This is one of those books which can be read by both adults and older children with equal fascination but only as an adult can you begin to appreciate the psychological effect that her class-riddled Catholic schooling had on the creative and sensitive Nanda. It is quite beautifully written and contains some wonderful characterisation. The individual nuns, particularly Mother Frances and Mother Radcliffe, Leonie the philosopher, the feverishly searching Clare; all are so vivid and finely drawn that you feel that if you look up from the book they will be there in front of you.
The tragedy of the book is that Nanda tries so desperately to fit in, but as a middle class convert from Anglicanism, she is outside the experiences of the other girls, who are steeped in aristocratic Catholicism not only from birth but from the bloodlines of centuries. Try as she might, cloaking herself in ritual, absorbing the liturgy and the history, she can’t help but question and withhold.
‘Frost in May’ is a school story, in that it is set in a school, but it is so much more than that. As a child I found the descriptions of strict convent school life at the beginning of the twentieth century fascinating. Bathing wrapped in long white calico cloaks, folding stockings in the shape of the cross, annual retreats, mortification of the senses, the total emphasis on eradication of a sense of self and the sense of living ‘all day long in the presence of the court of heaven.’ There is also the glamour of the intense international friendships and the strange beauty and richness of the daily routine, but it is Nanda’s heroic efforts to become what she never can be which are so compelling.
The all-consuming Catholicism both repels with its rigidity and attracts with its certainty, and it is this dichotomy which leads to Nanda’s downfall. She knows, in spite of the fact that the church had ‘grown into every fibre of her nature’, and she could never ‘break away without a sense of mutilation’, that it does not and cannot fulfil her in the way she has been taught that it should.
The build-up to the final disaster is agonising and the denouement shocking. If you haven’t read the book though don’t let this put you off. A children’s book which doesn’t end happily is a rarity but you realise afterwards that this was the inevitable and only possible outcome.
White’s writing is Keatsian in its sensuousness. The reader can almost smell the hot beeswax, lilies and incense, and hear the chanting of the litany.
I re-read this book regularly; it is nothing short of brilliant.