TWO WORKS BY English novelist Antonia White inaugurate the Dial Press' new series of paperbacks by and about 19th and 20th-century women. Frost in May and The Lost Traveller originally published in 1933 and 1950 respectively but for many years out of print in this country, chronicle the girlhood and adolescence of a spirited, strongwilled young woman shaped by her experiences in a convent school, her deep difficult love for her father and the conflicting feelings within herself.
The story begins in 1908 near London and extends into the first years of World War I. White shows us a world in which appropriate behavior was sharply defined, whose inhabitants understood the notions of absolute authority, unquestionable propriety and the nature of disgrace. It was a world sustained by belief in class and breeding, and it was deeply shaken by the tragedy of the war which begins midway through The Lost Traveller . The struggles and consequences these books depict might seem neither radical nor shocking in a modern setting, but within their own world they resonate with power and significance. White creates the perfect atmosphere to explain and give meaning to her characters, but she writes more than history. Her work reveals people as they always are -- vulnerable, hopeful, passionate, capable of hardness, pride and misunderstanding, but also love. As a contemporary audience living in a time that has lost much of its sense of the delicacy of distinctions, we are reminded of the subtle shadings a fine period novel can achieve.
In Frost in May , Nanda Grey, 9-year-old daughter of a Catholic convent, attends the convent school of the Order of the Five Wounds, where "personal vanity was the most contemptible of all sins," and the nuns worked "to turn out . . . soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude." Despite the strict inflexibility of such precepts, this way of life is almost elegant in its clarity, order and remoteness. The nuns combine denial and faith with a quick irony and rare discernment of the natures and feelings of their students. Their school is to the young women of the wealthy European, Catholic aristocracy what Eton is to the British upper classes. Nanda, from a middle-class Protestant background, is awed and attracted by the style of her classmates. Even her devout, decorous father, especially in The Lost Traveller , sees this international Catholic set as glamorous and noble.
White expresses the duality of an atmosphere at once spare, disciplined and selfless, and sensuous, almost romantic. She describes, for example, the tiny cubicles where the girls are taught to sleep on their backs with hands crossed over their chests. Yet the days are full of the beauty of ceremony, evoked by richly detailed physical descriptions. On a feast day with alumnae present, "The nuns' voices were thin and clear and remote, like wood wind, but the Old Girls' sounded like 'cellos played with a throbbing vibrato . The smell of violets and fur mixed with the smell of incense and hot wax . . . Out of the chapel they went two by two in their white veils, each girl carrying a lighted candle."
Only Nanda's independence and strong will threaten the happiness she finds at the convent. Hers is the sin of spiritual pride, and the nuns see her nature as one to be broken and reformed in a humbler, yielding image. Her devotion to Catholicism is never in question; as a convert she is, if anything, more passionate about religion. Yet she pursues exclusive friendships, forbidden in this communal setting, and reads worldly books. A delicate tension infuses Frost in May as she persists in being herself in a world insisting on selflessness, ending in a disgrace with irrevocable effects.
With small changes in the initial plot, The Lost Traveller continues Nanda's story, changing her name to Clara Batchelor. White wanted her second book "to be a real novel," she says in the new introduction to this edition. "Frost in May was so much my own life. So I changed her name." She also adds the points of view of Clara's parents, Claude and Isabel. While Frost in May was a school girl's story, this is a family portrait. It centers on Clara's complex relationship with her father, her painful failure to satisfy his image of her as a compliant daughter. It also explores her confusion of living in a secular world where values are no longer clear and her faith grows remote. "She felt she was not so much growing up as expanding shapelessly in all directions."
White is particularly sensitive to the misunderstandings that too often govern relationships, the needs and dreams of parents, as well as children, that go unfulfilled. Claude's safe, well-organized world is shattered by World War I and the tensions with his daughter. Isabel, eager for the daughter's love she does not receive, seems discontent. Again, White creates atmosphere to mirror the characters' inner lives. In Isabel's room, modelled after "a French actress's boudoir . . . the satin-striped paper was yellowish with age . . . in a corner stood a crucifix . . . a dusty strip of blessed palm. Near it was a prie-dieu over which was flung a negligee." Isabel is a contradictory, seemingly shallow; yet she is the one who most matures and pulls the family together after tragedy. For her, as well as Clara and Claude, pain and loss seem necessary to shape their characters and help them reach a mutual understanding.
When The Lost Traveller ends, Clara seems changed but unformed, on the brink of understanding the essential qualities of her nature and her relationship to her parents. White completes Clara's story in The Sugar House , and Beyond the Glass , to be published by Dial in spring, 1981. h