Frost in May by Antonia White

I have spent a very enjoyable week reading this autobiographical tale of Antonia White’s time in the Convent of the Sacred Heart School in Roehampton, SW London, at the turn of the century, which moved after the war to Surrey and is now known as the very posh and expensive Woldingham School. You’d need a cool £20k a year to send your daughter there these days…no prizes for guessing that it’s no longer run by the Catholic church.

I found a photo of the school (above) in its Roehampton days – I should imagine it’s now either been razed to the ground or become luxury flats. The people in the foreground are the former Queen of Bavaria, born Princess Antoinette of Luxembourg, and her daughters, all of whom were sent to the school to learn how to be good Catholics in the 1930s. The photo dates from 1938. So it’s very interesting to learn that, as Antonia White claims in the book, many of her classmates would indeed have had very privileged and aristocratic backgrounds. I wonder how they coped with the change between home and school…it must have been a big shock to the system.

Anyway…back to Frost in May. I absolutely loved it. It tells the story of Fernanda ‘Nanda’ Grey (to all intents and purposes, White) and her time at the ‘Convent of the Five Wounds’ school. It describes perfectly the closeted and safe environment of school that, when loved as deeply as Antonia White clearly loved the Convent despite all of its faults, becomes a true home from home. The routines, the rituals, the teachers, the hierarchies, the medals and points systems, the joy of being chosen and praised, and the shame of disappointing and falling short of expectations, but also the secret thrill of rebellion, are all so perfectly portrayed. I too loved my school with a passion and it devastated me to have to leave that safe and reassuring routine and the people I had known for seven years. Plus, she manages to evoke perfectly that wonderfully passionate and rebellious teenage soul that longs to be accepted everywhere and forms deep, verging on romantic, attachments to others. I felt completely transported into the teenage Nanda/White’s mind and I found their story totally convincing and enthralling. As a practising Christian (though not a Catholic), I also enjoyed the religious aspects of the story; of her trying to find her own belief, of working out whether it was what she really believed or what she was being told to believe, and her attempts to try and forget herself and put God first, but finding it a constant struggle as she has to search and destroy every sinful thought and desire. I loved her passion and fervour; though how much of it was a true desire to grow closer to God or to simply fit in, keep up with the other girls with ‘true’ Catholic blood (Nanda/White’s father was a convert), is never that clear…I suspect it was more the latter.

I know some people find the treatment of the pupils by the nuns in the book harsh and cruel but I found them really quite kind in their own way. They clearly believed that what they were doing would benefit the girls spiritually and that they would be thankful for the sufferings they had to endure in the end. I didn’t think they came across as enjoying punishing the girls at all. Maybe it’s because I am a Christian and used to self discipline etc, that I don’t find it as shocking and as oppressive sounding as many others have.

All in all it is an entertaining, nostalgic, at times sad, and at time shocking read that will transport you back to those heady days of youth and school…which for me, already seem a lifetime ago. It still surprises me that it’s only been five years since I walked those disinfectant smelling corridors myself, being ordered around by the ringing of a bell.

I highly recommend this, and it is currently in print and can be bought here. Antonia White wrote three ‘sequels’ (though she changed the heroine’s name from Nanda to Clara); The Lost Traveller, The Sugar House and Beyond the Glass, which go on to tell her story after leaving the convent. I am looking forward to reading these, though a brief glance at Antonia White’s wikipedia page suggests they are not going to be a bed of roses!

4 comments

  1. How amazing that we should both post about this book within 2 days of each other. I have bookmarked this and will look forward to following your reading🙂

  2. Aaah! The very first VMC, I remember bearing home that lovely green spined book all shiny & new from a bookshop in Norwich. I still have it, only not shiny & new anymore. Still, happy memories.

  3. You’ll be glad to know that the sisters turned Roehampton convent into a teacher-training College, Digby Stuart College, which is now a constituent part of Roehampton University:

    http://www.roehampton.ac.uk/digby/history/index.html

    The buildings suffered extensive damage during the blitz, but I believe some remain from the earlier period.

    Woldingham School would still identify as Catholic – it has a resident priest, and is still under the trusteeship of the Society of the Sacred Heart…

    Wonderful novel! Have you read Monica Baldwin’s ‘I leap Over the Wall’?

  4. I have just this morning finished this book, and am in the process of trying to formulate a review. So hard to put my deep visceral response to this one into words! I did not at all share this sort of school experience, so I don’t have the connection that you did, but I did have several cousins who attended Catholic day schools, and from my memories of their anecdotes, teaching nuns perhaps hadn’t changed so terribly much even by our time …
    I hugely enjoyed “Frost in May”, though I was alternately amused and moved by the experiences of the girls in the school, and your post has helped answered the question which I am mulling over this morning, which was how much of “Nanda’s” story was autobiographical. (I did not read the foreword to my own edition; perhaps if I had this would not even be a question!)
    Having recently read Karen Armstrong’s “Through the Narrow Gate”, and, some years ago, Monica Baldwin’s “I leap Over the Wall” (must read that one again) the setting of the convent school of “Frost in May” was not at all a stretch of belief to my very non-Catholic experience. (I was raised as a conservative Lutheran; my maternal background is conservative Mennonite, and though I am personally what might be termed as a tentative agnostic, I am still tremendously interested in what might be called “the religious experience” of others.)
    I enjoyed your review, and I am very much looking forward to finding and reading Antonia White’s subsequent novels.

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