Monday, 28 September 2009

Book Review - Frost in May by Antonia White

Antonia White

I went to a Catholic convent school from the age of seven to sixteen. The fact that I am not Catholic was irrelevant to the military nuns drilling us in the 'art of confession' and obedience. I don't know which was worse, the fact that in an all girls secondary school we were not allowed tampon dispensers in the toilets because "the use of tampons means that a girl is no longer a virgin" or the Bronco toilet paper. If you don't know what Bronco toilet paper is you never need to know and you are a very lucky person. Rumour has it that Bronco manufacturing ceased in the late 1980s - I was at school until 2000 - but the nuns had an attic full of the stuff along with boxes of soap left over from when the school was a laundry for 'fallen women'.

I cannot believe, therefore, that I have only just picked up and read Antonia White's novel Frost in May. This hugely autobiographical novel is succinct and compelling. Fernanda Grey's father is a convert to Catholicism and the novel opens with Mr Grey taking his daughter to the Convent of the Five Wounds to start her Catholic education. A naturally spiritual and imaginitive child Nanda struggles to feel equal to her peers who are from wealthy Catholic families. Not only is her family not wealthy, they are not Catholics. This pushes Nanda to become completely indoctrinated and to spend considerable time worrying about her vocation, on her first night at the Convent she prays:
Nanda felt a wave of piety overwhelm her as she knelt very upright in her bench, her lisle-gloved hands clasped on the ledge in front of her. "Oh dear Lord," she said fervently in her mind, "thank you for letting me come here. I will try to like it if You will help me. Help me to be good and make me a proper Catholic like the others."
Nanda settles in to life at the boarding school. The nuns are a constant presence of routine, discipline and instruction and Nanda starts to find reassurance in this. However, Nanda cannot quite suppress her imaginative and passionate self. She gets caught reading literature that the nuns do not allow and she makes close friendships with a small group of girls. This the nuns do not encourage as it is a self-indulgence to have close friends. Self-sacrifice is a recurring theme and is something that, like any young girl, Nanda cannot always achieve.

The self-assurance of the nuns that they are truly conducting God's work is startling and, for me, a memory. They deny the enquiring mind and censor all correspondence between pupils and the outside world; between parent and child. The nuns are not bad women, they are genuinely trying to save the souls of their pupils and to raise good Catholic women. But for Nanda, the saving of her soul by Mother Radcliffe leads to a personal tragedy that the reader knows will have repercussions for years to come.

'"I am only acting as God's instrument in this. I had to break your will before your whole nature was deformed." Nanda glanced at the nun's face. It was pale and controlled as usual, yet lighted with an extraordinary, quiet exaltation.'


  1. Wonderful review. I loved this too. I think it would have been even more powerful for me if, like you, I had have had a convent school education.

    Hysterical about the Bronco loo roll. My mum used to have it and was so traumatised that she promised herself that when she grew up she would always have nice loo roll. Therefore I grew up on Andrex. Quilted is the way forward!

  2. A friend recommended Frost in May as one of the books that had the most impact on her as a teen, and I remember, while really liking the book myself, how horrified I was that this was the adolescent/school experience she related to. Those nuns made all my gym teachers seem like angels.

    I've just received a copy of The Lost Traveler, and I'm really looking forward to reading it and the rest of the Frost in May series.

  3. The loo roll sounds horriffic!

    I think it must be interesting to read it from the perspective of having had a Catholic education; I found it gave me a real insight into a world that I knew nothing about.

  4. I too went to a Convent School and loathed every moment of it. Our headmistress went mad and ended up in a lunatic asylum (true) and we had a couple of nuns who were vicious and nasty and picked on the girls who were not so bright. I would not let myself be bullied and took them on so they left me alone.

    We also were not allowed tampon disposal bins and the use of such objects was frowned upon and we were also forbidden to wear patent leather shoes 'in case our underwear was reflected inthem and boys saw it'. this is true, I swear on my soul. I walked out when I was sixteen and told my mother I was never going back. I took my A levels years later at an evening class and have educted myself all my life through my reading as the school made it impossible for me to stay and carry on my education. You can tell from the tone of this comment that I have never forgotten it!!

  5. I never went to a Catholic school, and am not a religous person, but I found these books in a charity shop, and am so glad I did, as they are compelling, brilliant works of genious,, I recomend them to everyone, who likes a good story,

  6. As a fellow sufferer - from Bronco - not Catholic schooling, I feel the need to tell the uninitiated that Bronco did not come in rolls , but in singly dispensed sheets . Shiny, hard, single sheets .....

    1. Oh yes that lavatory paper did come in rolls! Or was it "San Izal"? No matter, they were both just the same.