I picked up Antonia White’s Frost in May not knowing at all what it is about, and I was amused to find that it’s about a young girl beginning life at a Catholic boarding school — I say I was amused because it seems that nearly everything I’m reading these days has a religious or spiritual theme to it. I’m still slowly reading through Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart, which is about a spiritual approach to suffering, and then there is Elizabeth Strout’s Abide with Me, about a pastor and his relationship with his congregation. And now Frost in May, which is all about intense religious devotion. But White’s book is harsher and darker than the other two, and much more critical of organized religion.
The main character, Nanda, comes from a family that converted to Catholicism, and Nanda feels an ardor and devotion to her new religion that perhaps is unique to converts. It means she is an outsider in her new school, however, The Convent of the Five Wounds, where most of the students come from families who have never been anything but Catholic. She is an outsider for other reasons as well: she doesn’t come from money as most of the other students do. This is a very common set-up for a novel, I suppose — young child struggling to find her way in a new environment that she finds bewildering, surrounded by people who aren’t like her at all — but White does an excellent job making a frequently-told story fresh and fascinating.
The novel’s opening scenes show Nanda trying to find her way through a bewilderingly complex set of rules that governs every part of the girls’ lives. It’s shocking to discover just how circumscribed and controlled the girls’ lives were. Nanda is told how she should walk and eat, and in what position she should sleep at night (on her back with her arms crossed on her chest). She and her schoolmates are not allowed to have “particular friendships,” and if they are caught spending too much time with any one girl, the two are separated. Their reading is almost entirely limited to devotional works, with only occasional indulgences in the most serious and uplifting fiction available. And the list of limitations and requirements goes on and on.
Nanda accepts all this, for the most part, because she really and truly wants to be a good Catholic, and although she is secretly terrified of receiving a call to be a nun herself, she adores the disciplines and practices of her religion.
But she starts the book as an outsider, and she remains one; she struggles and struggles to be the kind of person the nuns think she should be, but she never quite gets it right, and eventually the seeds of rebellion are sown.
White does an excellent job capturing the feeling of the convent school; the book is focused almost exclusively on the school itself, so that it becomes its own world, impervious to everything outside it. The convent is somewhere outside London, but that hardly matters; all that matters is the atmosphere of the school itself. When Nanda’s parents visit, she feels horribly awkward and unhappy at the way her mother does everything wrong — she is too loud, too happy, too willing to mock what Nanda holds dear. She is relieved when her parents leave and the familiar order is restored. Even though the nuns can be cruel, and they do what they can to rid her of her pride and individuality, she rejoices in all her sacrifices and deprivations — until the point when she doesn’t.
The book isn’t perfect — I thought some sections in the middle languished a bit and some of the plot and character maneuverings seemed awkward — but still, it’s a wonderful portrait of what it’s like to be a serious, idealistic, devout child and then teenager, caught up in an intricately-structured and carefully-controlled world, trying to live up to everyone’s high expectations, including her own. And it’s a fascinating picture of one version of the religious life — a particularly harsh and harmful one, although one that’s full of beauty too.