Charles Elliott on T. H. White - Slightly Foxed Issue 64

Great Gossips

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T. H. White (1906–64) was clearly a strange fellow, which should be evident to anyone who has read his books. The best known, of course, is his Arthurian epic, The Once and Future King (progenitor of Camelot), but he also wrote such memorable – and delightful – books as Mistress Masham’s Repose (about a crew of Lilliputians who fetch up in the garden of an English estate, see SF no. 2), a moving account of training a goshawk, and a sort of diary about field sports and flying called England Have My Bones. He even translated a medieval bestiary.

If the range of his writings gives a hint of his eccentricity, his writing itself – quirky, succinct, honest and frequently funny – does the rest. White was not a happy man; he was driven and to a degree self-destructive, yet his enthusiasms and interests were unstoppable. This is why I personally treasure a couple of books out on the edge of his oeuvre, The Age of Scandal and The Scandalmonger, a pair of off-beat anthologies/commentaries on the eighteenth century that deal with what Lytton Strachey called ‘the littleness underlying great events’. Probably nobody else would have put them together with quite the verve and amusement that White did.

It helped that he was by nature conservative if not hidebound, savagely opposed to most aspects of modern life. ‘I believe’, he writes (only slightly tongue-in-cheek), ‘that the peak of British culture was reached in the latter years of George III: that the rot began to set in with the “Romantics”, that the apparent prosperity of Victoria’s reign was autumnal, not vernal: and that now we are done for.’ Such an attitude amply justifies his retreat into the company of those engaging and talkative chroniclers of his favourite period – Horace Walpole, Boswell, Johnson, Thomas Creevy, the wits, diarists, letter writers and gossips. The fragments he assembles here add up to nothing profound, which may

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About the contributor

Charles Elliott is a retired editor and the author of several books of essays.

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