Jane White

Cover of UK paperback edition of 'Quarry'Brooks Peters wrote with a recommendation of Quarry, a 1967 novel by Jane White. As Brooks describes Quarry,

It’s a British novel from 1960s about three adolescent boys who kidnap a boy and keep him in a cave in a quarry. It’s been compared to Lord of the Flies. It got great reviews when it came out. I’ve just finished it and thought it was extremely well done. But a real enigma. I can’t figure out what it is really about except perhaps the breakdown of society.

Richard Freeman, in the Saturday Review, wrote that Quarry,

… is an allegory with a variety of more or less cosmic overtones. The action takes place not in a normal, pastoral English summer, but in an arid wasteland during a fierce heat wave. Images of darkness and light are strewn about and the cave is philosophically associated with the one in Plato’s Republic. The victim, especially, is given much symbolic weight to bear as a universal scapegoat…. [U]ltimately, the book is about the complex symbiosis between prosecutor and prey. If Quarry is less richly imagined than Lord of the Flies and lacks its verbal distinction, it is nevertheless an extraordinarily assured first novel, and is even superior to Golding’s in its control of allegory, the bare bones of which are less frequently allowed to obtrude.

Other reviewers compared White favorably with Iris Murdoch. Her second novel, Proxy, received mostly positive reviews in the U.K. but was uniformly panned in the U.S.. From what I can determine, White went on to publish four more novels:

She also published a memoir, Norfolk Child, in 1973. Despite the fact that reviewers of her later works offered such praise as “Miss Young writes well of marriages and the forces that mold them”; “a haunting, macabre quality reminiscent of Iris Murdoch”; and “an abundant mixture of lyrical and symbolic”, White seems to have disappeared from the publishing scene entirely after 1976. I haven’t had a chance to sample White’s work, but on the surface at least, she appears to be a worthy candidate for reconsideration.

Added 22 November 2009

Jane White, autho of QuarryBrooks Peters added the following biographical information, along with a photo of Jane White, from the dust jacket of Quarry:

“Jane White was born in Cambridge in 1934, and her family moved soon afterwards to a remote farmhouse in Norfolk. Her father is an historian and University Lecturer at Downing College, Cambridge. Jane White was educated at home by a governess until the age of nine, then at a Convent boarding school. At eighteen she won a State Scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge. She read for an honours Degree in English and graduated with an upper second Degree. She worked as an assistant in a large public library for nine months prior to Cambridge and took various vacation jobs as a waitress — also as general help in a Maternity Hospital.

She was employed for five years with the B.B.C. World Service as a News Clerk in the News Information Department. In 1961 she married a lecturer in German at Birkbeck College, London University. She has one small son, and lives at Godalming Surrey.

Jane White has written plays, poetry, verse dramas for as long as she can remember. Her first novel was completed at the age of nine. She is much interested in acting, and took part in various amateur productions at Cambridge, once venturing as far as the Edinburgh ‘Fringe’.

Her interests include theatre-going, films, both good and bad, music of all kinds, and reading.”

Thanks, Brooks!

18 thoughts on “Jane White

  1. A comparison to Iris Murdoch is no guarantee, but it’s at least enough to make me take the time to see if my library has any of Jane White’s novels. Thanks for pointing her out.

  2. And Jane White’s entry in Contemporary Authors states her real name was Jane Brady; that she worked at the BBC World Service; and that she’d written some plays before Quarry. She also wrote one other novel besides those listed above, Benjamin’s Open Day, which Hamish Hamilton published in 1979. One of the sellers offering it at Abebooks says it is “a very black comedy set in a public school.”

  3. Thanks Robert – some neat detective work! How sad she died so young. I wonder if she would have had a breakthrough novel if she’d lived longer?

  4. The American edition of COMET also lists for her the title, PROXY, with the implication that it appeared after QUARRY, but before BEATRICE FALLING, i.e. ca. 1967.

  5. Jane White also wrote another novel called ‘Benjamin’s Open Day.’ It was first published in 1979 by Hamish Hamilton Ltd of London.

  6. I knew Jane White as she lived in my Grandmother’s village – a lovely person. I have copies of several of her books. Benjamin’s Open Day was indeed her last novel. It lists a further 6 – Quarry, Proxy, Beatrice Falling, Retreat in Good Order, Left for Dead, and Comet (I think this was probably the order of publishing but cannot confirm). There is also ‘Norfolk Child’ a non-fiction account of her childhood. An obituary states that she published 8 novels, but I wonder if they have counted Norfolk Child in that total?

  7. I knew Jane White in the late 1970s when she taught secondary English at St Catherine’s School in Surrey. She was, as Bill says, a lovely person, but she was also a truly inspirational teacher, with a passion for literature, language and life that she shared with those lucky enough to be taught by her. Her autobiographical book Norfolk Child was serialised by Radio 4 and quite highly regarded at the time, but it was out of print by 1979. I managed to acquire an ex-library copy years ago, and it remains one of my most cherished books – her style of autobiography reminds me of Maya Angelou. Illness forced her early retirement in ’79, the same year Benjamin’s Open Day was published, which accounts for her disappearance from the literary scene.

  8. There are some references & ads for Jane White and “Quarry” in the London magazine (the literary / arts journal) 1967 – in the last issue for that year I think – also references to reviews for “Quarry” by Kay Dick etc. By the way, the book reviews in the London magazine are a good source of info for well-regarded but now obscure books of that era.

  9. Surprisingly, I found this page after chasing up some Pink Floyd videos on youtube. The video of PF’s Another Brick in the Wall where the school children burn down the school put me in mind of having read Benjamin’s Open Day many years ago, probably soon after publication. The book obviously left an impression on me and I went searching for the author. For those not familiar with the book, Benjamin is a loner in a boarding school who slowly assembles a mass of firewood into a carefully assembled bonfire in a cellar under the school. The night before the annual open day … Well, I can’t really spoil it for you can I?

    I’m saddened to hear of Jane White’s death. Having since written a teenage novel about a troubled boy in school, and in which another boy sets fire to things, I might have an unconscious debt to her inspiration.

  10. “Quarry” is an absolutely amazing book. I don’t have a copy at hand, but if I recall correctly, the kidnapped boy is rather mysterious – no one seems to miss him or to be looking for him, and he gets the upper hand on his captors in a certain sense by cleverly cooperating in their scenarios and being peculiarly non-panicky about the whole situation.

    The creepiness is a little reminiscent of Evan Hunter’s “Last Summer,” another novel of cruel adolescence (which was memorably filmed by Frank Perry in 1969). There is a sequel to that book, “Come Winter.”

    Another great British story in a not dissimilar vein, about life in a boys’ military outfit, is Robert Holles’s “Captain Cat” (1960). According to his brief Wikipedia entry, Holles (1926-1999) “enlisted in the British army as a boy soldier at 14.” I’ve identified 11 books by him, 8 of which are definitely or probably fiction:

    Now Thrive the Armourers (1952) (Non-Fiction)
    The Bribe Scorners (1956)
    Captain Cat (1960)
    Religion and Davey Peach (aka Grab It While You Can) (1962)
    The Siege of Battersea (aka Guns at Batasi) (1962) (this was filmed under the alternate title)
    The Nature of the Beast (1965)
    Spawn (1978)
    I’ll Walk Beside You (1979)
    Sun Blight (1982)
    Guide to Real Village Cricket (1983) (Non-Fiction)
    The Guide to Real Subversive Soldiering (1985) (Non-Fiction)

    Holles was also a prolific television writer.

  11. I am, in fact, Jane White’s son (Martin Brady)… and pretty much everything that has been posted here is right. There were a few more novels as well, under a pseudonym which the British Library managed to crack in its catalogue! I have a pile of unpublished manuscripts also. She got MS, incidentally, and made what I believe was a brave decision to get out before things got (more) unbearable. Jackie… I have a feeling we know one another. Maybe I even still have a photo of you! I hope all is well. If you want to be in touch you’ll find me at King’s College London teaching German and Film. Greetings to anyone and everyone interested in this rather fine webpage.

  12. I first read ‘Norfolk Child’ in Stoke Newington, London, shortly after having my first child in 1973 and it left a huge impression on me. I kept on recalling the pampas grass of the first paragraph at intervals ever since, when I decided last month that I really must track it down and bought the last (?) copy of the original publication on Amazon. Finished it this morning and still find it haunting and beautiful: hooray for home schooling! (Tho’ she doesn’t dwell very much on their education with a governess – obviously effective as she writes beautifully.) Must now try to track down some of her novels. I think ‘Norfolk Child’ was partially responsible for our family’s move to the Norfolk/Suffolk border in 1979, where we have lived ever since. North Norfolk is our bolt-hole where my husband and I used to seek solace in times of stress – but we are retired now. Stress? What stress? But we still love Norfolk. I would love to know which village the house is near, so we could visit it on a sort of pilgrimage!!

  13. Hello my grandfather was Jane White’s uncle “jack”, her father Regs brother. I have tracked down the fore mentioned house in Norfolk where the family lived in the 1930s . I also have a passion for Norfolk. The house is just as described in book, it is between Cromer and Sheringham close to railway line and was owned at the time by the Felbrigg estate. It is currently on the market and was recently featured in Sunday times property supplement as it is owned by John Hurt and his wife. The book Norfolk child is mentioned in property details…..

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