Original date of publication: 1933
My edition: 1990 (Virago)
Why I decided to read: Verity’s Virago Venture
How I acquired my copy: ebay seller
Frost in May is the first Virago Modern Classic that was ever reprinted. It follows the four-year school career of Nanda (short for Fernanda) March, a girl both meek and rebellious at the same time. She enters the Convent of the Five Wounds at the age of nine (and, according to the blurb on the back of the book, in 1908), staying there until her ignominious disgrace at the age of thirteen. Nanda becomes very familiar with life at the convent school, taking for granted most of what goes on.
A good deal of the novel deals with the breaking down of the girls’ wills, so that, as the nuns claim, they can build character. But does this method really work? This, I think, is an underlying theme of the book, and one that White writes about particularly well. The author talks endlessly about all the rules that are imposed upon the girls at school, governing everything from what they can read to who they can be friends with. And many of the rules make no sense to outsiders; as Mrs. March says about exemptions, “exemption from what?” So there’s a certain amount of underhanded satire at work here.
I didn’t like this book as much as I was prepared to, but I did enjoy it. Antonia White was a great writer, but she infuses her story with too much Catholicism. That’s not to say that the tone of this book is overtly religious; I simply didn’t care for the stories that were told. They especially slowed down the plot. So if you’re like ma and aren’t particularly religious, you might dislike these parts of the novel. I think I might have enjoyed them more if I'd had a Catholic upbringing.
However, White depicts really well the rigidity of convent life, highlighting (and sometimes making fun of) the nonsensical strictures the nuns imposed upon the students. Apart from the religious bits, the plot moves along very well, and the ending is just as devastating as promised—all the more so because what Nanda does wouldn’t have been considered so bad in a normal school.