Antonia White’s autobiographical novel, Frost in May, is a compelling, nostalgic and at times troubling account of convent school life.
Nanda Gray, the daughter of a Catholic convert, is nine when she is sent to the Convent of Five Wounds. Quick-witted, resilient and eager to please, she accepts this closed world where, with all the enthusiasm of the outsider, her desires and passions become only those the school permits. Her only deviation from total obedience is the passionate friendships she makes. Closeted convent life is perfectly captured – the smell of beeswax and incense; the petty cruelties of the nuns; the eccentricities of Nanda’s school friends.
Reviewed by Melissa Harrison in Slightly Foxed Issue 54.
Once a Catholic . . .
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. . .
‘Frost in May is the unsurpassed novel of convent school life’ Hermione Lee, Observer
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