope with rumours that Lerner and Loewe were going to base their follow-up to My Fair Lady on his book. (At first he wrote ‘Rogers and Hammerstein’ but then crossed them out.) News of the musical, which would be called Camelot, prompted Disney to do something about the film rights to White’s The Sword in the Stone, the first volume in the Arthurian sequence, which they had owned for two decades. A cartoon was born, and not much of one. But White never stopped obsessing about Zed. What ended it was an epistolary quarrel over White’s insistence that Zed spend both Christmas and Easter with him. (The boy did have a family, after all.) If he couldn’t promise both, White wrote, it would be better if he stayed away for good. To his surprise, Zed called his bluff—and stayed away for good.
Even in the absence of Zed and Brownie, White’s final years were not without their amusements. He certainly did not vanish into the cloud of despair which is sometimes attributed to him. In May 1963, less than a year before his death, he was able to report, in a letter home to his friend John Verney, some pleasant distractions in Naples:
I am having a comical, touching, rather impendent adventure here, as I have been adopted by a family of costermonger […]. There are Mamma and Pappa and five sons and one daughter, all as poor as church mice, to whom I am a godsend for purposes of exploitation. The two who have particularly adopted me are Gianpaulo [sic] and Alfredo. What can you do when a boy of 19 says, Please, I would rather not be buggered, but I would like a new pair of shoes?
Well, you can come to an arrangement. White re-clothed both boys, and later the whole family, and got an affectionate friendship- perhaps more- in return. In England he had been drinking heavily, but:
They have stopped me drinking too much- in fact, drinking at all- by the unusual expedient of bursting into tears! They dash into my room at all hours of the day, rummage in my clothes with crises of delight, polish my shoes, dress me (gentle and melancholic Gianpaulo pulls on my socks) and off we go for another day on sea or land, generally ending at a cinema or night restaurant high above this starry bay.
Their company gave him safe passage throughout the city, and earned their right undissemblingly to exploit him by preventing anyone else from doing so. They got him the services of a small band, a taxi driver, two secretaries and even a magician—‘I’ve never had one before’.[p.325] Their requests for outrageous gifts—an MG, half a million pounds—could be satisfied with more modest substitutes—if rather a lot of them. When he pleased them, they showered him with kisses. He thought it fair exchange. As he wrote to Verney, ‘They rob me of a good deal, but not surreptitiously or out of proportion’. Sylvia Townsend Warner has the last word on the matter: ‘He could easily have spent less and had much less pleasure from it’.
There is nothing particularly extreme or out of the ordinary about White’s life. Many men of his class must have found similar routes through and around the opportunities afforded, and the limitations imposed, by their sexual interests. Having followed the trodden path from prep school to public school to Oxford or Cambridge, they might then go into teaching to immerse themselves in the atmosphere they were used to. They would form close friendships with boys but (most of them) avoid actual sexual contact for fear of the consequences. Physical encounters might occur by chance, and often in exchange for gifts or payment, with working-class youths at home or abroad. Most such men would follow with interest the public debates that sexology and psychoanalysis were generating around deviant sexualities. Some would contribute to the debate, privately or publicly, as best they could. A relative few, like White, would actually enter into analysis, with varying outcomes. Many tried to relate to women; some got married. But most lived, as White did, as bachelors, a condition like spinsterhood that married heterosexuals seem to associate with loneliness. Like many such men, White was often depressed; but he was not tragic. That he once loved a dog says nothing more about him than that he was like tens, or hundreds, of thousands of other English pet owners.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, T.H. White: A Biography (London: Jonathan Cape with Chatto & Windus, 1967)