I dare to say your semi-biographical novel, which was based on your experiences as a boarder at the Convent of the Sacred Heart between 1908 and 1914, had a compelling yet disturbing effect on me.
The novel centers around Fernanda Grey, who, at the age of nine years old, is sent to a Catholic boarding school, the Convent of the Five Wounds, and stays there until the age of fourteen. Her father, a central figure in her life, is a middle-class man who, moved by aristocratic aspirations, was newly converted to Catholicism. The story is set in England, in the period between the wars.
What follows is the cruel journey of Nanda’s sentimental education and loss of innocence, a journey in which she both struggles to fit the Catholic faith and fights against the rigidity of this same faith, in order to preserve intact something of her own personality. The Convent’s name (‘Five wounds’) is not gratuitous: the nuns are intent in breaking into pieces each child’s will and in resetting it ‘in God’s own way’. We can sense, from the beginning, that the protagonist’s fall is inevitable.
The story is told in third person from Nanda’s perspective, and we follow her as she is submitted to relentless indoctrination and limitless surveillance. In this Convent, God’s will is to be enforced either sadistically or with passive-aggressive undertones by the frosty nuns, through the use of different types of psychological and physical cruelty. “‘I am only acting as God’s instrument in this. I had to break your will before your whole nature was deformed.’ Nanda glanced at the nun’s face. It was pale and controlled as usual, yet lighted with an extraordinary, quiet exaltation.”
Most of the girls in the Convent come from aristocratic Catholic families: they are rich, well-travelled, and often worldly. Nanda, on the other hand, not only is regarded as a ‘raw convert’, but also comes from a far less priviledged background; moreover, despite her pious character and her deep longing to be accepted, she has a mind of her own: she will never really fit in this environment, this class, this faith.
Nothing she does will never be enough: she will frequently have to be further broken down into ever smaller pieces. Nanda herself is quite ambivalent about the amount of her own personality she is willing to forego in the name of her faith: she makes disturbing questions in class, she makes friendships the nuns disapprove, she is caught reading forbidden books, she secretly writes a novel – her passions and her imagination can not be easily suppressed.
Furthermore, the Convent’s rigidity brings with itself the inevitable thrill of rebellion, so that Nanda is permanently torn between her desperate desire to belong and her fundamental need to break free; between her deep faith and her mind; between innocence and guilt; and ultimately between the Convent as her prison and the Convent as her true home. “She was part of the Church now. She could never, she knew, break away without a sense of mutilation.”
For me, you succeeded in writing about religion without assuming an overtly religious or preaching tone. Besides, I could sense a satirical undertone in your depiction of some of the nonsensical aspects of such a rigid convent life. Furthermore, you make use of the Catholic iconography (the wounds, the blood, the cross) in order to exacerbate the morbid nature of the education provided by the Convent – as well as the bitter ways in which this education thwart the very core of the faith the nuns argue to profess. One of the playing games in the Convent, for instance, simply chilled me to the bone: a key is pocketed by one of the girls, and a nun has to find out, merely by looking at them and seizing up their guilt, which girl has hidden it. The nun is simply never wrong.
The education process even seems to mirror the seven The Stations Of The Cross: it involves the relentless inflicting of wounds in each child’s tender spirit, in order to make it tougher through successive mendings. The saving of Nanda’s soul leads paradoxically to her loss of innocence and her fall from paradise: her unfair expulsion is the pinnacle of a poignant personal tragedy. She is hit by severe frost in the very spring of her life – hence the book title, I guess.
This is only the first book in a series of four semi-autobiographical novels, and I will be certainly reading the following ones in the near future. So do expect to hear from me soon, dear.
“She read on and on, enraptured. She could not understand half, but it excited her oddly, like words in a foreign language sung to a beautiful air. She followed the poem vaguely as she followed the Latin in her missal, guessing, inventing meanings for herself, intoxicated by the mere rush of words. And yet she felt she did understand, not with her eyes or her brain, but with some faculty she did not even know she possessed.”
― Antonia White,
‘And do you know that no character is any good in this world unless that will has been broken completely? Broken and re-set in God’s own way’.
― Antonia White,
About the book
- Virago, 2006, 224 p. Goodreads;
- Virago Modern Classics, 1978, 221 p. Goodreads;
- First published 1933;
- My rating: 4 stars;
- This book was read for All Virago/ All August 2016, 20 Books of Summer, Classics Spin #13, and Women’s Classic Literature Event.