Broken in by nuns: Antonia White, Frost in May

Antonia White, Frost In May. Virago Modern Classics no. 1, 1978 (my edition was from 1993). First published 1933.

Antonia White (1899-1980) began writing this autobiographical novel when she was just sixteen, but it wasn’t finished or published until almost two decades later. Frost In May famously kicked off the groundbreaking Virago imprint of modern classics, bringing back into the mainstream literature by women that had largely become neglected or overlooked.

Antonia White Frost In May cover The protagonist of Frost in May is Nanda (Fernanda) Grey, nine years old when she’s sent to the ‘rare, intense element’ of the convent school of the Five Wounds, at Lippington, near London. There she spends four of the most formative years of her life. Her experience is bitter-sweet.

She doesn’t entirely fit in – as is often the case with school novels. For a start, she wasn’t born a Catholic; she was only admitted a year earlier, when her father converted from being an agnostic/Protestant. He’s a teacher, so she’s one of the few middle-class girls at the school – most come from ancient, prestigious Catholic European families, and the friends she becomes closest to are a few years older than her.

There’s raffish Léonie, of French-German lineage, beautiful Rosario from Spain. Their relatives are found ‘in every embassy in Europe’, and during school holidays the girls attend ‘diplomatic dinners in Vienna and St Petersburg’.

Once or twice a term, they would go out together to a well-chaperoned tea at the Ritz, or a polo match at Ranelagh.

Clare is English, and also of Protestant stock, but she is less of an outsider than Nanda, because like most of the other pupils she comes from an upper-class family. These girls holiday in Paris, Biarritz and other swanky European locations, have governesses and dance with royalty. They and their older sisters are expected to make dazzling, dynastic marriage matches.

There’s a disturbing hint of the carnage of war to come – but this would have been WWI; in 1933 when the novel was published the same could have been said for what was building in Nazi Germany: the origins of WWII. Léonie points out that when she was in Berlin and Vienna during the school holidays (this would have been probably around 1911-12) there’d been ‘a lot of talk about [war]’. With her usual sharpness of tongue she suggests that the Prussian young man with whom Clare had said she’d had a flirtation that summer in a Leipzig art school ‘will get conscripted and one of your hearty brothers will probably put a bullet through his cropped head.’

It’s partly this dark humour and strange, intoxicating mix of intense, erotic attraction and fierce rivalries and jealousies between these lively, spirited, emotionally vulnerable schoolgirls that makes Frost In May such an engaging novel. It’s also the weirdly contradictory attitudes of these older girls to Catholic doctrine and the rigid discipline the nuns instil in them; while they all rail against both from time to time, they ultimately  accept placidly that they will become good, conformist Catholic mothers and homemakers.

The nuns are aware of these (as they see them) dangerous, intimate liaisons. When Nanda writes a letter home, gushing about the beauty and glamour of these older girls, it is as usual intercepted for censorship by the ever-watchful nuns. Mother Radcliffe, the scarily severe Mother of Discipline, upbraids the culprit:

The school rule does not approve of particular friendships. They are against charity, to begin with, and they lead moreover to dangerous and unhealthy indulgence of feeling. I do not think your father and mother will share your rather morbid interest in Clare Rockingham’s appearance.

She goes on to accuse Nanda of being wilful. When Nanda agrees, the nun lays out the school’s purpose uncompromisingly –

…no character is any good in this world unless that will has been broken completely. Broken and re-set in God’s own way. I don’t think your will has been quite broken, my dear child, do you?

Elsewhere Radcliffe tells the whole school that the school’s severity ‘which to the world seems harshness is bound up in the school rule…We work today to turn out, not accomplished young women, nor agreeable wives, but soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude.’

Near the end, when Nanda’s career at the school is threatened because her unfinished, derivative bodice-ripper novel MS has been found during one of the nun’s usual searches of the girls’ desks, Radcliffe is merciless as she orders its destruction:

“God asks very hard things from us,” she said, “the sacrifice of what we love best and the sacrifice of our own wills. That is what it means to be a Christian…I had to break your will before your whole nature was deformed.”

It’s a ruthless system, designed to instil total obedience and submission, that reminds me of the depiction of the despotic drill sergeant’s breaking in of the young male marine recruits in the first half of Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket.

But this is more than just a story of a girl’s faltering attraction to and acceptance of this stern, austere Catholic dogma of self-denial, humility and self-mortification; it’s also a kunstlerroman: Nanda spends much of her time drafting that doomed novel and honing her writing and other aesthetic sensibilities – despite the school’s vigilant, often cruel efforts to crush them.

It’s not an entirely anti-school or -Catholic portrayal; when, at thirteen, Nanda’s father suggests taking her out of Lippington, she feels ‘overwhelmed’ by the revelation of her ‘dependance’ on the school and its ethos, and horrified at the prospect of moving to a more educationally sound, non-Catholic high school to prepare her for life at a Cambridge college and a career (for she will have to make a living when she grows up). She prefers the ‘cold, clear atmosphere’ and ‘sharper outline’ of things at Lippington to the ‘comfortable, shapeless, scrambling life outside’.

She rebels intermittently against the frigid, anti-romantic, authoritarian regime of the school, especially when her artistic impulses are crushed, but she always retains a romantic desire to belong in this harsh but alluring world. The discipline of Lippington does at times show a fanatical opposition to what its doctrine proscribes.

The bad news for Nanda is that this includes the spark of spirit with which she was born, an acute sense of individualism and aesthetic sensitivity. These are seen as incipient sins of pride by the nuns.

White’s prose has the lucidity and unadorned directness of her heroine’s character.

I’ve started reading the sequel.




26 thoughts on “Broken in by nuns: Antonia White, Frost in May

  1. I’m not sure, I know I’ve read the sequel, but from your description, I think I might also have read Frost in May a very long time ago.
    Don’t you hate when you can’t quite remember what you’ve read!

  2. Great review Simon – I haven’t read this for decades (I got my copy back at the start of the VMC releases) and I can’t recall if I read the sequels or not though I do own them. I do remember the harshness Nanda faced and the crushing atmosphere of the Catholic nuns, but not any detail. One I’d like to re-read eventually!

    • Although I can see it would resonate with young women readers, the novel’s power transcends gender. Such a sympathetic account of a young person’s attraction to an autocratic regime that she knows is oppressive and stifles all her emotional and aesthetic impulses.

  3. I enjoyed the review but this is one of those cases where I find the topic so repellent (regardless of literary quality) that I am going to have to say “no thanks.” We are right now dealing with a bunch of radicalized Bishops who are trying penalize a sitting, U.S. President for his political (not personal) position on abortion and I am fed up to my teeth with Roman Catholicism at the moment. I don’t think these American Bishops care much for Pope Francis either!

    I left at 19. Amusing sidenote. As part of my rather bumpy exit from the Boston Archdiocese, I was KICKED OUT of a preliminary interview for the Boston “Rose of Tralee” contest in 1977. My offense was stating my unvarnished opinion on the aggressive litigation stance they were taking related to claims of rampant abuse of children (in Boston) in the 60’s and early 70’s. I was apparently “not what they were looking for!” Fair play! Sad that it caused a huge rift from my mother for quite a while, particularly when I went to see the Scorsese film “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1988, after the Monsignor “forbade” good Catholics from watching it. Of course, he had never seen it himself.

    Well written and thoughtful as always, Simon!

    • Maureen: I don’t find the nuns’ regime very appealing either,. What’s interesting about AW’s account is the way she shows how an impressionable, sensitive young girl can be attracted by the mysticism and ritual – liturgy, saints’ lives, etc – while being repelled by the nuns’ cruelty and narrowness of mind.

      • Simon,

        I definitely did not think that you found the regime appealing. This was more a matter of a reaction to the topic itself and was an issue of personal taste, likely due to my mood and things going on here at the moment.

        I find the topic of “taste” of interest which is why I shared my reaction and the context. I liked your review!

        P.S. For very different reasons, while I admire Muriel Spark’s talent, I can only take her writing in small doses. I sense a cruelty there that I find off-putting. Each to his or her own!

        • Thanks for the followup, Maureen. I know from the experience of a close family member how unpleasant the regime of an institution run by nuns can be, so I wasn’t intending to whitewash the picture AWhite presents; it’s clear that Nanda’s is predisposed to overlook the vindictiveness and pettiness she experiences at the hands of the nuns, and some of the other girls. It’s good to know you enjoyed the post, despite the subject.

  4. Postscript:

    I leave open some day being more “open” to the novel and its sympathetic portrayal of the protagonist. Will chalk it up to bad timing!

      • Update, hope this is not an inundation.

        Goodness, I had no idea that this poor child was only 9 or 10 to age 14! It is mortifying to report that at that age, I left our chaotic home each morning and toddled off to 6:00 a.m. Mass, confessed every Saturday (for what I have NO idea) and had a little shrine to Mother Theresa in my room. I had some idea of joining her Sisters some day in Calcutta as a Sister of Charity/Surgeon and would autopsy earthworms! By 14, I was Catholic-skeptical. by 16, put off, and by 19, out the door! I had forgotten all this, might have explained the reaction ! Isn’t it funny how visceral reactions can stem from long-ago things. Cheers to all.

        • Clara’s mother Isabel in the sequel, The Lost Traveller, agrees to convert to Catholicism with her overbearing husband on the grounds that it has the most aesthetic appeal! All that lace, incense and ritual…

          • Reminds me of these lines from Philip Larkin!

            This is a special way of being afraid
            No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
            That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
            Created to pretend we never die
            Aubade (sp?)

  5. I’ve long resisted this novel (and the others in the sequence) due to the focus on nuns and convent schools – not my favourite settings for fiction, especially where children are involved. Nevertheless, you make this sound like an excellent read…food for thought, for sure.

    • I wouldn’t normally be attracted to a boarding school novel either, particularly a convent school. As I said in my reply to Maureen, I know from the cruelty a close family member experienced at the hands of the nuns that their regime can be very unpleasant – not always, perhaps. I agree that it’s possible to find stimulation in a novel of this kind despite the disagreeable subject – like novels and dramas about the Magdalene laundries, for example. It’s interesting, too, that White doesn’t try to condemn the regime outright, neither does she defend it; she simply presents Nanda’s rather callow, vulnerable viewpoint, with all its blind spots and weaknesses. She longs to belong, and hopes to find that comfort in her faith and those who propagate it – even when they clearly have deep flaws and their methods are dubious.

  6. Hi Simon! I’ve been taking a little break so I’m slow to catch up on my blog readings. I very much enjoyed your review, as I’ve been intending to read Antonia White for years and years (almost got around to her last year). What I find particularly interesting in the story (as much as I know it, that is) is how an individual is drawn to an authoritarin structure, particularly when exposed to it at a young age and, frequently, when the attraction is also combined with repulsion or misgiving. You allude to this in your very intereting comparison to Full Metal Jacket (I’m a survivor of a military bookcamp myself, although far, far milder than Full Metal Jacket). Aside from this, I do tend to like these “sensitive young souls coming of age things” so in all respects I should move this up in my TBR line!

  7. I resisted this novel, too, but read it recently as I was curious about Virago #1. I was very put off by the cruelty of the nuns but felt the writing and the depictions of the girls made the reading worthwhile. I haven’t read the sequel.

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