I've been reading Antonia White's novels, and in particular The Sugar House and Beyond the Glass, since I was about 14. It was probably no coincidence that they appealed to me so much at that time, when my own childhood trauma was beginning to manifest as loneliness, self-dislike and the beginnings of depression. I am writing this post almost 30 years later, at a point when, for the first time, the trauma I experienced between 7 and 25 years old is being examined out in the light and taken seriously.
Alongside this process, I'm researching Antonia White's time at Bethlem Hospital, with the support of a bursary from CAMP. I’m starting with an investigation into Antonia White, a woman born at the very end of the 19th century and who experienced episodes of what might now be termed manic depressive illness, which she wrote about in a series of semi-autobiographical novels. As a mis-diagnosee of this condition, I am wary of applying it post-humously to White, but agree with much of Patricia Moran's thinking that manic depressive illness far better fits what White describes than does the contemporaneous diagnosis of schizophrenia. I am also intentionally using the term 'manic depressive illness' and not 'bipolar', in line with Kay Redfield Jamison's argument that "'bipolar'... perpetuates the notion that depression exists rather tidily segregated on its own pole, while mania clusters neatly and discreetly on another. This polarisation of two clinical states flies in the face of everything we know about the cauldronous, fluctuating nature of manic-depressive illness; it ignores the question of whether mania is, ultimately, simply an extreme form of depression; and it minimises the importance of mixed manic-and-depressive states, conditions that are extremely common, extremely important clinically, and lie at the heart of many of the critical theoretical issues underlying this particular disease."
So far I’ve made two visits to the Imperial War Museum to begin responding to the structure that housed her while she was ‘gone’ that first time, and where she regained consciousness of herself without knowing what type of place she was in. I’m interested in considering her experience through her writing, in the same location where she was essentially held prisoner around 100 years ago. Me outside the building in 2020, unable to access the part she would have occupied, and her within it, about 1920, unable to access the grounds she could see out of the window. I’ve sat there reading her words on both occasions, wondering if current thinking about the nature of time might mean we are somehow there together. Indeed, I’m wondering whether physicists’ claims that time is not at all what we have believed it to be might at some future time shed light on certain human behaviours and experiences that are currently termed ‘mental illness’.
I recognise in White's writings the loneliness of trauma and its manifestations later in life. It seems to me, in fact, that the loneliness or isolation or self-isolation or lack-of-self-permission-to-engage-with-others-perceived-as-'normal' or however you prefer to describe the condition in which one's experiences lead to reduced and/or impaired social interaction is often what matters most, and what I want to address in relation to White. I can accompany her, somehow. I can make something for her. It's too late, I know. There are people living that I could do this for, I know. I do hope that there might be an outcome of this investigation that is useful to women living now. But I'm starting with her.
Museum of the Mind
Patricia Moran: Antonia White and Manic Depressive Illness