For the first reading guide on our new site, I thought the first ever Virago Modern Classic, Frost in May by Antonia White would be appropriate. It is the book that inspired Carmen Callil to create the classics list, back in 1978:
'Michael Holroyd insisted I read Antonia White's Frost in May. This novel, about a nine-year-old girl closeted in an English convent, is a classic – funny, wonderfully written, its heroine a young Everywoman up against an authoritarian and frightening body of adults who insist on subduing her spirit in the name of God . . . if founding Virago was my first light bulb, dreaming up the Classics was the second. How could I publish Frost in May? The answer came quite easily: here was the celebration and fun I was looking for, here was a way of illuminating women's history in a way that would reach out to a much wider audience of both women and men.' (from the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/apr/26/featuresreviews.guardianreview2)
'Frost in May is the unsurpassed novel of convent school life. This story of a clash between a determined young girl and an authoritarian regime is both perceptive and painfully emotional, convincing in every detail' Hermione Lee, Observer
'Intense, troubling, semi-miraculous . . . It is not the only school story to be a classic; but I can think of no other that is a work of art' Elizabeth Bowen
Frost in May was first published in 1933. Nanda Gray, the daughter of a Catholic convert, is nine when she is sent to the Convent of Five Wounds. Quick-witted, resilient and eager to please, she accepts this closed world where, with all the enthusiasm of the outsider, her desires become only those the school permits. Convent life is perfectly captured – the smell of beeswax and incense; the petty cruelties of the nuns; the eccentricities of Nanda's schoolfriends.
If you have read the book and would like to comment, or if you have any further suggestions for discussion, please feel add to comments. Here are a few thought-starters:
- Discuss the significance of the title Frost in May.
- On visiting their daughter, Nanda's father and mother react very differently to life at the convent. How do they react? Discuss the reasons for this.
- Unlike other students at Lippington Nanda is new to Catholicism and is not from a rich family. In what ways is Nanda an outsider? Does this help or hinder her? How is she discriminated against – if so, why?
- Mother Radcliffe says to Nanda: 'I told you once before that every will must be broken completely and re-set before it can be at one with God's will . . . I had to break your will before your whole nature was deformed.' In what ways does Lippington try to break Nanda's will? In your view, does it succeed in doing so?
- The theme of sacrifice recurs often throughout the book. What sacrifices are made and by whom?
- Frost in May has been called an autobiographical novel. What do you know about Antonia White and in what ways does the book reflect her own story?
- Discuss the different kinds of friendship portrayed in the novel. Contrast, for example, Nanda's group of friends on arrival at the convent and the relationships wrought by the end.
- What is the most memorable scene for you?