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Once a Catholic . . .

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There it is on my shelf, that familiar bottle-green spine – the first in a quartet by the same author. This quartet has shadowed me for twenty-two years now: to various sets of university lodgings and back; to three dark rooms above a car dealership in Dalston, my first ever London flat; to two house-shares and then a bedsit in Clapham Junction; and now to Streatham, my home for the last dozen years. In all that time, though, I haven’t opened any of them; in fact, all four spines remain uncracked.

As I reluctantly pick up the first – No. 1 in the Virago Modern Classics series – I realize that I’ve been avoiding rereading Antonia White’s first novel, Frost in May (1933), for over half my life. Yet the teenage me would have told you it was one of my favourite books; why, then, has it become such a forbidding presence on my shelves? Inside, my mother’s familiar handwriting (‘From a proud Mum and Dad’) brings a whisper of grief in its wake, but the truth is, that’s not it. There are books that change you in unforgettable ways, that teach you things or make the world larger: books that help you grow. But there are books that hurt you, too, or haunt you. Such a book, for me, is Frost in May.

Antonia White was born Eirene Botting in London in 1899. Her father, a teacher, converted to Catholicism in 1906, and she and her mother were received into the Church at the same time. At 9 she was sent to the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Surrey, where many of the other girls hailed from the old, aristocratic Catholic families of Europe. She was expelled on her fifteenth birthday, and it is those years, lightly fictionalized, that Frost in May describes.

My Virago edition, given to me by my parents in my second year at Oxford, includes a 1948 introduction by Elizabeth Bowen. It begins, ‘Frost in May is a girls’ school story. It is not the only school story to be a classic; but I can think of no other that is a work of art.’ It was, I suppose, Frost in May’s status as a ‘school story’ that led me to read it so early, for I can only have been 11 or 12 when I discovered a dog-eared copy on my parents’ shelves, though I was too naïve then to be able to digest it properly.

Nanda Grey is 9 when she arrives, with her father, at the Convent of the Five Wounds, Lippington. She is met by the impenetrable and efficient Mother Radcliffe who sweeps towards her down a chilly corridor and a

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There it is on my shelf, that familiar bottle-green spine – the first in a quartet by the same author. This quartet has shadowed me for twenty-two years now: to various sets of university lodgings and back; to three dark rooms above a car dealership in Dalston, my first ever London flat; to two house-shares and then a bedsit in Clapham Junction; and now to Streatham, my home for the last dozen years. In all that time, though, I haven’t opened any of them; in fact, all four spines remain uncracked.

As I reluctantly pick up the first – No. 1 in the Virago Modern Classics series – I realize that I’ve been avoiding rereading Antonia White’s first novel, Frost in May (1933), for over half my life. Yet the teenage me would have told you it was one of my favourite books; why, then, has it become such a forbidding presence on my shelves? Inside, my mother’s familiar handwriting (‘From a proud Mum and Dad’) brings a whisper of grief in its wake, but the truth is, that’s not it. There are books that change you in unforgettable ways, that teach you things or make the world larger: books that help you grow. But there are books that hurt you, too, or haunt you. Such a book, for me, is Frost in May. Antonia White was born Eirene Botting in London in 1899. Her father, a teacher, converted to Catholicism in 1906, and she and her mother were received into the Church at the same time. At 9 she was sent to the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Surrey, where many of the other girls hailed from the old, aristocratic Catholic families of Europe. She was expelled on her fifteenth birthday, and it is those years, lightly fictionalized, that Frost in May describes. My Virago edition, given to me by my parents in my second year at Oxford, includes a 1948 introduction by Elizabeth Bowen. It begins, ‘Frost in May is a girls’ school story. It is not the only school story to be a classic; but I can think of no other that is a work of art.’ It was, I suppose, Frost in May’s status as a ‘school story’ that led me to read it so early, for I can only have been 11 or 12 when I discovered a dog-eared copy on my parents’ shelves, though I was too naïve then to be able to digest it properly. Nanda Grey is 9 when she arrives, with her father, at the Convent of the Five Wounds, Lippington. She is met by the impenetrable and efficient Mother Radcliffe who sweeps towards her down a chilly corridor and asks whether she will say goodbye to her father straight away, or sit with him for a little in the parlour. ‘What do you think, Nanda? It’s late and Mother will be waiting. But I’ll stay if you like,’ Mr Grey says.

‘It’s all right, Daddy,’ said Nanda mechanically. She suddenly felt lonely and frightened. A great longing came over her for small shabby rooms and coal fires and the comfortable smells of tobacco and buttered toast. But she was one of those children who cannot help behaving well.

This is such a delicately written scene. Her father makes his wish to leave clear but veils it with a cursory offer to stay; she responds to the hidden message just as her parents have trained her, immediately subsuming her own wishes and fears. This is ‘behaving well’. Within moments of her father leaving, Nanda is humiliated for the first time when she makes the sign of the cross with her left hand instead of her right. It is not the ignorance of a recent convert that leads her into error, but politeness: for Mother Radcliffe is holding her right hand. There is great skill in the way White allows the reader to observe these injustices without overtly drawing our attention to them: four pages in and we are already experiencing the world through Nanda’s 9-year-old eyes, for whom Father is irreproachable and Mother Radcliffe tactful and kind. The convent at Lippington is drawn with beguiling exactness – the smell of beeswax in the corridors, the ‘exemptions’ and coloured ribbons that form its mysterious system of rewards, the other girls with their ponies and holy pictures, ‘the stewed meat and rice, cabbage drowned in vinegar, and sweet tea . . . poured from enormous metal urns’. It is an airless world in which the girls’ friendships are constantly spied upon, their most harmless transgressions punished in ways that seem unarguable because they are given the backing of a monolithic religion. Rereading Frost in May as an adult, the nuns’ cruelty and snobbery seem starkly clear; but the book’s power comes from the way in which it depicts austere Lippington – and the particular strain of Catholicism practised there – as both glamorous and, in an obscure way, safe: ‘You Catholics are wonderfully definite about everything, aren’t you? It must be a great comfort to know just where one is,’ says a Protestant girl, Clare, to Nanda at one point. To me at 11, both the moral certainty and the new language of retreats and indulgences, saints and vocations, held an extremely powerful allure. When Nanda has been at Lippington for five days her parents visit.

She was on the point of skating recklessly over the waxed floor to fling herself upon them, when someone laid a restraining arm on her sleeve. It was the nun in charge of the parlour. At Lippington one did not meet even one’s nearest relatives without surveillance.

Nanda curtseys to her parents instead, something for which her father praises her: ‘I felt quite like a French aristocrat coming to see his beautiful young daughter,’ he says, revealingly. The school is full of aristocrats, but the Greys are certainly not among them.

‘I never saw a place with so many rules and regulations,’ wailed Mrs Grey. ‘I’m sure we waited at least half an hour for you, darling child, didn’t we, John?’ ‘Several minutes, certainly,’ said Mr Grey, ‘but I expect Nanda was a long way away.’ ‘Yes,’ said Nanda spotlessly, ‘and I had to do my hair and put on my gloves.’ She felt remote and self-possessed.

How chilling is that ‘spotlessly’, for Nanda is indeed a very long way away. Already the world of the convent is closing over her head. Her parents leave her with a book, Dream Days by Kenneth Grahame, to give as a birthday present to Marjorie Appleyard, a girl the family knows slightly but whom Nanda does not even like. It is discovered by Mother Frances, and confiscated – and Nanda loses her ‘exemption’ as punishment: ‘We do not encourage particular friendships among little girls,’ she is told. And there’s a further slight: ‘The tone of this book is not at all the kind of thing we like at Lippington. Apart from its being by a non-Catholic writer, it is morbid, rather unwholesome, and just a little vulgar,’ the nun says. Yet just a few years later, when she is in the senior school, Mother Radcliffe instructs Nanda to cultivate the society of girls ‘of her station in life’ such as Marjorie, rather than her close friends Rosario de Palencia and Léonie Magdalena Hedwig de Wesseldorf: ‘Conversion is a great grace, but the Catholic outlook, Catholic breeding, shall we say, does not come in one generation, or even two, or three.’ It is clear that despite all her efforts Nanda will never be accepted, never fully fit in. What could save Nanda from the systematic damage that is being inflicted on her is a strong sense of selfhood and a knowledge that she is essentially good – what Mother Radcliffe terms ‘a hard little core of self-will and self-love’. But it is exactly this that the nuns want to extinguish, and they are explicit about it, too. ‘Do you know that no character is any good in this world unless that will has been broken completely? Broken and re-set in God’s own way,’ Mother Frances tells her after a minor infraction. ‘I don’t think your will has quite been broken, my dear child, do you?’ And so they set about it. To reveal their final method would be to spoil the book’s ending; suffice to say that the deliberate injustice of the circumstances surrounding Nanda’s removal from the school – circumstances which mirrored White’s own – horrified me at 11, and still horrifies me now. To be moved by Frost in May is natural; but why the powerful mixture of adoration and aversion that has marked my thirty-year relationship with the book? Nanda is a clever, imaginative child from a comparatively hard-up family – as I was. She is close to her father, who is proud of her intelligence, but she finds her mother irritating and over-emotional, and clear fault-lines at home have caused her to develop coping mechanisms that will not serve her well. She finds it hard to fit in at school, as I did, and is openly disliked by some teachers for her precociousness. She is an only child, whereas I was the youngest of six; but with a large gap between me and my older siblings I did much of my growing-up alone. Yet it is only when returning to Frost in May now, with great trepidation, that I can see the parallels between us; for me as a little girl, the 1930s setting, Nanda’s only-child status and the exoticism of the convent school meant that – consciously at least – I failed to see myself in her. All I knew then was that I was entranced by it all, to the extent that for a decade or so the thought nagged at me that perhaps – although barely even a churchgoer – I should convert. This is strange, to say the least, given that Catholic doctrine is one of the weapons the nuns deploy so terrifyingly in the book. With the passage of time I’ve come to understand that lonely, bullied children often blame themselves for their rejection, because it preserves the belief that if they change enough, they’ll one day fit in. My childish desire to become a Catholic was not religious conviction, but a reaction to the terrifying spectre of exclusion White conjured, which had found such an echo in me. Had I first read Frost in May in my twenties I would have seen Lippington for the abusive establishment that it was, and understood that what happened to Nanda wasn’t her fault; at 11 I believed at some confused level that I might succeed where she had failed. It would take fifteen years and a complete mental breakdown, followed by years of therapy, before White was able to complete her second book, The Lost Traveller (1950), and to follow that with The Sugar House (1952) and Beyond the Glass (1954). Although the main character’s name in those three books is Clara Batchelor, they are again semi-autobiographical, and together with Frost in May they describe the difficult course of White’s own early life. White became a copywriter and an award-winning translator of, among other books, Colette’s Claudine novels and Guy de Maupassant’s Une Vie. She married three times and had two daughters, both of whom have written memoirs describing their treatment at her hands (‘Man hands on misery to man,’ as Larkin said). Unsurprisingly her early experiences cost her her faith, although she recovered it in 1940; but the damage the Convent of the Sacred Heart did to her was deeper than that, and proved irreparable. As she explained in The Book of Catholic Authors in 1942, ‘“creative joy” is something I haven’t felt since I was fourteen and don’t expect to feel again’.

 Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 54 © Melissa Harrison 2017


About the contributor

Melissa Harrison’s most recent novel, At Hawthorn Time, was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award. An atheist, she has no plans to write a memoir of her days at a comprehensive school.

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