A little while back, when I mentioned my plan to read through a bunch of Virago Modern Classics while on sabbatical, beginning with Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph, Carolyn of A Few of My Favourite Books (I love that you can tell she’s Canadian by the ‘u’ in ‘Favourite’) wrote to let me know that she was co-hosting a Virago Reading Week. It began Monday, and there’s all kinds of related activity and lots of links to follow up at Carolyn’s blog. Carolyn has also compiled a very helpful list of Virago authors, and through the links on her site I discovered that another blogger has compiled a list of Virago (and Persephone) titles that are available online, many for free. One of the earliest reviews to go up as part of this Virago venture is this nice piece on Antonia White’s Frost in May, itself the first Virago Modern Classic published (in 1978):
Since the entire book is narrated from Nanda’s point of view it’s a good thing she’s observant. She uses the sharp gaze of an outsider, for not only is she a convert, she is also middle-class. But “Lippington,” as the school is known, is the favored educational venue for a kind of borderless European aristocracy. The glamorous girls are Spanish, Irish, Franco-German, and feature cardinals and abbesses on their family trees. Nanda, though accepted as a friend, can never share their easy identification as members of the one True Church.
But as we might guess from the title, this is an education gone awry. White is sharp about the power the nuns exert over their charges, the surveillance and what we might call emotional blackmail. The founding principle of the school is the breaking of a child’s character so that it may be re-formed in a manner more pleasing to God. This is the “frost” of the title, of course.
But is there more to the tale than the humiliation and grief visited upon a young girl? Nanda is well-drawn, but the secondary characters — those glamorous aristocratic Catholic girls — tend to be endowed with marvelous heads of hair and a few tics. The nuns are stock figures as well, remote and manipulative. (Rumer Godden does a much better job of seeing beyond the habit.) White’s hurt and outrage are fresh, but they are the only note she sounds. (read the whole post here, at Carol Wallace’s blog Book Group of One)
Quite a collection of other book bloggers have made plans to read and review Virago titles including E. M. Delafield’s Thank Heaven Fasting, Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Solitary Summer, Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, and Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter–and so many more that it’s probably best, if you have other work or reading to do, not to spend too much time browsing the possibilities. I don’t notice much mention of Margaret Kennedy, though. My modest Virago Reading Week plan is to keep on with her first novel, The Ladies of Lyndon, which (obviously) she wrote before The Constant Nymph but which was not much of a success until after Nymph caught the public fancy. The introduction to The Ladies of Lyndon basically promises that the novel will live up to its underwhelming debut. I guess I’ll find out.