Virago Reading Week

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.

6 thoughts on “Virago Reading Week

  1. Annie January 26, 2011 / 2:27 pm

    I’m old enough to remember the Virago imprint from day one and the first books I bought were the ‘Frost in May’ quartet. I haven’t read them since but I do remember being immersed by them as a type of literature that simply hadn’t been easily available to me up to that point. It has been quite disturbing, then this week finding so many bloggers being less than enthusiastic about the first of the four. I had thought I would go back and re-read them but am now having second thoughts. I think I’ll keep my memories of those early Virago days pristine.

  2. Carolyn January 26, 2011 / 3:46 pm

    Thanks for mentioning this and I’ll be sure to mention your interest in Margaret Kennedy later today.

    And yes of course, I had to have that ‘u’ in my blog name! And now I see that you’re Canadian too (and one of your fellow academic bloggers, Craig Monk, was actually a professor of mine at the University of Lethbridge!)

  3. Rohan January 26, 2011 / 9:48 pm

    Carolyn, sometimes Canada turns out to be a very small country,doesn’t it?

  4. Carol Wallace January 27, 2011 / 11:09 pm

    Rohan, I’m very flattered that you quoted so much of my “Frost in May” post. I’m just discovering your blog and it’s going to take me a lot of time to read through it in a satisfying way — especially since my heart lives in the 19th century.

  5. Rohan Maitzen January 28, 2011 / 12:44 pm

    Carol, I’m very happy to be discovering your blog, too, along with so many others coming to my attention thanks to this Virago project. I love the way new threads of connection open up all the time on the ‘web.’

  6. Da nielle January 28, 2011 / 9:55 pm

    I do hope you’ll write about Margaret Kennedy–I’ve often picked up The Constant Nymph, but I just haven’t gotten to it yet!

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