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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