I first read this book many years ago and it was interesting to re-read it. This is based on Antonia White's own experiences of life in a convent school. When we first meet Nanda (Fernanda)Grey, she is nine years old and on her way to the Convent of the Five Wounds at Lippington. Her beloved father is a convert of only a year and so Nanda is greeted at the school with a kind of amused wariness and acceptance that she isn't quite one of them and excuses must be made for her mistakes. The novel looks at Nanda's experiences and al the strange rituals and requirements of Convent life, along with that of an education always dominated by religion.
Nanda is always trying her best to conform, while naturally testing her boundaries as any child does and slightly resentful of the denial of 'special friends' and rules about everything from reading matter to how the girls are to bathe. Despite the fact that friendships are frownded upon and fought against, of course Nanda makes them. It is the beautiful Leonie De Wesseldorf, half French and half German, from an old Catholic family of wealth and privilege, who, without meaning to, brings about her downfall.
In essence, this is a school story - about a young girls growing up in a closed community. However, the ambiguous feelings of religion hang over everything Nanda does. She both embraces her religion fervently and yet fights against it, even without meaning to. As all children do, she understands far more than the adults think she does. "If they were vague about heaven, they were very definite indeed about hell. Nanda felt a great deal more positive about the conditions of life in hell than in, say, the West of Scotland or Minneapolis," states the author with, one feels, only too much truth. It is because Nanda tries so desperately to please both at school, and at home, that you feel for her so strongly at the end of the book. A very moving and wonderful read.