A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The advance publicity for this review of Antonia White’s 1933 novel Frost In May warns that I am enraged. I’d be amazed if anyone reading this novel is not similarly affected. Was this deliberate, the intent of the author? Frost in May is a fictionalised retelling of White’s experiences in an English Roman Catholic boarding school before the First World War, culminating in the shattering consequences of having written her first novel at the age of 15. In the novel, Nanda, the narrative voice, is writing her novel as she approaches her thirteenth birthday, but the sophistication of her and her friends’ behaviour blurs the ages: they could easily be seventeen and on the point of leaving school. Nonetheless, they are children at school under the direction of nuns, the most important of whom are sadistic, merciless bullies, ostensibly intent on forming the girls into good Catholics, but in practice more interested breaking them emotionally and psychologically as a demonstration of power.
This is not, particularly, an anti-Catholic novel. Nor is it a school story, as Elizabeth Bowen’s introduction in the Virago Modern Classics edition claims. It’s a novel about power over innocents, within a Catholic context, but the plot could as easily be applied to Maoism, or any totalitarian regime where the hierarchy of veneration becomes the means of abuse. ‘Abuse’ is an over-used word now, used to make a link with the law. In Frost in May the nuns are (mostly) passionately abusive, expressing always their love and care and exalted hope for the girls under their control, as they punish, humiliate, bully, terrify and dominate them.
Mother Radcliffe, Mistress of Discipline, thinks that Nanda is obstinate (thus warranting special attention) because although Nanda is almost a perfect textbook Catholic, she is a convert, and (probably) not even a convert of her own volition. Nanda’s father has converted and Nanda, through her love for him, has followed suit. He is the most important person in Nanda’s life (her uncomprehending mother is a slight embarrassment), which gives Mother Radcliffe the tool she needs to break Nanda away from love for her father, and to give her love truly to Christ, properly, emotionally, with heart and intellect. There is no-one else to love Nanda, once Mother Radcliffe has done her work.
Frost in May is about petty cruelty, and the deliberate crushing of children’s happiness through the institutionalised power of symbols and community pressure. The inexplicable ethnography of the symbols, rituals, images and even the rooms in the school make this an alien society for those not born Catholic. The desirability of winning coloured ribbons – a familiar enough merit system to reward good behaviour – is compounded with the quantitative intensity of gabbled novenas, the tyranny of the nuns’ routine surveillance and the horror of bedtime stories about martyrdoms, to make Nanda’s life at school a bewildering coded maze based on fear. There are routine, deliberate suppressions, of the girls’ love for their friends, and of their natural talents, always with the intent of diverting unsanctioned passions for the tangible and the earthly, back to their proper spiritual destinations. The monstrousness of the nuns and the stupidity of their rules based on the exercise of power, directs the reader’s rage against institutionalised cruelty, rather than against the (pre-Vatican II) Church.
Nanda does feel passionately Catholic, and does experience some spiritual comfort, even exaltation, once in retreat, and sometimes when reading St Augustine. (Again, for a twelve-year old, this seems unexpected.) But it’s a tough job feeling anything but horrified amazement that such a school as this could have existed, and to have had enthusiastic Old Girls to attend every feast day and celebration. We long to know how Nanda’s life changed after she emerged from Mother Radcliffe’s attentions, whether she found her friends again, whether she could be happy, and whether she remained devout, or even convinced of her faith. And in that, White’s artistry has worked well.
Antonia White, Frost in May (1933, the first of the Virago Classics).
Kate writes reviews at katemacdonald.net as well.