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.