Beyond the Glass
Date Published: August 1, 2006
Number of Pages: 320
Print Price: $13.95
eBook Price: $8.69
Antonia White’s novel Beyond the Glass, the last of a semi-autobiographical fictional quartet, tells the story of twenty-two-year-old Clara Batchelor and opens in medias res. In the first two chapters we learn, through a series of conversations between Clara’s parents, that Clara has been unhappily married for several months and is now seeking a divorce.
Clara is Catholic, but annulment should be relatively easy to procure, as the marriage was unconsummated due to the purported impotence of Archie, Clara’s husband. The story does not end there, however. It is hinted that Clara knew of Archie’s sexual difficulties prior to marriage and had been willing to accept a platonic relationship. After marriage, though, Clara, unable to resist the pull of the flesh, seems to have entered into an adulterous affair. Thus the story of Clara’s marriage and the reasons for the divorce are more complicated than meets the eye.
The reader’s difficulties in piecing together the “truth” of Clara’s story, as well as Clara’s own ambivalence towards her marriage, her divorce, and her physicality, are all brilliantly set forth in the opening pages of Beyond the Glass. These themes set the stage for the remainder of the book, as Clara, seeking to share her “whole being” (both physical and spiritual) “with someone else,” falls in love with Richard Crayshaw, with whom she shares a telepathic connection as well as a strong physical attraction. Beyond the Glass tells the story of this doomed love affair, taking the reader up through the heady days of young romance and down into the depths of depression, paranoia, and despair.
White’s novel is rife with ambivalence about its own project. White herself was deeply equivocal about her writing after suffering expulsion from her Catholic school at the age of fourteen for composing what was deemed an immoral story. Her protagonist shares this uncertainty about the written word, worried about being misunderstood and fearful that words are incapable of effectively conveying truth and meaning. The spoken word, too, is a source of anxiety. The author’s theatrical roots are evident in the weighty dialogue that drives her prose: one can imagine the novel’s scenes playing out on stage, as the characters wrestle with each other in conversation, trying – often ineffectively – to forge some means of honest communication.
Our inability, first, to know the truth (“How can he tell you the truth when he admits no one knows it?” Clara’s mother asks) and, second, to express it (“I can’t say in words what I feel,” Richard tells Clara) are persistent questions White treats throughout the novel.
White wrote Beyond the Glass in 1954, during the heyday of existentialist philosophy, and her work is replete with existentialist questions of truth, meaning, authenticity, and identity. Clara’s struggle against a life lived in Sartrean bad faith and her attempt to reconcile Kierkegaardian paradoxes – the human and the divine, the material and the spiritual, the active and the contemplative, the rational and the revelatory, free will and predestination, essence and existence – lead ultimately to her mental breakdown, reminding me of Chesterton’s warning that our heads will split if we try to get the heavens into them.
Clara’s futile endeavor is epitomized by her interview with her psychiatrist, during which “she searched wildly for the right answer, but she perceived that either alternative was fatal.” Trapped in a web of paradoxes, Clara wants desperately to embrace “every kind of truth,” but she is not sure how. And the attempt may very well destroy her.
Beyond the Glass also treats of a particularly feminist brand of existentialism and dramatizes a woman’s quest for transcendence in a male-dominated world. Clara, according to White, was named after Clara Middleton, the heroine of George Meredith’s The Egoist who fought to avoid becoming a cipher in the shadow of her suitor’s narcissism. Clara’s ambivalence towards the men in her life – Archie, Richard, her father, her solicitor, and her doctors – reflect a simultaneous desire to submit to male dominance and to rebel against it.
The women in Beyond the Glass – Clara’s mother, her aunts, and Richard’s sister Nell – have each attempted to carve out for themselves secret spheres of autonomy and fulfillment, either by rejecting marriage or by having extramarital relationships. Yet Clara struggles with the question of whether women can forge an identity for themselves independent of men’s love and attention. Richard’s telepathic seduction of Clara – “You may as well give in. My will’s stronger than yours.” – ominously foreshadows Clara’s total absorption in the love affair, to the point where she loses her identity and her selfhood.
Glass in all its forms becomes the metaphor that embodies the fragility of identity, with all its ambivalences and paradoxes. We learn early on of Clara’s aversion to mirrors, which both reveal her appearance, and reverse and distort that appearance. Similarly, glasses on a person’s face take on grotesque dimensions as items that both reveal and transform a person’s identity. Glass doors and windows frequently figure as barriers between people, as well as a means by which persons are objectified and made “other,” turning people into “fish in an aquarium” or “objects in a shop window.”
More than anything, though, the image of glass serves as a symbol for Clara’s struggle to see clearly, as her name itself implies. She feels herself constantly to be on the verge of understanding important truths, but she never quite attains that knowledge. She experiences strange apprehensions and longs for their implications to be “made clear.” The book’s title recalls the words of St. Paul: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.” Although the word “glass” in the Pauline passage is often translated “mirror,” Paul may actually have been referring to the specula or “seeing stones” used by ancient prophets. Clara herself speaks metaphorically of the “crystal sphere” she has created with Richard, an image that highlights Clara’s prophetic and clairvoyant attributes.
Clara is, then, a would-be prophet struggling to see clearly through her crystal ball. But when she goes beyond the glass she does not see “face to face” as Paul would have her; rather, she descends, like Alice in Wonderland, into a world of distortion and horror.
White’s account of Clara’s deterioration into madness has been compared to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the title of which also refers to the distorting properties of glass. Where White’s work differs most profoundly from Plath’s is in its examination of the religious and spiritual dimensions of mental illness. White wrote that she held on to her Catholicism “by the skin of her teeth,” and her protagonist, too, wrestles mightily with her faith, filled with doubt yet unable to let go of her belief, “alternating between fervour and a cold observance.”
In the end, Clara’s purgatorial descent into madness serves a redemptive purpose for the person she loves most, and it is this devastating irony that earns Beyond the Glass a place in the canon of Catholic fiction. The final words Clara speaks as she clutches a rosary are the last words of a priest at Mass: “Go in peace.” They are heartbreaking words, but they speak to Clara’s hard-won freedom and her hope for transcendence. As Clara releases the reader with these words, the reader, in turn, prays that peace will also find the novel’s troubled protagonist.
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 5 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
Subscribe to the weekly e-newsletter Catholic, Ink. - click here - receive book reviews and the column "The Catholic Imagination and You"
Be part of the Catholic Literary Revival.