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The Sugar House

The Sugar House
Antonia White
255 pages

This is the third in Antonia White's autobiographical series of novels. In two previous works, Clara Batchelor came of age through convent education and a job as a governess. The Sugar House takes place in 1920, when Clara is 21 years old and working as an actress with a touring company. Her naivete is evident from the start, when jokes about two gay actors go right over her head. Clara shares rooms with an older, brassier actress named Maidie. She also pines after Stephen Tye, an older actor she met prior to leaving on tour. Stephen is full of empty promises and strings Clara along for a while. When the inevitable happens, Clara turns to Archie, a former love who has turned up after a long absence. Clara met Archie while working as a governess, and was even engaged to him for a time. Archie has changed over the years, and not necessarily for the better. Eager to escape theatrical life and yet remain independent from her parents, Clara is blind to Archie's flaws and agrees to marry him. Almost immediately, the couple find themselves severely in debt due to a general unwillingness to live within their means, and exacerbated by Archie's drinking problem. He pours money into hare-brained schemes that go nowhere, and she loses confidence in her own ability to earn a living either by acting or writing.

As Clara and Archie's relationship deteriorates, Clara's depression worsens and she retreats into a bit of a cocoon. Two chance encounters help her emerge from the chrysalis with greater self-awareness. She is no longer a girl, but a woman desirable to other men. The novel concludes with a number of loose ends, but Clara is poised to exercise her independence in completely new ways. The Sugar House reinforces Virginia Woolf's view that that a woman needs "a room of her own" and an independent income, while also highlighting the importance of sexual discovery and independence. ( )
Tags: review, virago modern classic, women unbound
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