Antonia White's Frost in May is the book that launched the Virago imprint. It is the inaugural title in the list of Virago Modern Classics (over 500 books on the original list I believe), and I finally got around to reading it earlier this year. I have subsequently read the second book in the quartet, The Lost Traveller, or rather I should say the first book in the trilogy of sequels that came after. I'm not sure how thinly veiled they're meant to be but surely the novels are autobiographical. Antonia White was herself educated in a convent. Nine-year-old Nanda Grey travels with her father via omnibus to the Convent of the Five Wounds in the opening pages of Frost in May. In the latter three novels Nanda's story continues but she becomes Clara Batchelor. White changed her name as "Frost in May was so much my own life" and she wanted the novels to stand on their own.
I've misplaced my copy of Frost in May that I marked up with notes and am now writing this from the distance of nearly three months (when I initially finished it) and a further book by White read, so this post may be a bit sketchy, but I don't want to let too much more time pass before giving it a mention here. In her introduction Elizabeth Bowen writes that the subject of the novel is in its title--Frost in May. "Nanda shows, at the start, the prim hardy pink-in-white of a young bud. What is to happen to her--and how, or why?" Well, I know what happens to Nanda, what she does to shock and surprise and to cut herself off, to break the rules. A frost in May will certainly destroy the fragile bud. But maybe the repercussions won't be seen until much later.
Frost in May is a coming of age story covering four or so years in the life of young Nanda Grey, a Roman Catholic convert. It's her father who is the true convert and he wants for Nanda what he has not been able, and as an adult convert never will be able, to have. A true sense of community? A sense of belonging to something greater than he has belonged to before? A convert will, no matter how dedicated in their beliefs, always be to some extent on the outside looking in. They seem to always try a little harder and are more cognizant of the responsibilities and expectations of their new religion. Life in the convent is somewhat hierarchical. Money matters and the nuns can be awful snobs. If you are wealthy and have a title and are born and bred Catholic you are one of the lucky ones, none of which is Nanda.
Life in the convent is an entirely different world than the one she had inhabited before. It's closed off and apart from the everyday workaday world. The girls are expected to follow a very rigid set of strict rules. They are not meant to have any particular friend. It's not just frowned upon, it's simply not allowed. Never pairs of girls and never three together of the same age. Their days are punctuated by endless prayers, formalities and traditions. Mostly they are taught to remain orderly and not think too independently. Whatever her imperfections, and Nanda isn't exactly a model student, her often rebellious behavior is only ever directed at the Lippington methods and never the church. As a matter of fact, despite the animosity she may feel, her faith always remains strong.
"She felt so immeasurably older; so much unstitched and resewn and made over to a different pattern."
At the same time as she breaks the rules, her faith becomes more robust than ever. In a sense she comes into her own there. But she commits a transgression so (perceived anyway) shocking that she, in a sense, falls from grace.
Frost in May is very much a school story, but it's not really a children's story. I've been contemplating why Virago chose to publish it first. Certainly the fact that it was initially published in 1933 yet remained a classic would be in its favor. According to Elizabeth Bowen it's the sort of story that only gains more depth over time. Antonia White only wrote the four novels of Nanda/Clara and a book of short stories. She struggled with writer's block for many years. She's another interesting woman who I'd like to read more about (I have a book of her diaries and letters). More on The Lost Traveller to follow soon, and I plan on reading the remaining two novels this year as well--The Sugar House and Beyond the Glass.