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Frost in May by Antonia White

Virago Modern Classics, 1978 (reprinted 1971); first published 1933


Whilst discussing mid-twentieth-century novels with a friend, we established that we'd both read this when we were 17, and decided that a re-read was in order, followed of course by a discussion over dinner and wine.

Also - it was the first in the Virago Modern Classics series, and Antonia White was born 9 doors down from me and lived there until she was 22 (commemorated with a plaque).

Enjoyment factor

I recall not enjoying this the first time round, but in view of the prominence given to it by Virago, suspected that the wisdom of age may bring new insights.

At 220 pages, this strongly autobiographical novel is very short, and it's a quick read. It tells the story of Nanda, sent to board at a Convent school at the age of nine, as indeed was White. Published in 1933, the novel begins in 1908 when the author herself was nine; and the house in Earls Court where Nanda grew up sounds very similar to White's above-mentioned childhood home. Both White's and Nanda's fathers were Classics teachers and recent converts to Catholicism.

The evocation of the school and its various characters is arresting and has stayed with me vividly - undoubtably because it's based so closely on the author's own experience - but the day-to-day is overly detailed and very little actually happens. The anticipated great-awakening moment of the adolescent Nanda never really comes. Instead, the ending is relentlessly - and arguably pointlessly - depressing, with no redemption whatsoever and no lessons learned for anybody.

It left me thinking ...

How there is something deeply flawed about a religion which constantly tells its followers that they are sinners and that under no circumstances must they enjoy themselves in this life, but spend their entire time on earth ensuring that they go to heaven rather than hell in the alleged next life. This is the carrot-and-stick mechanism taken out of all proportion and is surely the root of much mental anguish.

How girls and women were powerless until relatively recently, having to conform to certain ideals in order to earn their place in the world. Nanda's father confesses that he had always wanted a boy, but Nanda is nevertheless the apple of his eye - until a very minor indiscretion which hardly figures in the modern mindset means that she is suddenly lost to him forever. Like White, Nanda was expelled from school at the age of 15 for writing a "racy" novel. We don't know what happens to Nanda, but the incident so scarred White that she didn't go back to writing for another 20 years.

What a strange and deeply unsatisfying novel this is. It's beautifully written, but there is zero redemption. Once you know White's backstory, the novel makes sense as an expression of her own deep-seated anger, but taken on its own, it feels incomplete.

It did, however, provide grounds to try the new Mark Hix menu at the Groucho, accompanied by a good bottle of wine and a most enjoyable discussion.

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