Open menu


Open menu


Open menu
three pairs of lovers with space

T. H. WHITE 1906-64


Terence Hanbury “Tim” White (29 May 1906 – 17 January 1964) was an English author most well-known for his best-selling renderings of the Arthurian legends.

Following White’s death, his publisher commissioned the novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner, who had had friends in common with White, to write his biography. Her T. H. White (1967) was closely based on White’s diaries and correspondence and interviews with those who had known him best, with little elaboration. Presented here is everything in her book touching on Greek love with some additional notes from other sources.

T. H. White, aged about 13

White is quoted by Townsend describing himself as “partially in love with a quite perfect barmaid” (p. 82) and “madly in love” with “a beautiful debutante” (p. 251), but both were ephemeral. She also makes several allusions, some in his own words, to his “homosexuality”, without ever illuminating the character of that homosexuality, or, with one exception, mentioning anyone to whom his homosexual attraction was expressed.

As will be seen, the exception was a 12-year-old boy, James “Jimmy” Andrew Arlott, disguised in Townsend’s biography as “Zed”,[1] with whom White fell agonisingly in love for three years when he was fifty-one. Jimmy, elder son of the well-known BBC cricket commentator John Arlott, was born on 4 December 1944 and died on 1 January 1965, less than a year after White, from an accident in his newly-acquired sports car. Biographical information on him can be found in David Rayvern Allen’s Arlott: The Authorised Biography (London, 1994),[2] where he is described as “so good-looking, so full of intrinsic charm and so much loved, … a boy who had a mind of his own. At Highgate School in his early teens he had possessed a beautiful treble voice.”

III. Prep School: 1930-32

After graduating from Cambridge, from 1930 to 1932 White was a master at St. David’s, a boys’ preparatory school in Reigate, Surrey.[3] From there he sent the following poem to L. J. Potts, his former Cambridge tutor and lifelong friend:

This pretty boy, mischievous, chaste, and stupid,
With bouncing bum and eyes of teasing fire,
This budding atom, happy heart, young Cupid,
Will grow to know desire.

Anxious Mamma, discern the signs of rapture,
Observe his sensuous wriggles in the bath.
His plump brown legs design their future capture,
Their virgin quelled, their tenderness and wrath.

Happy immoral imp, if this continues
He will, no doubt, grow up a shameless sensualist.
He won't despise his genitals and sinews,
Won't know that it is ‘beastly' to be kissed.

Stuff him in Etons quick, and send him packing
To Dr Prisonface his breezy school.
That old rheumatic man with threats and whacking
Will justly bring this body to the rule.

Send your bright dreaming angel then to Dr Prisonface
So that he may be taught his ‘beastly' loins to rule,
So that he may be learned what is and isn't cricket,
So that he may be a product of the good old school.

His legs are beautiful but he must hate them,
Starve them till sterile and when past their prime
He may be allowed to marry somebody exactly like him
And have a jolly good time.

Till then, for you can't quite kill his angel,
He'll fall at intervals and take a whore,
Shamefully take her in the night time and afterwards hate himself
All the more, and do it the more.

He will convey the blight to his own marriage bed
Which will exactly resemble Dr Prisonface's:
Surreptitiously wrestling with his wife in the darkness,
Putting her with averted eyes through hasty shameful paces.

Dark and remorseful and dirty will be his copulation,
In Dr Prisonface’s hell, among the wicked.
But never mind, he"ll be a credit to the nation;
And we all hope, we all so hope, he will be good at cricket.

T. H. White in 1932

Prescribing (those whom White loved he prescribed for) books for Mary Potts[4] to read after an operation, he recommended Masefield's The Midnight Folk. “I read it all through to my form last term (illicitly).' The illicit reader was twenty-five - considerably nearer in age to his pupils than to their headmaster. Ten years earlier he was at Cheltenham College. He was back again in much the same atmosphere, though now on the other side of the fence. It was not a position to contain him. Combative and chivalrous, White was drawn to defenceless causes as others are drawn to lost ones. An incident had inflamed both his pity and his satire. Two little boys had been found in the same bed, and were expelled. White was charged to accompany them to London. During the journey, he asked what they had been doing. They admitted that they had been talking. Asked what they had been talking about, they replied, 'Buses and trains.'

On January 2nd, 1932, he wrote to Potts:

To all intents and purposes I have been fired from this school owing to my Socratic intransigence. There was nothing wrong, or anything of that sort, and Dr. Prisonface had to invent a rambling, plaintive excuse about the lack of people to teach the boys cricket.


IV. Stowe: 1932-6

Discussing White’s correspondence with Potts during his next job as a schoolmaster at the boys’ boarding-school, Stowe:

In previous letters he had been frank enough about his tendencies, in one, written soon after Potts’s marriage, inquiring light-heartedly, ‘How is Mary? Has she had any of those children yet – of which she promised me one for immoral purposes?’ He had no reserves from Potts, and felt no compulsion to be on his good behaviour with him – if anything, the compulsion was to be on his bad behaviour, to resume the outrageousness of Potts’s Byronic pupil.


V. Stowe Ridings: 1936-8

Discussing his newly-discovered love of dogs:

‘I have always wanted to be somebody’s best friend, but never succeeded’ – so he once wrote to Potts. ‘I have no friends, only acquaintances. You have no idea how curious it is to live one’s whole life like a cat.’ He remained unsecured, sharp-clawed and suspicious: these were in his lot, like the caution which his lot enforced on him. ‘His own amorous feelings were, I think, all for boys, and he was very, very careful about them.’[5] But his loving feelings were less strictly guarded, […]

XII. Alderney:1957-60

In 1947, White settled permanently in Alderney, the third largest of the Channel Islands. In the summer of 1957, he discussed new developments in his life there in correspondence with his old friend Sydney Cockerell. Having heard back from him, …

Another warning was received more evasively.

About spoiling these children - please don’t forbid. They have their parents to keep them in order – and really I don’t believe that love ever spoiled anything much. Besides, on holidays you ought to be spoiled. They have the terms and their home-life to get steam-rollered in, and this house is to them a place of joy, as they make it for me for these few weeks.

Don't forget I am also good for these children. How many 12-year-olds do you know who have of their own accord learned to write Braille, and deaf-and-dumb and who will waste their time on mad-looking old ladies being washed about in the sea?

This year, as well as entertaining three lots of deaf-and-blind visitors, he was housing an overflow of summer children.

September 17th, 1957.
Tomorrow my enchanting brace of boys, who have filled this house with noise, vulgarity, Gilbert and Sullivan and pure happiness for three weeks, go home to London. It has been my happiest summer since I don't remember when. Happiness is a dangerous thing to play with.

T. H. White with Killie and a boy, 1957

September 18th, 1957.
I can’t write about the important part of this summer, because I have fallen in love with Zed. On Braye Beach with Killie[6] I waved and waved to the aircraft till it was out of sight - my wild geese all gone and me a lonely old Charlie on the sands who had waddled down to the water’s edge but couldn't fly. It would be unthinkable to make Zed unhappy with the weight of this impractical, unsuitable love. It would be against his human dignity. Besides, I love him for being happy and innocent, so it would be destroying what I loved. He could not stand the weight of the world against such feelings - not that they are bad in themselves. It is the public opinion which makes them so. In any case, on every score of his happiness, not my safety, the whole situation is an impossible one. All I can do is to behave like a gentleman. It has been my hideous fate to be born with an infinite capacity for love and joy with no hope of using them.

I do not believe that some sort of sexual relations with Zed would do him harm -- he would probably think and call them t’rific. I do not think I could hurt him spiritually or mentally. I do not believe that perverts are made so by seduction. I do not think that sex is evil, except when it is cruel or degrading, as in rape, sodomy, etc., or that I am evil or that he could be. But the practical facts of life are an impenetrable barrier - the laws of God, the laws of Man.[7] His age, his parents, his self-esteem, his self-reliance, the process of his development in a social system hostile to the heart, the brightness of his being which has made this what a home should be for three whole weeks of utter holiday, the fact that the old exist for the benefit of the young, not vice versa, the factual impossibilities set up by law and custom, the unthinkableness of turning him into a lonely or sad or eclipsed or furtive person - every possible detail of what is expedient, not what is moral, offers the fox to my bosom, and I must let it gnaw.

They say they are coming again next summer, to stay in my house all the time this time, which seems terribly unwise. If I can still my heart between now and then, it may be safe.

Jimmy Arlott ("Zed") as a choirboy aged 11, 1956

He could not still his heart. During the next four years he was to live at the mercy of a love which could only be expressed, in falsities, which he dared not let out of his sight, which he could not trust, could not renounce, could not forego without sinning against his own nature, could not secure. He was totally involved; his best and his worst, hit solicitude for what was young and wild and dauntless and dependent and had to be fed on the best beefsteak, his passion to impart and educate and oversee, his craving which thirty years earlier it had been so easy to voice in that inquiry to Potts: ‘How is Mary? Has she had any of those children yet - of which she promised me one for immoral purposes?' His life on Alderney with its ownerships and neighbourlinesses, above all his success with the deaf/blind, had almost abolished his sense of insecurity. Now it was back, with every ingenuity of suspicion and self-pity, and became paranoia.

Meanwhile, he was only at the beginning, thinking he could reason himself into some sort of order and hoping for a letter.

There follows here a diary entry for 27 September 1957, partly concerning his old and ailing setter, Killie, to whom he was immensely devoted …

He dared not leave her behind, he would not crate her in an aeroplane: Lady Sherwill in Guernsey was asked to put them up for a night before they caught the boat to Southampton. He was going to London to see his analyst and to spend Christmas at the boy’s home. […]

The analyst told him his case was not extraordinary and put him on a course of hormones. After a brief flare of joy, the Christmas visit fell to pieces. He ran a fever, began drinking again, finally swept out of the house in a rage.

April lst, 1958. To Pat Howard.
My new camera has arrived and I have gone stark staring mad. I put it up on its tripod in the music room and kneel before it actually with trembling hands and worship it and pray to it to be a kind master to me and not to go wrong too often.

I did entertain the mad idea that I might be able to enthuse Zed about it, because thrills are catching, but in calmer moments I see I must not make him a burnt sacrifice to it. We are going to Burhou to camp there and do as much of the bird film as possible, but if I bore and exhaust him I will let up and bring him back and do the film as best I can myself later alone.                                                                 

The boy comes from the 19th to the 30th of this month.

Alderney (centre) with Burhou (top right)

Burhou is the main island of an archipelago lying north-west of Alderney. It is uninhabited and in some weathers inaccessible because of the violence with which the Swinge beats in and out of its rocky creeks. It has a seasonal population of puffins who breed in underground colonies. There is a hut for visiting ornithologists or castaways. White had been in an ecstasy of preparation, writing scripts, making lists, checking his equipment, being beforehanded with emergencies, hanging on the weather and tying up parcels. The boy did not catch his enthusiasm. There was a great deal to carry about, long waits for the puffins and the camera to coincide. After a couple of nights they went back to Alderney.

A few weeks later, in June, his dog Killie died, and White did not answer a letter from Cockerell, who complained of sleeplessness:

He too had been sleepless. Killie was dead and neither Zed nor Zed's mother had sent a word of condolence. 'I try not to think badly of them, but the warm-heartedness of Pat and Queenie[8] and everybody else makes it show.' During Pat and Queenie's stay (they arrived loaded with presents for him) their happiness kept him going; but after they had gone, and still no word of sympathy had come, he brooded and raged and starved and lay awake, noting in his diary that since Killie’s death he had lost a stone in weight.

In August Puck[9] came for her third visit, and the summer children were back, filling the house with noise, vulgarity, and a precarious happiness, laughing at the battered old car so that a new one was hurriedly ordered -but did not come in time, since the boy it was to please had to go away early. He was sad to part with his old car, […].

March 1st, 1959.
If I had no insight into my condition, really I would say I was insane. I am in a sort of whirlpool which goes round and round, thinking all day and half the night about a small boy – whom I don’t need sexually, whose personality I disapprove of intellectually, but to whom I am committed emotionally against my will. The whole of my brain tells me the situation is impossible, while the whole of my heart nags on. It is like having a husband and wife inside myself, who can’t agree and quarrel all day. What do I want of Zed? - Not his body, merely the whole of him all the time. It’s equivalent to a confession of murder. 


C. Northcote Parkinson, who was on Alderney at this time, relates in A Law Unto Themselves an incident not recorded elsewhere:

He had the bachelor’s confidence where children are concerned, and once offered to adopt my son, Charles, whose parents, he felt, were unequal to the task of playing Merlin to Charles’s Arthur. Our unvoiced objections to this plan included a doubt as to whether the ideal guardian should be alternatively marooned on a rock or drunk in his studio.

The next summer, 1959, White built a temple in his garden, which, deeply moved by “Marguerite Yourcenar’s superb book about Hadrian” (the Roman emperor famous for his high-profile love affair with a boy called Antinous), he dedicated to Hadrian:

The ceremony of dedication took place in August, when the habitual summer holiday visit was being paid.

White with a bust of Hadrian, 1962

To the arches lighted dimly blue Zed entered alone in my red bathrobe which made him look tall and stately. He did the whole thing alone, I being only in charge of the lights. He bowed first to the star Antinous in Aquila, then brought out the vessels of Greek honey, Samian wine, salt, unleavened bread, and with these anointed the name AΔPIANO in its large, Britannic, copper letters on the floor. He prostrated himself. The bust of Hadrian, under a black velvet cloth, was hidden behind its hollow plinth. He put the vessels and Yourcenar's book and the sestertius into the plinth, put on the coping stone, hoisted the bust into place, unveiled it put one rose before it, stood back with grace and gravity and dignity and said the Greek words τωι θηωι αδριανωι αγαπητωι και αιεμνηστωι[10]  in a loud slow firm voice. Meanwhile the blue light had been growing and increasing through all the columns till the whole temple was a blaze of light, and so he bowed, and all the lights went out except a candle in front of the bust, and we all jumped into the swimming pool.

White was a tall man. The red bathrobe would have looked grotesquely ample and trailing on the ‘small boy’ whose image had obsessed him for the last two years. In rational moments, White renounced the dream of being an all-provider to a fledgling tiercel and looked forward to paying his fees at Cambridge.

In late 1959, White became happily embroiled in the making of the musical, Camelot, based on his novel, The Once and Future King:

The Christmas hospitalities, the theatre-goings and parties, had been enlarged to take in Zed, whose dazzled enjoyment made him thank White for ‘the most wonderful holidays I have ever had'.[11] His father took alarm. He wrote to White, asking him to be more circumspect about exposing Zed to the limelight of Camelot pre-publicity, and stipulated that at future meetings a third person should always be present. White wrote back agreeing. He knew that the decision would rest with Zed. Whatever the decision, his love would still be thwarted. What he wanted was that equivalent to a confession of murder, ‘merely the whole of him all the time'. He felt no guilt; the relation had been a gay, shameless consent in enjoyment.[12]

The love part, the emotional bond, is the agonizing one - and this I have spared him. I never told him I loved him, or worked on his emotions or made any appeals or forced the strain on him.

The boy would come in August. […] A few days before their arrival he had a bout of pain which was thought to be gall-stones. It was the outcome of an attack of shingles. […]

He was not properly recovered when Zed and his train arrived, but he resolved to put his best foot foremost. Then was a great deal of junketing and outlay and ceremonial revelling, an entertainment in the temple of Hadrian, the largesse to be expected from a host so much richer than before.[13] Perhaps the fact that everyone was a year older provoked comparisons with previous summers. After spasmodic illusions of happiness as usual White realized that he no longer had the same power to please.

A young girl, Tony Walton’s sister, Carol, was invited, to supply Zed with a companion of his own age. […] When […] his final visitor had gone he combated his autumnal melancholy by writing ‘Macbeth the Knife’, an adaptation condensed for a small cast and an audience who wouldn’t want to sit out the whole thing. He was full of excitement. After failing with puffins on Burhou, filming, English literature, it seemed that with theatricals he had at last found something where Zed would share his enthusiasm.

October 22nd, 1960.
If Zed is not allowed to come and help with this major undertaking, which is for him, for at least a week at Christmas and at Easter - it is impossible to do without proper rehearsals - I shall tell them not to come in the summer either, not at all.

Paranoia cheats its harbourer by all the times it has cried, ‘Wolf, Wolf!' White had long suspected Zed’s parents of plotting against him. He saw that Zed, growing older, was growing away from him. Yet when Zed wrote that he could not promise for Christmas and Easter, White replied, ‘Then I’m afraid you had better stay away for good.’ Trusting in his blackmail he went to London. At his hotel he found a letter from the boy who agreed that it would be better to stay away for good.

XIII. Alderney, Florence, Naples: 1961-3

Describing White’s life “back in his desolate, well-appointed house”in Alderney in the early months of 1961:

For the rest, alternately accusing and excusing, he composed letters to be read after his death and posted one or two attempts at a reconciliation with Zed which were rebuffed or ignored.[14]

[1] Zed’s true identity, given in White’s papers, is mentioned, for example, in this unpublished letter of 3 June 1965 from Townsend to White’s friend David Garnett (who also hid Jim’s name in his published correspondence), lamenting the need to be circumspect about the details of the love affair:

If I could use his lust and rage and frenzy and defeat over the Arlott boy I could make a real dragon’s tail ending. But everybody’s bloody feelings are in the way, and if I observe them I shall be reduced to the portrait of a frustrated Scout-Master. And I feel so much affection for him (maddening and caddening though he was; and really he was a considerable cad), and so much compassion. (Sylvia Townsend Warner Archive, Dorset County Museum)

[2] See especially chapter 21, all about the automobile accident.

[3] Townsend does not name the school, but Barry Weller does in his “Wizards, Warriors, and the Beast: Glatisant in Love” in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (edr.), Novel Gazing (London, 1997), p. 230.

[4] L. J. Potts’s wife.

[5] Hugh Heckstall Smith, in a letter to the author. [Author’s note]

[6] His dog, a setter.

[7] A. E. Housman, Last Poems, XII. [Author’s note]

[8] Pat and Queenie were a deaf and blind couple whom White had to stay.

[9] Puck was the nickname of Miss Collier, the first deaf and blind person White had to stay.

[10] Sic. [Author’s note]

[11] On 7 February 1960, White wrote to his old friend David Garnett: “I don’t know whether I told you that about seven years ago a living Wart [in White’s fiction the boyhood nickname of the future King Arthur] discovered in me a real Merlyn, just as if we had written The Sword in the Stone about ourselves. He is now a splendid figure nearly six feet high, and we are still devoted to each other, and I share my dazzling theatrical life with him, and Julie and co. are his gods & goddesses. He is madly in love with Julie's younger sister, aged 15.” (David Garnett (editor), The White/Garnett Letters (New York, 1968), p. 289)

[12] This sentence was evidently a self-censored version of an earlier one, which mentioned ‘sodomy’, a word she deleted at the publisher’s request, having replied to him: ‘I agree. Away with sodomy. Let it read “guilt; the relation had been a free, shameless consent in enjoyment.”’(letter to Michael Howard of 5 August, 1967, Sylvia Townsend Warner Archive, Dorset County Museum).

[13] Due to Camelot.

[14] Warner noted in her diary on 1 January 1965 the news that Jimmy Arlott (ie. “Zed”) had been killed when his car skidded into a lorry.  (Sylvia Townsend Warner Archive, Dorset County Museum). “All the love, the fostering, the Merlin method, the passion, the frustration, the despair poured out on this boy who is now a dead young man,’ she commented. discussed with her publisher whether this should be mentioned in the biography, but decided it would be “too identifying” of the real Zed. (The Cat in the Hamper: Warner and the Art of Narrating a Biography by Morine Krissdóttir).




If you would like to leave a comment on this webpage, please e-mail it to greek.love.tta@gmail.com, mentioning either the title or the url of the page so that the editor can add it.