I was rather horrified when I first read this book, oh, a long time ago. So when Rachel of Book Snob and Carolyn of A Few of My Favourite Books proposed the delightful Virago Reading Week, Frost in May was the first title I thought of revisiting. I’m no longer horrified but I can see that Antonia White wanted me to be. What I can’t make out is where else the merit of this bitter little novel lies.
Fernanda Grey, age nine, is dropped off by her father at the Convent of the Five Wounds in the small village of Lippington. It is her first experience of boarding school, and her father is a new convert to Catholicism. Fernanda is being sent to the convent school to receive a Catholic education. Since Antonia White was herself educated at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton, I suspect some of her anger stems from that experience. Certainly the fine-grained description of daily life at the school — the nuns’ handwriting, the descriptions of food, the pious fads, the way school routine erases home life — rings true. Fernanda is an observant, intelligent, imaginative little girl who grows into an observant adolescent who likes to write. Stand-in for the author? Seems likely, doesn’t it?
Since the entire book is narrated from Nanda’s point of view it’s a good thing she’s observant. She uses the sharp gaze of an outsider, for not only is she a convert, she is also middle-class. But “Lippington,” as the school is known, is the favored educational venue for a kind of borderless European aristocracy. The glamorous girls are Spanish, Irish, Franco-German, and feature cardinals and abbesses on their family trees. Nanda, though accepted as a friend, can never share their easy identification as members of the one True Church.
But as we might guess from the title, this is an education gone awry. White is sharp about the power the nuns exert over their charges, the surveillance and what we might call emotional blackmail. The founding principle of the school is the breaking of a child’s character so that it may be re-formed in a manner more pleasing to God. This is the “frost” of the title, of course.
But is there more to the tale than the humiliation and grief visited upon a young girl? Nanda is well-drawn, but the secondary characters — those glamorous aristocratic Catholic girls — tend to be endowed with marvelous heads of hair and a few tics. The nuns are stock figures as well, remote and manipulative. (Rumer Godden does a much better job of seeing beyond the habit.) White’s hurt and outrage are fresh, but they are the only note she sounds.
Here’s a link to a Guardian piece from 2008 which informed me that Frost in May was the first volume Virago published. The author, Eloise Millar, reveals how closely autobiographical the novel is — promise I didn’t know!
This is my first entry in the Virago Modern Classics Reading Week challenge. Next up, Elizabeth Taylor’s Palladian. I’m afraid it looks a little cheerless, too!