Frost In May by Antonia White is a very Catholic book, and I am really wondering how I’d never heard of it or its author before a couple of weeks ago, me being the self-styled pseudo-“expert” in Catholic Lit that I fancy I am.
Humility is always just around the corner, it seems.
I won’t leave you in suspense: it’s an excellent little novel, terse, painful, ironic and complicated.
People have various views on how much the biography of an artist should weigh on our evaluation or understanding of the art. I tend to land on the “let the piece stand on its own” side most of the time, even though there’s usually one significant biographical fact that helps illumine a work and is good to know before you go on: Walker Percy’s grandfather and father both committed suicide. Flannery O’Connor’s father died young from lupus, and she knew she’d die young from it too after a certain point. And so on.
I think with Frost in May¸ knowing a bit about Antonia White is helpful. I hasten to say, though — not too much, for there’s an event in her young life that makes its way into the novel and is a definite, sad twist — and it’s good not to know what it is going in. So don’t do exhaustive research, and don’t read the introductions to modern editions before you read the novel.
(This is a pet peeve of mine — I have found this time and time again that these introductions to older novels, usually penned by popular contemporary authors, tend to give a lot of the plot away — so I’ve started skipping them. Perhaps it would be better for them to be supplementary essays in an appendix?)
But I will say that this incident — what happened to White and what happens to her protagonist — is an almost perfect distillation of the Plight of the Catholic Artist….
What’s helpful to know is this — Antonia White’s fiction is mostly
autobiographical, pulling from her own life as the young Catholic convert only child of a Catholic convert father/schoolteacher, and then, as she got older, from her experience of mental illness and terrible relationships.
(Side note: when I was first running across mentions of this book and this writer, I thought I was reading about Antonia Fraser — and was a little confused. Not the same person.)
Her personal life was very, very difficult, and her own children weren’t spared from this difficultly — both daughters wrote negative books about their mother.
There’s an autobiographical entry from White at the Catholic Authors website — but be warned, it does relate this incident I’m talking about that figures in Frost in May — but I’ll quote here White’s assessment at the time she wrote the entry, of her own faith journey, as we say:
Though bad reviews can wound a lot, good ones do not always inflate one as much as they might. So often the flattering remarks seem to bear no relation to the novel one has actually written’ so that one feels rather like a cat that has been awarded a prize in a dog-show. What is far more heartening than even the kindest review is the letter from the stranger who has read the book and taken the trouble to write a personal appreciation. Best of all is the stranger who finds something in what one has written that corresponds to their own experience of life or even illuminates it. One such letter from a stranger in New Jersey (she is now a friend of many years’ standing) gave me courage to tackle a difficult theme . . . that of insanity. It is to this Catholic woman doctor that I dedicated my last novel, Beyond the Glass.
My novels and short stories are mainly about ordinary people who become involved in rather extraordinary situations. I do not mean in sensational adventures but in rather odd and difficult personal relationships largely due to their family background and their incomplete understanding of their own natures. I use both Catholic and non-Catholic characters and am particularly interested in the conflicts that arise between them and in the influences they have on each other. The fact that I lapsed from both faith and practice for fifteen years is naturally something I bitterly regret. Nevertheless, I think that it has given me a real understanding of those outside of the Church and of problems for Catholics themselves which those who have been spared ‘doubts’ do not always appreciate. Since I was fortunate enough to recover my faith in 1940, every year has given me a deeper conviction of its truth. If anything I have written or may write one day could reduce some of the misunderstandings between Catholics and non-Catholics, I would be more than rewarded for all the qualms and miseries I have every time I embark on the seemingly impossible task of writing another novel.
Frost in May is a novel about a young girl’s time in a Catholic boarding school at the Convent of the Five Wounds. We meet Nanda at the age of nine as she is on her way, with her father, to the school, and we say farewell to her at the end, when she is leaving — having been sent away — a few years later.
During those years, she encounters the sisters, strong women, one verging on the sociopathic, it seems, but the others, while strict and focused on their perceived mission, never really actually cruel. She makes friends — the girls do not come from a terribly varied background, given that this is a school that mainly caters to elite Catholic families, both British and Continental — but their personalities range in the ways you would expect, from the deeply pious to the scandalously skeptical, and, as is often the case in this genre (see The Trouble with Angels) — those most deeply affected by life with the Sisters are never those you might expect from their external affect. Emotions run high and heated in such an atmosphere, as well.
The spirituality of the order is harsh and even a little nutty by modern standards. But what I appreciate is that White always presents these practices and traditions in a full human and spiritual context, so that while we, from a distance, can say..well, perhaps that goes a little far and isn’t necessary — we can also see that the rationale is rooted in a sincere desire to help these young women be faithful followers of Christ in all that life will be handing them.
We work to-day to turn out, not accomplished young women, nor agreeable wives, but soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude.
Every will must be broken completely and re-set before it can be at one with God’s will. And there is no other way. That is what true education, as we see it here at Lippington, means.
The intention was always to teach the virtue of humility before God and other human beings — but this worthy goal can easily be perverted into a system of humiliation administered by flawed and sinful human beings in systems that ossify and lose sight of their original charism.
I think that Frost in May dramatizes that tension very well, and does so in a way that takes the root positive motivations seriously, and thereby avoids cheap shots or easy, cynical black-and-white post-mortems that don’t so much clarify the truth as heighten the pride of those of us who have the luxury of hindsight.
I’d also say that from the perspective of 2019 — almost a hundred years after the fictional Nanda is taken to the Convent of the Five Wounds — we can look at the fruit of that swinging pendulum with clear eyes. Yes, perhaps it was too much for the little old sister to correct Nanda’s sleeping posture on her first night:
“Now, lie down,” said the nun kindly, “you were not, by any chance, crying when I came in?”
“No, mother,” said Nanda decidedly.
“That is good. But you were lying in such a strange way. Did your mother never tell you at home to lie upon your back?”
“But it is more becoming that you should.”
Nanda straightened herself out from her comfortable ball, turned her back and thrust her feet bravely down into the cold sheets.
“So, it is better,” said the nun gently, “and now the hands.”
She took Nanda’s hands and crossed them over her breast.
“Now, ma petite,” she said, “if the dear Lord were to call you to Himself during the night, you would be ready to meet him as a Catholic should. Good night, little one, and remember to let the holy Name of Jesus be the last word on your lips.”
She passed silently out of the cubicle.
Nanda retained her new position rigidly for a few minutes.
“I shall never get to sleep,” she thought miserably as she heard the outdoor clock strike eight. But even as she thought it her lids grew heavy and her crossed hands began to uncurl. She had just time to remember to whisper “Jesus” before she was fast asleep.
But…you know what? There’s that tension I’m talking about — at first glance, the sister’s insistence of proper Catholic sleeping posture sounds crazy and definitely over the top. God meets us where we are! But then….Nanda falls asleep and yes, Jesus is the word that takes her there.
Hindsight. We can look back, and hear witnesses attest to how this spirituality harmed or helped them — but then we can also look back, not so far, at our own recent history and see that perhaps the externals are irrelevant…do what’s in your heart…has its own less-than-perfect fruit as well.