Convent days

Frost in May by Antonia White (1899-1980) was first published in 1933.It was republished in 1978 by Virago Press as the first of its Modern Classics.

We meet the narrator and heroine Nanda (Fernanda) Grey when she is enrolled, aged seven, at the Convent of Five Wounds.Nanda remains at the Roman Catholic Boarding School until she is suddenly asked to leave by the nuns. A misunderstanding has arisen about a book she is writing and the nuns regard her as a wicked influence.

We experience Nanda’s world through her eyes and although written for adults the language used can seem childlike. Antonia White is good at portraying school life with its routines, rituals, the teachers, the hierarchies, the joy of being praised and the sorrow at not living up to expectations. The treatment from the nuns can seem cruel, but it is just reported, not commented on. Frost in May

 

Nanda does not find it completely possible to fit in with her fellow pupils. Her family are middle-class converts to Catholicism. Many of her classmates are from well-established Roman Catholic families which are often wealthy and sometimes aristocratic.

There is a strong autobiographic element to the book. Antonia White was baptised into the Church of England but became a Roman Catholic when her father converted when she was aged nine. She was a boarder at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton, South West London. Antonia wrote a book to give to her father on his birthday. In this schoolgirl story her characters were wicked people but at the end she was going to have them repent and convert to the Catholic Church. Unfortunately the nuns discovered her early chapters and were shocked by her perceived wickedness. She was unable to explain the proposed ending before she was expelled. This sudden wrench from her stable, mostly happy life due to her writing had a serious effect on her career as an author. The unhappy memories generated by the writing of ‘Frost in May’ meant she did not write another novel for 20 years.

 

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