I’ve needed all the escapism I can get in this last week for obvious reasons. If anyone else is in the same boat this is a good place to start.
This loosely autobiographical story is about a young girl, named Nanda Grey, who is sent to the Convent of the Five Wounds after her father converts to Catholicism. In the introduction Elizabeth Bowers says “There is the school story proper, written school-age children; and the school novel written for the grown-up,” and this is definitely the latter. The language is clean and stark, simple enough for a child to understand, but the themes White has woven through the book are complex and dark.
Nanda Grey is at a disadvantage from the start as her peers are from wealthy catholic families and she is from a middle class household in Earl’s Court. The fact she has converted from Protestantism is also damning. She has the passionate devotion of a true believer and heaps coals upon her own head for any fault she or the nuns perceive in her.
“On Tuesday, she stuffed her fingers in her ears when the organ played at benediction. On Wednesday, she refused to smell flowers and made herself sniff and particularly nauseating mixture of ink and liquorice powder. On Thursday, she put salt instead of sugar on her rhubarb to mortify her sense of taste.”
This book is so powerful in its simplicity. From the moment Nanda steps into the convent her every move and thought is regulated, even her sleeping position is corrected on her first night. Letters home are read and checked for improper thoughts, story books are strictly rationed, girls are forbidden to walk together alone because “When two are together, the devil loves to make a third,” and this is where Nanda’s major flaw (in the eyes of the nuns) lies. She has the tendency to form passionate relationships with other girls. The moment she falls for her schoolmate Leonie, a wonderfully androgynous and romantic character, White’s vivid description of it is like a cold flame leaping from the page.
The thrill of disobedience, from feeling any kind of emotions or passion towards another living being, is the major rebellion of Nanda Grey and in the domineering environment of the convent it must be crushed at all costs. It’s not enough for her to behave perfectly, devote every hour and believe it with all her heart. They want to break her will, this is even said to her face, and the book illustrates the slow death of a free and imaginative mind.