Jane White
by Helen Hughes

Jane White was a novelist and memoirist who lived in Godalming from 1967 to 1985. At the age of 27, she moved with her family to a red brick house called ‘Hillsborough’ in Busbridge Lane, with its leafy, wild garden. She had very recently given birth to her only child, Martin, and she and her husband Philip Brady settled down to life in the market and commuter town. Having studied English literature at Girton College Cambridge and then worked in the BBC News Department in London, she had to get used to life as a housewife and mother while her husband travelled daily into London to work as a lecturer in German at Birkbeck College.

White was a published author before she moved to Godalming. In May 1960 her short story ‘Boy with a Dog’ was broadcast on the Light Programme on BBC radio. White’s breakthrough as an author came in 1967 when her first novel Quarry was published, first in the UK by Michael Joseph, and then in the US by Harcourt, Brace & World. Although it is never named, the novel is clearly set in Godalming during an intense heatwave. Three grammar-school youths abduct and hide a younger boy in a hidden cave in a disused quarry. Each of the characters, who together form a threatening alliance, is vividly brought to life. Surprisingly, the most menacing one is the captured boy who acquiesces to everything in a very unsettling way. The book was compared with Lord of the Flies, at that time a set text, and one which White herself taught as an English teacher in a local independent school. The novel is both exciting and intense and was hailed as the ‘most frightening of the year’ by one critic.

Now with the literary agent A P Watt & Son, White went on to publish two novels in the following year: Proxy, also set in Surrey, and Beatrice, Falling (1968), which strikes out into the bleaker landscapes of Norfolk. Her next novel, Retreat in Good Order (1970), took up the challenge set by Simone de Beauvoir to explore the ordinary life and struggles of middle-class women – which White set in a small town much like Godalming. Then, with Left for Dead (1971), she took on the theme of sexual violence against women, focussing on the inner struggle of a young wife with her rapist and her husband’s family. Her last two published novels were Comet (1975), a post-apocalyptic science fiction story, and Benjamin’s Open Day (1979), a satire based in part on her son’s experiences at Charterhouse, the public school located in Godalming.

Book cover of Proxy
Cover of Jane White's Proxy

White’s only non-fiction book, and perhaps her most memorable, was Norfolk Child (1973), an evocation of her childhood up to and during World War II. In it a child, brought up in the Roman Catholic faith, with a vivid imagination and a voracious appetite for reading emerges as a writer. She will go on to turn her games with ancient gods, ghosts, and siblings into great novels. White’s work gives us a different angle on the social themes of the 1970s in Britain, particularly the pain of adolescence, and includes the voice and perspective of women like herself.

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