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.
on 9 May 2002
Having been educated at the school on which Lippington is based (Antonia White went to Convent of the Sacred Heart, Roehampton which is now based at Woldingham in Surrey) I think that "Frost in May" in a brilliant evocation of convent school life as it was at the turn of the century. Many of the features of the school that White mentions (eg the "exemption" cards are still on display today (although they are obviously no longer used!) and the painting of Mary dressed in pink still hangs in the main library. However, the school has moved with the times and for this reason it was fascinating to read about what it was like ninety years ago. White's characterisation of the nuns is excellent and she prefectly captures the air of mystery that still, to an extent, surrounds them. She also conveys some of the rituals that are unique to a convent school.
The tragic ending to the novel is deeply disturbing in that it is inevitable almost from the moment that Nanda arrives in the school. I really enjoyed "Frost in May" but I think this may have been partially due to the fact that it satisifed my curiosity about what my school used to be like. I think that it could come across as slighly dull to many readers as a result of the long descriptive passages about convent school rituals. It is a very well-written account of a human tragedy but I do think that it could be considered extremely inaccessible to anyone who does not have some background knowledge of catholicism.
on 2 November 2013
The Jesuit assertion is just as true for this 9 year old girl given her natural wish to please and childish enthusiasm for her new faith. The techniques used are constant observation, and a structure imposed by the staff but enforced by her contemporaries through a girl's wish to belong. I have never read anything so detailed and disturbing. I feel as if I know her and have decided to read all four of the books relating to her.
What it has given me, apart from a social history of the education of middle and upper classes before the great war, is an insight into how it is possible to disconnect a human being from her true enquiring and emotional self, her 'free child' you might say, using religion as a means of social control. This is particularly fascinating to me at a time when I'm looking for a bit of God in my life as a tough old bird well into my dotage. It's a timely reminder to keep on thinking for myself, especially when I'm told I will offend people unless I change who I am or what I know to be true. It's amazing to me, but adults are still vulnerable to manipulations of their wish to belong.
I'm currently halfway through 'Lost Traveller,' the 2nd book of the tetralogy, (quadrilogy?) in the Fontana paperback edition. You can get the two first books in 'Frost in May 1' Frost in May Book Oneand the last two in 'Frost in May 2' which saves a bit of money. Mind you the printing is dreadful and doesn't do justice to the high education and subtle touch of the author.
on 28 July 2009
Like Elizabeth Taylor (the author, not the actress), Antonia White is an early 20th century writer whose books should have become modern classics, but instead remain largely forgotten.
The most likely reason for this is that these novelists are women, who write largely about women and, possibly (although never exclusively), for women. It is certainly not because of the quality of their novels.
Frost in May is a remarkably evocative and painful novel which, despite its gentle pace, is always absorbing and impossible to forget. Its subject matter, that of a convent school just before the first world war, might at once seem irrelevant and childish. This is the mistake, it seems, generations have made.
In fact, one does not need to be a convent educated catholic to recognise the characters and issues which White raises in this novel. Educated 80 years later in exclusively state, secular schools, I would seem to have little in common with the heroine but White writes not about just an institution but about humanity, not just about nuns but about women, not just about catholicism but about faith.
It is not only relevant, however, but it is also a very adult novel. The inexperience of the childish Nanda is constantly clear when compared to the relative maturity of the writer. Nanda does not get her relationships right; she does not understand her father in the way the writer and therefore the reader does. White's deep understanding of human morality and motivation is quite startling. Never have I identified myself so closely with a protagonist as I have with the heroine of the Frost in May quartet.
Virago recognised the power of these novels and their importance, showing a faith in its content which is certainly not misplaced but which has rarely been mirrored in the pubic.
My only complaint would be that, in these latest editions, Virago has to some extent lost its individuality. The beauty of my Mother's copies from the late 70s/early 80s is in no way mirrored in these editions. This is a shame as books like Frost in May show that Virago has a legacy to be proud of.
Antonia White's first novel (and arguably her masterpiece) is a heartbreaking account of a young girl struggling to achieve emotional and intellectual independence during a repressive Catholic education. When Nanda Grey's father converts to Catholicism, he insists his daughter be sent to the Five Wounds Convent to receive a proper Catholic education. Nanda, a fervent convert, enjoys the intense focus on religion at her boarding school. However, as a middle-class girl among predominantly wealthy pupils, and an intellectual at a school that values social class over brains, she suffers regular ill-treatment from the more snobbish nuns. As she grows older, she also becomes aware of the more terrifying aspects of non-liberal Catholicism such as the horrors of Hell and the focus on sin; and she realizes too that though Catholicism is a religion of charity, the nuns are often shockingly uncharitable. More conflicts ensue as Nanda begins to make friends among some of the brighter and more glamorous girls (frowned on by the nuns, who believe she's getting above herself, and who disapprove of relationships between girls of different ages) and as she longs to develop a vocation as a writer, and begins her first novel - which will have disastrous consequences for her.
This was one of the first adult books I ever read, at the age of 12, and it comes up fresh every time. White's observations of Catholic school life - the religious rituals, the stories told by the nuns, the European (rather than British) atmosphere which Nanda soaks up - are masterly, and her picture of the nuns' strange mixture of religious fervour and social snobbery is convincing. She's also brilliant on characters: particularly memorable are Monica, a fellow middle-class girl who is the target of the nuns' cruel jokes for her poverty and very sporadic intelligence; Clare the aristocratic Protestant who longs to be a Catholic; Rosario the beautiful and passionate Spaniard with whom Clare may or may not be in love; and best of all part-German Leonie, the independent-minded, talented intellectual whose wit, skill in the arts and strong character Nanda deeply envies. And White's portrayal of Nanda's ultimate nemesis, Mother Radcliffe, who both cares for Nanda and persecutes her, is chillingly memorable, particularly in the page-turning final sequence. I suppose if I have a criticism it is that Nanda's life outside the school is very thinly drawn - her father remains a shadowy character, and her mother (until the final chapter) is virtually a caricature, and we have very little idea of what Nanda's life outside the convent was like before conversion, or is like during her holidays, other than a couple of scenes with her father in her last year at school. This may slightly dampen the power of the finale (White fleshed out her heroine's family life much more in the novel's 'sequel', 'The Lost Traveller', in some ways an even better book.). Nevertheless, this is a superbly written, very moving novel - and White admirably avoids being anti-religious, making it clear that it's the nuns' use of Catholicism that is at fault, rather than Christianity itself. A must for anyone interested in Catholicism, school novels or female friendship. It's a pity that the effort of writing it and its results caused White to write no more novels for more than ten years.
on 6 July 2006
The claims that this book is a modern classic are fully justifiable. The book is well written and lively. The convent school is convincingly described, and the change of atmosphere when the girls are talking in the break is also well rendered. The characterisation is good throughout. However, the ending is extremely sad in an unexpected way.
on 4 August 2010
Based on the author's own experiences in the early 20th-century (but written in the third person) this is the story of a nine-year-old girl who is sent to a convent boarding-school by her father, a convert to Catholicism. Nanda has mixed feelings about her strict school and the obsessive dedication and discipline required by the nuns, but she soon becomes enchanted by the rituals and ceremony, and also by some of the aristocratic, older girls, with whom she eventually becomes good friends.
After a while, however, she comes to realize the absurdity and hypocrisy of much of what she's been taught by the nuns, as in this passage from around the middle of the book: 'Nanda came out of retreat with a sense of relief ... she had often been rewarded by a real sense of pleasure in the spiritual company of our Lord ... but over and over again she encountered those arid patches where the whole of religious life seemed a monstrous and meaningless complication.' But when her father suggests taking her out of the school, mainly for financial reasons, she objects. Despite all its faults, she prefers the security and the close friendships she's made to any alternative.
Although the novel is very much of a time and place, the writing still feels fresh and relevant today, with its critical but not wholly unsympathetic look at religion. My biggest complaint is that what might have been a damning and convincing attack on some really quite draconian and hypocritical practices by the nuns, and the church in general, is watered down because the author can't quite make up her mind to disassociate herself from her adopted religion. It could have been a very powerful novel along the lines of Joyce's 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man', but Ms White lacks Joyce's punch. What we get instead is a realistic and well-written story with a rather inconclusive message.
Frost In May is a violent book - not in terms of any action, but in its emotional intensity. It is a school story, of all things, published in 1933, and it describes the life of young Nanda, a newly enrolled child in a Catholic boarding school run by nuns. The nuns are not physically violent, it is the damage they do to young, impressionable minds and emotions that resonate. The novel is full of Catholic dogma - the instruction of Jesuits and the daily profundities of the nuns. Nanda laps this up like a kitten with a saucer of milk, takes it to heart and prospers. But the nuns have their own systems. Nanda must be taught humility above all. Her mind is a naturally questioning thing, but that is not allowed.
I was alternately impressed and repelled. Impressed by how natural it seemed that a child's mind can be turned and cowed, even twisted on its axis, to satisfy the brutalities of religion. Yet how can a child rebel whole-heartedly when cant and ritual rules her daily life? I was reminded of scenes from a children's school in Pakistan that I saw on TV - the Koran being recited endlessly, endlessly, chanted with loud, unfeeling voices.
I was ultimately horribly repelled by the sheer ugliness of Catholicism. It's emphasis on death, on hell, on a fear of the devil that sees him in any small transgression (the children are not allowed to associate in twos, since the devil makes a third). Still, I am not altogether sure that this novel is anti-Catholic, for all the bold repulsiveness of the picture it draws. I wonder if, rather, Catholicism is so luridly insistent that it welcomes a challenge, to all the more tightly draw its adherents in. It is partly this element of the novel that repels me so strongly. Becoming a Catholic is like joining a secret, holy society. While my own nature repudiates this idea strongly, I can see how it might draw others towards it. For Catholicism is different, as is Islam, in the demands it makes on the true adherent. A blind, brutal faith in dogma is only the most obvious of these.
This is a brilliantly wrought novel - highly engaging, deeply thought-provoking. The characters of the girls are of their time. As the child of converts to Catholicism, Nanda has all the fervour of the innocent, and most of all she wants to please her father. This makes her eventual downfall all the more pitiful. Other girls can be more secure in their faith - even blaisè or mildly cynical, but Nanda cannot afford such luxuries. The nuns are ever-vigilant and a more unforgiving and un-Christian lot I've yet to read about. The writing is faultless but the subject may give the secular reader a few ugly moments.
on 17 April 2002
This touching story of a little Catholic girl who tries to please her father is very sad in places. It is enlightening about the ways of life in a Catholic School run by nuns and how the children had to strive for their best under the harsh discipline of the nuns. Don't miss out, give it a go!
on 3 May 2015
This book couldn't have been written if you hadn't been to said type of convent school. Very well written and good story. It's almost an historical novel as it describes convent life to a tee!