|Virago Modern Classic Number 1: This is
the 1991 edition, with an introduction by
Elizabeth Bowen. The cover shows a detail
from Girl and Flowers by Dod Procter.
Antonia White’s Frost in May, as I’m sure everyone knows, was the very first Virago Modern Classic, published in 1978 after being out of print for many years. I’m not sure why it has passed me by until now; for some reason I think I was under the impression I’d read it long ago. But I must have confused it with something else – I would definitely have remembered this, because it made me so angry.
Written in 1933, it’s a fictionalised account of White’s own childhood, telling the story of Nanda Grey’s time at a repressive Catholic school. Her fall from grace, and the way her spirit is finally broken make for painful reading. And these days the rules governing the girls’ daily lives would probably be regarded as an abuse of human rights. Is this an accurate portrayal of a convent school I wonder? Did nuns really treat their pupils like this? How could they be so cruel in the name of religion? What about compassion? And whatever happened to the idea of a loving, forgiving God?
It’s not that the nuns at the Convent of the Five Wounds are physically cruel to their young charges: they play psychological mind games which seems somehow worse. And there’s a kind of drip-feed brainwashing because everything in the school relates to God – even the rooms have religious names, and there are pictures and statues, and edifying (but often horribly gruesome) stories about saints and sinners.
The nuns, who see themselves as instruments of God, demand unquestioning obedience to themselves, to the school, and to God. And they have very odd ideas about education. Mother Radcliffe, the Mistress of Discipline, explains:
We work to-day to turn out, not accomplished young women, nor agreeable wives, but soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude.
Nanda (short for Fernanda) is nine when she arrives at the exclusive girls’ boarding school. She is ‘one of those children who cannot help behaving well’. She wants to please, to fit in, but she is too good, which makes the nuns suspicious. t’s surprising how quickly she adapts: when her parents visit at the end of the first week she already feels ‘unpicked and resewn and made over to a different pattern’.
And there’s a lot of making over to be done. There are all kinds of regulations. There are no
|Author Antonia White.
mirrors, the girls must never be naked, and they sleep flat on their backs, with hands crossed on their breast, so if the Lord calls them in the night they are ready! Close friendships are forbidden, so girls cannot go about in pairs. Letters to and from home are vetted, and the girls are watched all the time.
At night the girls opt to show their piety by placing stockings in the form of a cross on top of their neatly folded uniforms. And they indulge in small mortifications, like washing in cold water, and putting salt instead of sugar on their rhubarb, or stones in their shoes.
Lessons, like the girls, must bend to the will of God. Most story books are deemed unsuitable (unless written by Catholics); science is a dubious area, because most scientists are wrong; poetry is fine for the glory of God – but not for personal enjoyment. But poetry and passionate friendships arouse feelings in Nanda that her religion cannot provide. Even her First Communion, eagerly awaited as the biggest day in her life, proves a disappointment. Nevertheless, her faith doesn’t waver:
She accepted the Catholic Church whole-heartedly and tried hard to mould herself into the proper shape of a young Catholic girl. […] She could never, she knew, break away without a sense of mutilation. In her four years at Lippington it had grown into every fibre of her nature; she could not eat or sleep or read or play without relating every action to her secret life as a Christian and a Catholic. She rejoiced in it and rebelled against it.
That seems to reflect the experience of many Catholic writers – perhaps it’s that tension which enables them to be creative?
Despite her efforts to fit in, Nanda has an independent streak, which sets her on a collision course, and when she is finally sent away, on her 14th birthday, Mother Radcliffe tells her:
Every will must be broken completely and re-set before it can be at one with God’s will. And there is no other way. That is what true education, as we see it here at Lippington, means.
There are all kinds of things I haven’t mentioned: the girls themselves, who are all utterly believable; the constant ringing of bells; curtseying; gloves; the smell of beeswax and incense; cabbage drowned in vinegar, and the sense of being shut away in an enclosed community which becomes more real than the world outside.
|Virago non-fiction:There’s Something About
A Convent Girl, published in 1991.
After finishing Frost in May, I re-read There’s Something About A Convent Girl, a Virago anthology edited by Jackie Bennet and Rosemary Forgan, because it makes an interesting companion piece, containing a brief history of convent schools, and varied recollections from former pupils. Some contributors, like Maeve Binchy and, surprisingly, Germaine Greer seem to have happy memories of their schooldays. Others, like playwright Mary O’Malley (author of Once A Catholic), hated the humiliations, the lack of kindness, the bigotry, and the feelings of guilt about sex and life in general.
Her view of convent school life echoes that of Virago founder Carmen Callil, who says she can never forgive the nuns at her convent for the way she was treated. She’s particularly scathing about the view of the Catholic Church on suffering, especially in relation to women, and she gives a moving account of her feelings when she first read Frost in May:
I was absolutely suffused with misery and agony and fury as I read it because I identified with it so much. It told what I felt to be my own story. Not that it was my own story, but the suffering it conveyed and the feeling of mindless repression that the child couldn’t deal with because the child couldn’t understand what was going on and what the reasons were. I felt so strongly about it I actually invented Virago Modern Classics to enable me to publish that book. The world had to read the book again.
I think she’s right, and I’d urge anyone to read it, because Frost in May is beautifully written, with some wonderful characters, and it’s as valid and relevant now as it was when Callil reprinted it, and when Frost wrote it.