T. H. White

T. H. White was born on this day in 1906. Best known for his Once and Future King series, White wrote two dozen books on a wide range of subjects, many of them reflecting their quirky author. The Goshawk, recently republished as a New York Review of Books Classic, describes White’s foray into falconry. Mistress Masham’s Repose, republished in the NYRB Children’s Collection, tells a Lemony Snicket sort of tale: a young orphan inherits a dilapidated estate, avoids her nasty keepers, and, while roaming free as a “wild but earnest puppy rushing about with the slipper of her imagination, tearing the heart out of it,” meets a colony of latter-day Lilliputians.

All accounts of White portray an eccentric, reclusive man, one who fluctuated between treating life as a lark and a disaster. His journals and letters reveal troubles over homosexuality and alcoholism, and a consuming passion for animals. When his Irish setter died he stayed up for two nights with the corpse, visited the grave twice a day for the next week, and then went on a nine-day bender. On the lark side is White’s journal entry for the day in 1938, on which he received good news about his uncertain career and bank account:

First of all the old 1927 Austin finally broke down halfway to Buckingham. It boiled over, all the wheels fell off, the hood fell in, and I left it in the middle of the road. I walked to the New Inn Farm and rang up London to hear that the American Book Club had chosen The Sword and the Stone after all…. I bought a Jaguar on the spot, had it in my possession by the evening, and will be off to Wales tomorrow.

The more famous Round Table novels, offering White’s version of Sir Thomas Malory’s telling of the King Arthur legends, are in the larks-and-disasters spirit. In The Sword and the Stone we meet the knights Sir Ector and Sir Grummore relaxing over a well-earned glass or two of port:

Sir Ector said, “Had a good quest today?”

Sir Grummore said, “Oh, not so bad. Rattlin’ good day, in fact. Found a chap called Sir Bruce Saunce Pite choppin’ off a maiden’s head in Weedon Bushes, ran him to Mixbury Plantation in the Bicester, where he doubled back, and lost him in Wicken Wood. Must have been a good twenty-five miles as he ran.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.