Monday 8 November 2010

When Darlene wrote recently about Frost in May, by Antonia White, I couldn't resist pulling my copy down from the shelf. I remember exactly where and when I bought it on a drizzly, rainy weekend in a dreary out-of-season seaside town in Devon. It must have been 1978, everything was closed, I was working in my first job and counting the months until I wasn't quite so useless and could find employment in London.
But when I discovered that slim volume in a secondhand bookshop (1948 edition, 35p, sadly, no dustjacket), I was ecstatic ... because Frost in May was the first Virago Modern Classic and I'd read all about it in Cosmo. If you weren't around in the 1970s, it's impossible to describe how exciting that magazine was, how we counted down the days to the next issue, how it was our lifeline to the glamorous, glossy, sophisticated life that we had to believe was around the corner. (I hasten to add that it bore no resemblance to the trashy rag it is today.)
So there was a lot of nostalgia in immersing myself in that novel once again. (Nostalgia for my 21-year-old self, not for out-of- season seaside towns, because my instincts were absolutely right and I was much happier living in London. Even if that glamorous sophistication has always eluded me.)
But 30 years on, I think I've responded differently to the Lippington nuns. In 1978, I hadn't long escaped from my own school days in a convent which was a watered-down version of the Convent of the Five Wounds. We had black lace mantillas, marked with Cash's nametapes, as part of our school uniform and bridal veils for feastdays; at primary school, we even curtsied to the teachers. Far from being a Nanda, I loathed the whole caboodle.
But this time round, what horrified me wasn't the rigid regime of the nuns but Nanda's creepy father, a Catholic convert, his intense relationship with his daughter, his ownership of her 'purity,' his angry rejection of her as soon as she appears tarnished.
I also wondered if the nuns weren't kinder and more realistic than I'd given them credit for. After all, this is pre-WWI and what was going to happen when middleclass Nanda and her aristocratic friends left school? For Nanda, in Earl's Court, there would be no coming-out parties or curtseying to royalty; outside the democratic walls of the convent her friendships would surely fade when she couldn't keep up. (Read The Flower of May by Kate O'Brien for the damage wreaked by convent friendships across class boundaries.) I was horrified by the nuns' snobbery when I was younger ... now I think that maybe their feet were firmly on the ground and that they had a very realistic grasp of the society they lived in.
Still shudder at the convent cabbage, though ...


Darlene said...

Fascinating post, Mary!

mary said...

Oh Sue, that's brilliant, thank you. I'll e-mail you right away.