Saturday, October 16, 2010

Frost in May by Antonia White

When Verity sent me a copy of Frost in May, I thought it would be a lighthearted story about girls in a convent.  How wrong I was.

Nanda Grey is nine years old when she enters the Convent of the Five Wounds at Lippington.  She settles in and makes friends but under the ever watchful eye of nuns whose disapproving glare is all too present. 

This book took me out of my comfort zone in as much as it was most definitely not a cosy read, it made me angry and broke my heart.

'You are very fond of your own way, aren't you, Nanda?'
'Yes, I suppose so, Mother.'
'And do you know that no character is any good in this world unless that will has been broken completely?  Broken and re-set in God's own way.  I don't think your will has been quite broken, my dear child, do you?'

The daily censorship of mail, rejection of bonds of friendship, humiliation, deprivation and fear in this authoritarian environment had me wondering why anyone would send their child to this place!  On a couple of occasions, Nanda, hopes with all her heart to be stricken with an illness as a way of escaping what amounts to daily mental and emotional abuse.  Or as Mother Percival would see it, the breaking of one's will.

'A good Catholic should live constantly in the spiritual presence of death.  Now, my dear little sisters, I want each one of you to imagine that you are lying on your death-bed....'

Like a dog that is abused by its master and yet still licks the hand that beats it, Nanda begs for a second chance when faced with expulsion.  I would offer to pack her bags and tell her to run.

For a story that started out feeling like a fairly innocuous 'school story' it turned out to be quite disturbing.  But it is definitely one that I will never forget.  For years I have been reading for pure pleasure and even though this was not an enjoyable read, I do feel that I gained from the experience.  Thank you, Verity.


  1. Sounds very interesting - I think that the books that send us hurtling outside of our comfort zone are usually the ones that stick with us. Religion is always a difficult topic but an important one I think.

  2. I remember reading this with horrible fascination. But the next books in the series, if I remember rightly, are even worse, Darlene. It's so long since I read them - and I might respond differently now - but I think I was just exasperated by everyone's capacity for unhappiness.

  3. hello I'm new here but just had to comment since this is one of my top books,
    I read this in exactly the same way, I was so angry but I realised that a book thats kept me thinking about it for over a week must be darn good. Mary's right about the next lot, not very happy at all.
    All the books are semi autobiographical which kinda makes them more touching and disturbing in a way.
    The biography by jane dunn also makes fascinating reading to go alongside the novels.

  4. I stopped after the second book in the series and should go back and finish...I found the two I read very absorbing. I did find the regime at the convent quite frightening, but I also did understand that the nuns genuinely believed they were acting in the best interests of the children. Not that it excuses their behaviour or makes it right, but I don't remember feeling that it was done maliciously. Maybe on a second reading I might feel differently. I read it very much interested in Nanda's developing sense of identity and didn't really focus on the nuns and their treatment of her - if I read it with a different emphathis next time I may very well feel the same sense of anger as you did. One thing's for sure, Antonia White did not have an easy life!

  5. I got 1/3 of the way through this one and stopped. It just got too Catholic for me. I will probably go back and give it another go because I still want to read the 2nd and 3rd part of the trilogy.

  6. Oh gosh. I always thought it was a light-hearted girls' story, too. Glad to be forewarned.

    K x

  7. jane, You are so right! Passing comments about the harshness of Catholic nuns held little value as I had no frame of reference. This book painted quite a picture.

    mary, '...capacity for unhappiness', that sums it up exactly! You worded that so well.

    le, Thanks for stopping by! I was wondering what led Antonia White to write such a story, whether any of it had roots in her past. This is definitely something to delve into a little more closely.

    bookssnob, Your response had me thinking...I won't get into it here but I'm going to send you an email in a day or two. This is all very thought provoking.

    Thomas, There are some books that make me want to place a conference call with all of you so we can discuss things further! And you made me laugh with 'too Catholic'.

    Kristina, Perhaps if you are familiar with the tone of the book going into it, you are prepared somehow for the despair. This small book packs a punch to be sure!

  8. Hmm - I get the feeling you are being polite about it Darlene because you know I'll be reading the post... It is definitely a classic book and worth reading for that, and it doe actually sit beside quite a lot of the other books you've read as a different element of first half of 20th century women's writing. I've just remembered that I did promise you some iced gems so maybe next time I'll send you edibles!!

  9. PS: The word verification for that last comment was "angst" - that made me laugh as being too appropriate!!

  10. verity, I compare reading Frost in May with To Bed with Grand Music. They are both important books by respected authors but both had me wanting to throw them against the wall! Not liking a story is different from one which leaves you unsettled. This book will stay with me for a very long time and I'm so pleased to be 'in' on the topic.

    Too funny about the word verification!!!

  11. I also found this a very difficult book to read. I suspect I was expecting the kind of benign Catholicism I was familiar with from American films and TV. It stuck with me for weeks, and although I bought the second book in the quartet, I haven't been able to bring myself to read it yet.

  12. Oh, Darlene, how I have missed you during my short blogging hiatus. As I was reading this post To Bed With Grand Music popped into my head so how appropriate that you mentioned it in your comment to Verity! I agree that both were similarly uncomfortable reads but each important books; Frost in May is first on the #VMC list for a reason.

  13. makedoandread, I know!!! Where was Sally Fields when we, and Nanda, needed her!

    Paperback Reader, Well I am so glad that you've popped 'round as I've missed you as well! I've been tempted to write and tell you as much but figured you had a good reason for being away.

    As modest as my literary experience is, I welled up when I saw Frost in May fall out of the package from Verity. That it was important...I knew, but I had no idea the ride I was in for!

  14. I loved reading this book and wrote about it here
    It was so interesting to me as I went to a convent school - but luckily my experience didn't put me into a mental institution as it did Antonia White!

  15. :) Well, it is a good book to have in your collection...

  16. Bloomsbury Bell, Thank you so much for the link...and the laugh! My father was in the Army so I ended up being born in Germany (left as a toddler so obviously no memories). But, my parents did mention the toilet was compared to the the texture of cardboard egg cartons if I remember clearly, haha!

    I think that this book requires a reread in the not too distant future. The shock is wearing off and I'm going to try reading it from another perspective.

    verity, This has all been truly, a wonderfully thought-provoking reading experience. It has caused me to think, feel and examine my feelings about this topic and then share them. And yes, it is a very good book for my collection! Bless you :)

  17. I have this and plan on reading it at some point, but I will save it for the right moment and mood (not comfort reading!). Some books are less pleasures to read but something you appreciate after the fact and this sounds like just such a book.