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Wednesday, May 02, 2012


First sentences: Frost in May by Antonia White

Nanda was on her way to the convent of the Five Wounds.

Plain and simple. Frost in May - one of my favourite books - is a chilling, elegant, delicate semi-autobiography, the story of Nanda, child of a middle-class convert to Catholicism, placed for her father's social aspirations into an aristocratic convent school. What will follow is an education that the nuns themselves proudly proclaim is designed to produce 'soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude.' 'And do you know,' asks the Mistress of Discipline, 'that no character is any good in this world unless it has been broken completely? Broken and re-set in God's own way?' Nanda will face a journey of inexorable pressure that reaches a terrible conclusion. The writing - smooth, limpid and clear - passes no comment, merely shows, with the same grace that the nuns pass their fearful judgements, what happens and what effect it has on this child.

So despite the book's literary excellence, we have no elaborations of style here. It's a straightforward placing, telling us who and where we shall focus on. The first word is the central character's name, and we shall see everything through Nanda's eyes: Nanda is as much a location as the convent. Likewise, describing 'the convent of the Five Wounds', no mention of its physical location, has a great immediacy: Nanda knows where it is - or at least, the people sending her there do - so we don't need to be told. It's marked out not by its address, but by the fact that it's 'of the Five Wounds' - that is to say, it's distinguished not from other schools, but from other convents. It's the convent of the Five Wounds, not the convent of the Incarnation or the convent of the Holy Name: already we are approaching the world on Catholic terms.

And we are approaching it through Nanda, who is not quite Catholic enough - a 'raw convert', and just as importantly, not aristocratic in a place of delicate snobbery. The first thing we hear is her name, and her name is important.

First, it's a semi-autobiographical novel, so we can consider how it relates to White. While the book was published under the name Antonia White, which the author adopted as soon as she reached adulthood, this was not her childhood name. 'White' was her mother's maiden name; her father's, and her own in childhood, was the shamingly earthy 'Botting', a name she was eager to shed. (Much of her emotional life was dominated by the fact that she adored her insensitive, intrusive father and was embarrassed by her wayward, vain mother, so the fact that she forsook the name of the one to take the name of the other is a measure of just how much she hated being Miss Botting.) This shedding continues into Frost in May: Nanda is spared an embarrassing surname, and becomes the quietly equivalent Nanda Grey, a name evocative of simplicity, but also of complexity, of halfway status. White was never quite comfortable with her new surname, feeling it rather a blank, but 'Grey' conveys less blankness and more ambiguity - or more precisely, ambivalence, the emotional tone that drives Frost in May.

Moving to Nanda, though, the name we begin with, it's worth remarking that White's name was never, in real life, Antonia. In childhood, her name was Eirene, chosen by her classicist father, and which embarrassed her as much as 'Botting' with its unnecessary beginning E and its bathetic contrast to her surname. Boyish in childhood, she was nicknamed 'Tony' by her mother, and adopted that as her name; 'Antonia' is an elaboration of that nickname. With an author so in flight from her original name, we can imagine that the choice of 'Nanda' was seriously considered.

Why Nanda? The simple answer is that it maps neatly: just as 'Tony' could be seen as a pet form of 'Antonia', 'Nanda' is actually a pet form of 'Fernanda'; her full name is Fernanda Grey, though she's only called that on introduction to the nuns. A pretty name, an unusual one - a name that reflects the force that places her into the convent in the first place: a father with aspirations. Rather an elaborate name for an English schoolgirl, and notably, a name that's fake Spanish/Italian in a school that has actual Spanish/Italian girls in it. 'Catholicism isn't a religion, it's a nationality,' remarks Nanda's perceptive friend Leonie, and what these girls share is their faith and their class, not their homeland. 'Fernanda' has an air of embarrassing pretention, false exoticism among the real thing. Mr Grey's aspirations do his daughter no favours: she may be indoctrinated by this setting, but she will never really fit in.

[The following paragraph has been amended in the light of some observant remarks made in the comments by Amaryllis. The original paragraph, with its silly mistakes, can be seen pasted into the comments.]

In a convent school, it's also worth noting this: 'Fernanda' is not a saint's name*. It's a feminine form of 'Fernando' or 'Ferdinand', and there was a St Ferdinand, but in Nanda's case, this was not the reason it was chosen. Named before her father's conversion, it has more of an air of insular exoticism, a gesture to cultures he did not, at the time of her naming, expect her to meet. And small markers of status can make a big difference in an environment as close as a boarding school. White remarked of her own experience, 'I had none of the Catholic manners and graces. I wore neither scapulars nor miraculous medals under my serge uniform; I could not boast of having been dedicated to Our Lady and dressed exclusively in blue and white for my first seven years; I had not even a patron saint.'** Nanda's friends, meanwhile, have such thoroughly Catholic names as 'Rosario de Palencia' (as in 'rosary'); her best friend Leonie's name may be, Amaryllis points out, a gesture towards the domains of St Ferdinand, king of Castile and Leon. Their surnames are even more significant; Leonie's name, Wesseldorf,  'to Catholic ears had some of the glamour of Medici or Gonzaga', and 'There were Wesseldorfs and Palencias in every embassy in Europe.' Their names, unlike Nanda's are properly Catholic and aristocratic - and they're also authentic. Leonie de Wesseldorf has a French first name and a German surname because she's half-French half-German; Rosario de Palencia is Spanish, but Fernanda is English, and the English girls have names like Clare and Marjorie, which at least have the glamour of authenticity. Nanda's name is not Catholic enough, not aristocratic enough, not unpretentious enough for a school where she will be surrounded by the real thing. It will never be specifically mocked, but it is not a good introduction for her.

It's also notable, though, that the elaborate 'Fernanda' has been shorted. 'Nanda' is endearingly babyish: it could just as easily be a small child's attempt at pronouncing 'Amanada'. While intelligent and earnestly determined on being grown-up, Nanda really is a young girl, nine years old and far more vulnerable than she realises. There's a sweetness to her name that forms a stark contrast to the name of the place she is going: the convent of the Five Wounds. White based the convent on her old school while changing all the names, and her choice of 'Five Wounds' is interesting. The original convent boasted the much warmer-sounding title of the 'Sacred Heart'; of all the substitutes White could chosen, she settled upon one of the most ominous-sounding. A Catholic of the convent's kind would, of course, laugh at the silly Protestant misconception that would consider such a choice of name morbid, but White was an author who chose her words carefully. The convent is named for wounds, and by the close of the story, it will inflict one on the tender-sounding Nanda.

White never could bring herself entirely to reject her schooling, too alive to its compelling and uplifting aspects and too honest and self-doubting to dismiss them. Frost in May, for all its simplicity of style, is a book of passionate ambivalence. The opening sentence, then, begins to chart the only possible course through this ambivalence: an unadorned account of events from the viewpoint of a single individual. It contains very little but the names of the two central characters, Nanda and the convent, balanced at opposite ends, echoing opposite associations, ready to collide - with the Five Wounds having the last word. We have little to analyse except those names ... but when the book will tell us everything through the study of character, that is a great deal.

*Family story: my mother's name is Niamh, which is not a saint's name. The priest objected on the grounds that this was depriving her, and pressed her parents to give her a saint's name as well (for instance, to call her Mary Niamh and then address her as 'Niamh' as planned). My grandfather, an exceptionally stubborn man, refused point-blank: he wanted his Irish daughters to be named in the Irish tradition, and that meant a single given name. The issue was only resolved when he declared that she'd either be baptised Niamh or she wouldn't be baptised at all. Faced with this dire threat, the priest gave in.

**Quoted in Antonia White: A Life by Jane Dunn, from whence the other biographical information is also drawn.

Well, strictly speaking, "Fernanda" is feminine form of "Ferdinand," and there is a St. Ferdinand, a King of Castile apparently. (The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that he "took great care not to overburden his subjects with taxation.")

Mine was probably the last generation of American Catholics who could think of Catholicism as "almost a country," and the saint's-name thing was still in force. And, the little gender-conformists that we were, no girl really wanted a man as a patron saint, and it would have been totally inconceivable for a boy to have a name derived from a feminine root. So all the little Jeans and Joans took comfort that although their names were feminized forms of John, there were enough actual Janes and Joans in the calendar to choose from. The Michelles, on the other hand, were out of luck.

Now, of course, the church has given up that battle, and you'll meet as many little Taylors and Tylers in the parish Kindergarten as you will in the public school. After all, if the kid hangs in there that long, there's always the confirmation name!

I hope it's not nitpicking to say that I can't imagine a more Catholic name than "Rosario." It's one of those names where you assume "Our Lady of" in front of it, especially popular in Spanish speaking countries, I believe: Asuncion, Dolores, Carmel, Pilar, etc. You just can't get more Catholic than "Our Lady of the Rosary."

I read this book, a long time ago. From another generation and another country and another class, much of it was unfamilar to me but, as I said, I still grew up Catholic enough, and had read enough pious Catholic devotionals, to recognize something of the culture-- like reading about one's mother or grandmother. And from what I remember of it, yes the convent has the last word. Poor Nanda.
Hey, do you know what?! St. Ferdinand was king of Castile and Leon! There's your Leonie, Fernanda's friend, right there.

I'm pretty sure there is a St. Leon, somewhere, but I like this association better.

Yeah, it probably means nothing; I just like thinking about names.
Nitpicking? Hardly! This whole series is about close observation; you simply caught me out. :-) I'm really slapping my forehead for missing 'Rosario'!

I hope you won't consider it cheating that I'm going to rewrite the offending paragraph in the light of what you point out; I'm hoping these posts might have an educational value and I don't want to leave such a double-dyed mistake out there to mislead those who skip the comments...

So, for transparency, this was the paragraph in which I made some silly mistakes:

In a convent school, it's also worth noting this: 'Fernanda' is not a saint's name. It's a name chosen before Mr Grey's conversion, and entirely secular. White remarked of her own experience, 'I had none of the Catholic manners and graces. I wore neither scapulars nor miraculous medals under my serge uniform; I could not boast of having been dedicated to Our Lady and dressed exclusively in blue and white for my first seven years; I had not even a patron saint.' Small markers of status can make a big difference is an environment as close as a boarding school, and such issues as saints' names can be important in Catholicism - my own mother's name caused an argument with the priest for that reason* - but it's more complicated in Frost in May. Nanda's closest friend at the school is called Leonie Wesseldorf, and a search for saints only reveals a beatified woman with Leonie as her second name (beatification is a step below canonisation); her other closest Catholic friend is called Rosario de Palencia, which is not a saint's name at all. The difference, though, is that both these girls come from long-established and aristocratic Catholic families: Leonie's surname, Wesseldorf, 'to Catholic ears had some of the glamour of Medici or Gonzaga', and 'There were Wesseldorfs and Palencias in every embassy in Europe.' They can get away with such first names, not only because they match their actual nationalities (half-French-half-German and Spanish respectively), but because their surnames are so thoroughly, unimpeachably Catholic. Nanda does not have that freedom.
Cheating? Hardly! I'm delighted to have helped. And of course, your main point about Fernanda's name still stands. If she were an English Catholic girl, she'd probably have been called Ann or Elizabeth or Margaret like everybody else.

Over on Slacktiverse there was that thread where we talked about favorite childhood books. I was thinking about fiction then, but now I'm remembering the name book from the library's reference section; I can still see its red cover. I spent hours curled up in a chair in the children's room just reading lists of names and etymologies.
Names are a big deal, indeed; they say so much about a character. And - I forget if you have children? Because naming a child ... my goodness.

And I'm much obliged to you for pointing out the mistake, and especially for pointing it out without getting all 'Ha ha stupid Kit made a mistake and I spotted it who does she think she is pretending to know stuff I WIN!!!'

Even when I wrote the offending paragraph, it seemed a bit odd to think that the Catholic aristocrats had secular names; it seemed unlikely given the setting, but because I was thinking in narrow terms of saints' names, I just couldn't work out an alternative. So you actually solved a niggling doubt, which has removed an itch in my brain...
This is a test.

I thought I left a comment last night, but it's disappeared.

Briefly: one daughter, first name from my family, middle name chosen by her father because it sounded nice.

Some maunderings about alternate considerations and more experiences with Catholic-school patron-saint discussions.

Now, is it me or is it blogger?
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