The Lost Traveller by Antonia White

This time my post is about a traveller with two l’s. And they’re not travelling in time, they’re just lost. Metaphorically. This is because I just read Antonia White’s sequel to Frost in May, which I wrote about here, entitled The Lost Traveller, about the heroine of Frost in May’s journey into young adulthood. Confusingly her name is changed from Nanda to Clara…because White felt like it, apparently, but once you’re past that it is easy to tell that Nanda and Clara are one and the same. I haven’t read White’s autobiography yet but I gather that Nanda/Clara are supposed to be her at their age, and so I assume much of what happens to Clara in this book also happened to White, which makes me feel very sorry for her and anxious to read her autobiography, which I saw in a bookshop for a cheap price the other day, so I may just head back and pick it up.

But anyway, I digress. This is a lengthy yet marvellous book. It has taken me over a week to read it, which is a long time for me, but I have thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in Clara’s journey from being an innocent, fervent, naive and confused convent school girl to a more sexually awakened, ambitious, intelligent and questioning teenager. Her experiences as she grows from youth to burgeoning adulthood leave her wondering about religion, and love, and what her calling in life is, and why she doesn’t feel as deeply about things as she should, and also struggling with her guilty feelings towards the parents she desires to please but is secretly afraid she doesn’t really love.

This heady, passionate, confusing and often painful time that is being a teenager is perfectly described by White. The often stiflingly close friendships that are ever changing, the hatred of everything our parents hold dear, the dreams and ambitions and attachments and feelings that all come together to cause moments of joy interspersed with grief and self doubt and despair…it’s all there, and it’s so close to the bone that it took me right back to being a 17 year old again, lost and self conscious and eternally worrying over what my future would hold.

It tells of Clara leaving the convent school and going on to sixth form at a London girl’s school, where she makes close friends and dreams of becoming a ‘bluestocking’ and going to Cambridge, but then the war breaks out and she heads off to become a governess, before returning back to London and embarking on a course of events that will turn out to be a terrible mistake, which is the cliffhanger the book ends on. Clara doesn’t do an awful lot, but it’s her emotional life that is the real story here, and the inner turmoil she seems to be permanently in is so vividly described that it made me feel almost like I knew her.

Clara’s story also touches on that of her parents and their mistakes and shortcomings, showing the increasing awareness we have as teenagers and adults that our parents are not perfect and that they have desires and dreams and disappointments too. I found these strands of the story very powerful, and touching. It must have been painful for White to write about her parents, if Isabel and Claude, Clara’s parents, are, as I suspect, a depiction of her own. I felt through the way she describes Clara’s relationship with her mother and father that there was a real sense of regret in the way she had viewed and treated her parents as a teenager. I wonder whether this book helped her come to terms with that.

This is a wonderful coming of age novel, a story not just of one girl, but of every girl, I think. I highly recommend it and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the next phase of Clara’s life, depicted in The Sugar House.

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!