Antonia White, The Lost Traveller

Antonia White, The Lost Traveller. VMC paperback, 1993 (first edition 1979). First published by Eyre & Spottiswode, 1950

Antonia White The Lost Traveller coverThe cover image is a detail from ‘Elinor’ by Dod Procter (who was associated with the Newlyn school of artists in Cornwall. She and others in the Lamorna sub-group, including her husband Ernest, did some of the decorative paintings in St Hilary Church near Penzance, where Bernard Walke had been parish priest: see my post on his memoir HERE).

There was very little plot in Antonia White’s account of Nanda Grey’s four years in a catholic convent school (from the ages of nine to thirteen/fourteen) in Frost in May, about which I posted last time. This sequel is very different. There’s plenty of incident, and the narrative adopts a more traditional, adult omniscient voice, rather than focalising on the young protagonist. The style is more sophisticated, too, in keeping with the more mature Nanda: in The Lost Traveller her story continues from her leaving the convent to the age of seventeen.

This first of three sequels to FiM took seventeen years to appear. Antonia White apparently had a tough time during them: she had writer’s block, mental health problems, and was busy with work as a journalist, among other things during the war.

Although there’s much more incident in this sequel, I found it less engaging. Nanda has had a name change: she is now Clara Batchelor, and the names of the schools have also changed. Maybe this was to indicate that the novel is less autobiographical than FiM. This also might account for its less satisfactory impact.

Part of the problem is the depiction of Clara’s parents, which dominates much of the novel. Her father is decidedly unpleasant: a doctrinaire pedagogue with some unsavoury sexual inclinations. He teaches classics at the school to which Clara, very much a ‘daddy’s girl’, is moved after the convent school became too expensive.

Isabel, the languid mother, is a drama queen, always expressing how ‘sensitive’, romantic and artistic she is. This manifests itself in particular with serial flirting – an indulgence that leads her into dangerous territory.

Clara’s friendships made up the basis of FiM, and the same is the case in this novel. Here too they represent the most interesting and original aspect of the narrative. WWI takes its toll on the young and their families, and there are hints of the terrible fate of European Jewish people a few years in the future.

It’s inevitable as Clara grows up that she’ll become more engaged with the world, become interested in developing adult interests and relationships, including romantic or sexual ones, and this means the narrative takes on a rather more conventional bildungsroman quality.

There are some delightful portraits of her family in rural Sussex, where she and her parents spend their summer holidays. Her eccentric, warm-hearted maiden aunts love having the visitors, and Clara enjoys their affectionate hospitality, and walking in the picturesque downs.

Why this title? Well, Clara/Nanda is still a bit lost, desperate to find where she belongs. Her catholic faith is the foundation on which she believes she can build her life, but it’s a conviction that wavers under the stress of circumstances.

This sequel benefits from having less discussion of dogma and description of ritual, and the dilemma Clara experiences in the final section of the novel is well handled, and includes a truly shocking event that I hadn’t seen coming.

It might sound like I’m lukewarm about this novel, but I’m not. Maybe it’s just that it’s so different from FiM. It lacks some of the charm and innocence of that novel, but still satisfies as a portrait of a young woman’s painful growth out of her ‘awkward age’ into adulthood.

But those parents…It’s amazing Clara survived more or less intact.





13 thoughts on “Antonia White, The Lost Traveller

  1. I read and enjoyed ‘Frost in May’ and ‘The Lost Traveller’ many years ago. It’s perhaps time to return to earlier-read novels again and connect with them afresh. They appeal differently – or not at all – at different ages and stages of our lives. I find that especially with D.H. Lawrence whom I read voraciously when young but connected with much less intensely when I returned to them later. One has to re-tune to his distinctive, often sometimes over-dogmatic voice.

    • Helen: I agree – I sometimes read reviews of books I read long ago, and hardly recognise the content. Reading them again can be rather like a first read. DHL perhaps does appeal to a younger consciousness; he can be infuriating (dogmatic, as you say) and wrong-headed, but also remarkably sensitive and astute.

          • Hello Simon and Thread Folk!

            Am more intrigued with a biography of DHL than another novel of DHL. Find with age I am more interested in biography, history, poetry than novels, though there is room for novels as well. Has anyone else noticed this? Could it have something to do with a newfound love of pickles kim chee and other sour food?? : ) Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. I haven’t read any Antonia White yet but do intend to! Thank you for the art information, I’ve been meaning for the last couple of years to stay on the train, pass St. Ives and discover Penzance and the Newlyn School – a plan for next year I think.

    • I’ve been meaning to visit St Hilary ever since reading the Bernard Walke book, and hearing about the paintings there from my friends the owners of the inscrutable cats. I think you’ll enjoy the A. White novels.

  3. I have read and retained all of these but haven’t read them since I first obtained them! I do remember the name and atmosphere change but unfortunately little else. Your visits are reminding me to revisit!

  4. Gosh, well I do own this but recall if I’ve read it – like others who’ve commented, I find that I struggle to remember what I read in younger years, and never kept a reading journal. I think I must perhaps have read it, because I was aware of the difference in names. I do wonder how tolerant I would be of these novels now, though, particularly the Catholic element.

  5. Hi Simon! Enjoyed the review, as always. You’ve definitely moved Antonia White up on my TBR list. I was just doing a little research on the author and discovered there are also a couple of related books, particularly “The Sugar House.” Are you continuing your reading journey with Nanda/Clara or is enough, enough?

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