I’ve had this sitting on my shelves for years; I bought it in a second hand bookshop in Alton when I went to Jane Austen’s house a few summers ago. Having loved another of Crompton’s adult novels, Family Roundabout, I was sure that I’d find Frost at Morning equally delightful, but life intervened to prevent me from reading it immediately after purchase and it has been gathering dust ever since. Over the sunny bank holiday weekend, I finally decided to take it off the shelf and find out what was lying beneath the innocuous looking covers. While basking in a deckchair, I raced through the entire thing, riveted by the action unfurling in front of my eyes. Crompton’s ability to capture the world through a child’s eyes is uncanny, as is her skill at demonstrating just how blind adults can be to the needs of the children they are supposed to be protecting. Since becoming a teacher, I have become increasingly aware of the damage that can be done to children by unthinking parents, and how much sensitivity and vulnerability can be hidden beneath the surface of a seemingly happy child. As such, Frost at Morning really tugged on my heartstrings and had me longing to reach in to rescue the children who had all been left so alone and misunderstood. My desperation was akin to the moment in Tess of the D’Urbervilles when that bloody letter goes underneath the doormat; this is powerful stuff indeed!
The novel opens on an idyllic post WWI scene; a sunny vicarage garden, peopled with small children playing in the dappled pool of light beneath a lush canopy of trees. Philip, Geraldine and Monica have been sent to stay at the vicarage as companions to the Vicar’s daughter, Angela, because their parents, for various reasons, cannot currently have them at home. Angela’s parents, however, are just as absent as those of her guests; her ridiculously eccentric mother is a famous novelist, so wrapped up in her characters’ lives that she has no time for her husband and daughter, and her father lives his life ruled by the routines of his parish, with no real interest in his wife and child. Angela, blonde and beautiful, is already aware of her power over others. Philip, sensitive and insular, is desperately seeking her approval, but the only attention he receives is from claustrophobically overbearing Geraldine. Monica is aloof from the rest, marked out as different due to her mother’s marital indiscretions. Miss Rossiter, the governess, has been left to cope with all of the children over the summer, but she is far too preoccupied with her own concerns to take much of an interest. As such, they are largely left to themselves, and despite their differing personalities, a strange bond will be formed between them that will last into adulthood.
The novel follows the children as they leave the vicarage to return home. Sensitive Philip, so desperate for his heroic father’s approval, returns to the shock of a new stepmother and a stepbrother who has the courage and strength he lacks. Unable to communicate the pain he feels at being sidelined for this new brother, Philip retreats into his own world, refusing to care for others lest he be hurt. Monica returns to her beautiful mother, whose infidelities and alcoholism will destroy her childhood, filling it with an atmosphere of constant worry, uncertainty and far too much responsibility. Geraldine returns to her adoptive parents and finds that in her absence her mother has given birth to a baby of her own. Desperate to prove her worth, her overbearing nature becomes even worse, suffocating all who come near. Angela, ignored by her parents, grows into a self interested and shallow princess, delighting in teasing men and causing a stir in order to gain the attention she has always craved.
As the children grow into adults, their lives frequently collide, and it is fascinating to see how the failures of their parents have moulded the way they relate to themselves and one another as they age. It is interesting that when the novel opens, the children are all around 7 years old; I wonder whether Crompton had in mind the adage ‘give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.’ My heart broke for them all, in different ways; Monica and Philip because of their vulnerability and desperation to be loved, Geraldine because of her inability to understand that her behaviour caused those she loved to turn away from her, and Angela because she saw no value in herself other than her looks. They are all damaged goods, who could so easily have been repaired, but as the years pass, their cracks become ever deeper, until it seems they can never find true happiness and become whole again.
The rather unrealistically neat and tidy ending does somewhat ruin the psychological sophistication of the rest of the novel, but Crompton just about gets away with it due to the quality of her writing. I don’t think I’ve read a better analysis of child psychology, where someone has been so thoroughly able to capture the terrible paralysing helplessness of children. This is a beautifully written, heartrending novel that is both a brilliant exploration of childhood and a marvellous evocation of inter war Britain. The inter war setting adds much to the interpretation of why these parents may be such failures, considering with what their own youths were marked, and Crompton leaves the reader with much to ponder on as they close the pages. Frost at Morning is sadly out of print, but it’s not extortionate to buy second hand; if you come across a copy, I urge you to buy it and read it post-haste. I can’t compare its merits with Family Roundabout as I can’t really remember much about that (time for a re-read, I think), but I don’t see any reason why this shouldn’t also be reprinted; it’s a marvel, and I wish I could give everyone a copy to enjoy.
‘Philip turned back into the room. He wasn’t trembling any longer, but there was a cold numbed feeling at his heart. They didn’t want him. All right, he wouldn’t want them. He tried to whip up his anger against them in order to hide from himself the misery that threatened to engulf his spirit, the black emptiness that lay ahead of him.’