From White to Grey: a psychoanalytical approach to Frost in May (1933).

Andrea Peterson

University of Birmingham

The recent success of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels has, at least in part, been attributed to the fact that they appeal to adult and child readers alike. Although Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) was ‘originally published entirely for children’, Rowling ‘had not thought of the book as specifically for children when she wrote it’ (Eccleshare, 2002, p.10). Many critics have subsequently commented on the “cross-over” status of the novels, but this is not a new phenomenon. Antonia White’s Frost in May (1933), although not written for children, is another school novel that has long had cross-over appeal. Elizabeth Bowen muses on this cross-over status in her Introduction to the novel, written in 1948:

School stories may be divided and subdivided. There is the school story proper, written for school-age children; and the school novel, written for the grown-up…. I began by calling Frost in May a school story. By subsequent definition it is a school novel – that is to say, it is written for grown-ups. But… Frost in May could be read with relish, interest and excitement by an intelligent child of twelve years old (Bowen, [1948] 1978, p.v-vi).

Bowen then cites Tom Brown’s School Days as the definitive school novel, spawning ‘a host of dimmer descendants, all written to inculcate manliness and show that virtue pays’ (Bowen, [1948] 1978, p.v). Similarly, Philip Nel notes that ‘one genre from which the Harry Potter novels borrow is the boarding-school novel, of which Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) is considered progenitor’ (Nel, 2001, pp.27-8). What sets White’s school novel apart is the gender of her main protagonist. To refer again to Bowen, ‘As a girls’ school novel (other than Frost in May) I can only think of Colette’s Claudine à l’École’ (Bowen, [1948] 1978, Hence, Frost in May belongs to a genre that has a nostalgic appeal for adult readers, but the boarding school setting also captures the imagination of child readers, allowing them to vicariously experience a life away from the family home and direct parental control. At times, both Nanda and Harry exercise their autonomy and break school rules, but ‘the reader’ is asked ‘to contemplate the reasons behind the rule-breaking’ and ‘to judge which laws are just and which are unjust’ (Nel, 2001, p.29). For the child reader, Frost in May offers a complex moral lesson.

Antonia White first suffered from mental illness in 1922. She was frequently prevented from writing for long periods by the seriousness of her condition and underwent many years of psychoanalysis. Frost in May,which was published at the start of one of White’s periods of debilitating mental illness, is the first of a quartet of novels. It was followed, two decades later, by The Lost Traveller (1950), The Sugar House (1952) and Beyond the Glass (1954).  By White’s own admission, Frost in May is the most autobiographical of her novels. Although she had begun to write it at the age of sixteen, she felt unable to continue working on it whilst her father was alive and so eventually finished it some sixteen years later. Frost in May focuses on the experiences of the character Fernanda Grey although, in the later novels, White changes the name of her autobiographical protagonist to Clara Batchelor. This change indicates that Clara is less of a self-portrait than Nanda: ‘Everything that happened to Clara… is the sort of thing that happened to me, though many things are changed, many invented. I wanted The Lost Traveller to be a real novel – Frost in May was so much my own life’ (White qtd in Callil, 1979, p.7). However, this change in name is also, to some extent, autobiographical. White was actually given the name Eirene by her father, the patriarchal Classics Master, Cecil Botting. Her conversion to Catholicism gave her ‘the full panoply of her baptised names: Eirene Adeline Prisca Mary Magdalene’, along with ‘the hated surname Botting’ (Dunn, [1998] 2000, p.139). In a gesture towards matriarchy, she later chose the name Antonia White for herself by combining a formal version of her nickname – Tony – which was given to her by her mother, Christine, with her mother’s maiden name – White. Her biographer, Jane Dunn, observes that this change of name was deeply problematic:

in constructing this new name for herself she felt she had come up with something worse, a nothing sort of name, bland and meaningless. Even more painful was the implicit denial of a fundamental part of herself and the loss of her identity…. How strange, she thought, to have rejected her father’s name, the name of the man whom, as a child, she loved and admired more than anyone, and to have taken her mother’s names, despite a passionate antipathy to her (Dunn, [1998] 2000, p.9).

It would seem that White spent a good deal of time contemplating the power and importance of nomenclature. In 1935, after a significant sexual encounter, she wrote in her diary ‘It was as if that day I came of age, took a new name, was initiated into a rite’ (White qtd in Dunn, [1998] 2000, p.182 [my italics]).As I have already noted, she felt it necessary to change her own name although, uncharacteristically, this aligned her more closely with her mother than her beloved father. White’s devotion to her father is better illustrated by her protagonist’s change of name from Fernanda Grey to Clara Batchelor: ‘Of course Clara is a continuation of Nanda. Nanda became Clara because my father had a great passion for Meredith and a particular passion for Clara Middleton (heroine of The Egoist)’ (White qtd in Callil, 1979, p.7). Indeed, it might be argued that this change of name acknowledges that Cecil Botting appears to have had a ‘particular passion’ for his own daughter and that this passion was reciprocated. The surname Batchelor perhaps suggests a resistance to marriage – the patriarchal transaction by which a woman is passed, literally and symbolically, from her father to another man. Indeed, in her final novel, Beyond the Glass, (1954) Clara, at the age of twenty-two, returns to her parental home after the failure of her marriage. At the age of twenty-four, White not only found herself back with her father, but was still a virgin despite having been married once and engaged at least twice. Dunn argues that ‘although there is little reason to believe... there was any kind of genital contact’ between White and her father, the ‘extremes of passionate longing and violent resentment which Antonia felt for him all her life dominated her emotional landscape and blighted her creative and sexual life’ (Dunn, [1998] 2000, p.219).

Frost in May is based on White’s experiences as a boarder at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton between 1908 and 1914. At the age of nine, Nanda Grey is sent to the Convent of the Five Wounds in Lippington by her newly converted Catholic father. She leaves in disgrace at the age of fourteen, after writing a scandalous novel, knowing that ‘nothing for her would ever be the same again’ (p.221).[1] This essay will consider White’s representation of Nanda Grey from a psychoanalytical perspective. White was certainly aware of Freud’s theories and, in her biography, Dunn reproduces White’s own Freudian interpretations of her experiences and detailed accounts of her analyses, gathered from her diaries and later autobiographical accounts. In order to produce an alternative interpretation of White’s text, my analysis will refer to Melanie Klein’s theories concerning object relations and depression; in particular, her paper ‘A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States’ (1935), in which she theorises two states, the paranoid-schizoid and the depressive, and suggests that alternation between these states starts at the age of six months and continues throughout life. Whilst Klein’s position within British psychoanalysis has often been contested,  particularly by Melanie Klein, she remains an important theorist within British literary and cultural studies: ‘literary critics have found much in Klein’s work that can be applied to their fields’ (Phillips and Stonebridge, 1998, p.2). I will argue that White’s depiction of Nanda Grey accords with Klein’s contemporaneous theories of the child’s psyche, and that the crucial change for Nanda is not having to leave Lippington, but the effect this has on her relationship with her father. Further, it has recently been suggested that certain Christian beliefs are analogous with both the paranoid-schizoid and the depressive state (Temperley, 2001, pp.50-51) – a particularly appropriate connection given the convent setting of White’s text.

As an adult, White underwent several periods of Freudian psychoanalysis. She also wrote candidly about her psychosexual development, with particular focus on her first four years and the crucial Oedipal stage. Dunn observes that whilst ‘there is no evidence that it extended to any kind of physical interference, there was a strong suppressed erotic element in her father’s possessiveness of her, domination over her and intrusion into her life. As [White] said herself in a later interview “[the relationship was] much too close, really”’ (Dunn, [1998] 2000, p.216). Dunn concludes:

Cecil Botting’s repressed sexuality was expressed in a self-indulgent romanticism. Inappropriately focused on his young daughter, his fantasies inflamed Antonia’s natural daughterly desire for her father into a complex of Electra-esque proportions. In the unhealthy grip of this complicity, she ruthlessly diminished her mother and carried the burden of her father’s longing for her (Dunn, [1998] 2000, p.217).

I am primarily concerned, here, with Klein’s theories of psychic development. Although Klein’s theorisation of the paranoid-schizoid and depressive states is a major departure from Freudian thought, she does accord with him on some points. During the first ten years of her career, Klein described her work as a direct extension of Freudian psychoanalysis. The most important Freudian ideas that resonate throughout Klein’s work include his theories of the unconscious, the super-ego, the death drive and infantile sexuality (including the Oedipal stage). From the 1930s onwards, although still remaining within a predominantly Freudian framework, Klein developed her own innovative theories. In recent years, female theorists such as Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva have been attracted to Klein’s more matricentric theories of psychosexual development. Given White’s considered adoption of an obviously matriarchal name later in life, I would suggest that such a matricentric re-reading of her autobiographical fiction is appropriate. Indeed, in Hysterical Fictions: The ‘Woman’s Novel’ in the Twentieth Century (2000), Clare Hanson draws on a range of matricentric theories, including Klein’s, when re-evaluating novels by a number of women writers, including Elizabeth Bowen.

Psychoanalysis frequently focuses on the conflicts of the Oedipal stage. Having focused on this and other crucial Freudian stages (oral, anal, phallic and genital) during analysis – or ‘anal lusis’ as White termed it in her diary, “anal” acknowledging the many times that faeces were discussed during ‘the first few weeks’ of her analysis with Dr Dennis Carroll and “lusis” ‘being the Greek word for letting go’ (Dunn, [1998] 2000, p.177) – White understood herself and her experiences in similarly Freudian terms. Given that Klein made various revisions to Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex and its resolution, it is helpful to very briefly reconsider one or two events from White’s earliest years from a Kleinian perspective before beginning to analyse Frost in May.

Klein published two papers on the Oedipus Complex, showing the development of her own theories. The first, ‘Early stages of the Oedipus Complex’,[2] appeared in 1928 and the second, ‘The Oedipus Complex in the light of early anxieties’, in 1945. Kleinian psychoanalysts primarily look for those thoughts and feelings that indicate an internal shift or movement between the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position. In Kleinian theory, the Oedipus Complex is closely linked to the depressive position. Klein challenges Freud’s theory that the Oedipal stage occurs at around four years of age, instead dating its onset at around the end of the child’s first year. Klein replaces Freud’s various chronological stages with fluid, ongoing positions. This problematises White’s representation of her earliest years, both in her diaries and her later fragmentary autobiographies, not least because she is open about ‘her gratitude’ to her analysts and ‘to Dr Freud himself’ (Dunn, [1998] 2000, p.240). White viewed her early years as revolving around a Freudian Oedipal drama. It may, however, be more appropriate to consider Klein’s theories of Oedipalisation.

Jill Boswell glosses Klein’s revisions to Freud’s theory of the Oedipal stage. Klein ‘felt the course taken by an individual’s Oedipal development depended crucially on his or her first object relationship – that with the mother’ (Boswell, 2001, p.82). She thought ‘[t]he central envy of the girl was of her mother’s feminine characteristics – her breasts and above all, her ability to bear children given her by the father’ (Boswell, 2001, p.82), rather than penis envy. But a key disagreement with Freud concerned his notion that the Oedipus Complex could somehow be resolved. The consequence of replacing Freud’s ordered phases with two positions was that his theory of the resolution of the Oedipus Complex no longer seemed satisfactory. Klein’s positions are not fixed and oscillation between them continues throughout life. Hence, the Oedipal drama may continue to be revisited and re-enacted. 

Later in her career, Klein increasingly ‘emphasized that love for the good object – the maternal breast – was the essential foundation on which could be built a secure inner world’ (Boswell, 2001, p.83). However, she went on to say that ‘the frustrations inflicted by the mother, weaning in particular, would cause the child to turn to its father, so that his penis... would form the second significant internal object’ (Boswell, 2001, p.83). Having internalised not only its mother’s breast, but also its father’s penis, Klein suggests that ‘for a baby of either sex the father’s penis might first of all be desired orally’, through ‘some idea of sucking on it as if it were a breast’ (Boswell, 2001, p.83). This illustrates how just one apparently throwaway comment from White’s unpublished diaries, that she ‘sucks at things and people’ (qtd in Dunn, [1998] 2000, p.19), might be reinterpreted. Dunn comments that despite ‘all this need for oral stimulation’, White ‘was relieved she was never breastfed, feeling as she did “a spasm of nausea at the thought of physical contact with [her] mother”’ (Dunn, [1998] 2000, p.19). In Kleinian analysis, White’s insatiable oral desire might be linked to her father’s penis rather than her mother’s absent breast. Indeed, White was conscious of having fantasised about her father’s penis as a child – another experience described in her autobiography and reproduced by Dunn:

Peering up at these larger-than-life statues without any clothes concealing them, she was fascinated to see that what seemed… to be elaborately carved bosses stuck on the front of the male gods actually appeared to be part of them, growing out of their bodies.... [H]er mind immediately turned to her father who, as a man, must possess one of these carved bosses too: ‘a large ornate one, like Apollo and Poseidon’ (Dunn, [1998] 2000, p.27 [my italics]).

Being the daughter of a Classics Master, White frequently made recourse to mythology when representing her familial relations. Her mother – who remains a shadowy, marginalised figure throughout Frost in May – was quickly ousted from this mythical drama. In her youth, White saw her father not as Oedipus but as Zeus: ‘[t]he first deity [White] learnt to identify as a child was Athene, goddess of war and wisdom. Sprung from Zeus’s head, fully-armed, she was born of her father and essentially motherless. For a small soldierly girl who wanted only her father as parent’ (Dunn, [1998] 2000, p.9), this would seem an apt allusion. However, instances where one parent is idealised at the other’s expense are indicative of the paranoid-schizoid position:

it is thought the qualities of objects are experienced as totally one thing or the other, as a result of splitting carried out to defend the ego.... This splitting plays a significant role in the child’s early attempts to deal with intense feelings about the parents. It is common for one parent to be idealized and the other hated, and these splits, if relatively fluid, may help to preserve a sense of goodness at times of… stress. However, if a child’s loving feelings for, say, its father, are strongly influenced by bitterness and hatred towards its mother, the relationship is likely to be brittle and precarious.... In time it is likely to result in an inhibition of the child’s own sexual development (Boswell, 2001, pp.88-89 [my italics]).

White left much textual evidence of both her ‘brittle and precarious’ relationship with her father and her inhibited sexual development which destroyed many of her adult relationships with other men.

Although White continued to favour her father, his conversion to Catholicism forced her to represent their relationship in Catholic rather than classical terms. This Catholic model appears to have undermined their relationship and eroded her own identity. White recalled never being particularly frightened by her father’s temper and scoldings until he imposed Catholicism on her and she was no longer Athene to his Zeus but a sinner in the shadow of a forbidding and implacable God. ‘I don’t think I was ever carefree again... God the Father was a very terrifying figure’ (Dunn, [1998] 2000, p.25).

Furthermore, unlike Zeus, God the Father had no daughter. When White, the sinner, was forced to leave Lippington for writing a novel full of ‘perversity, corruption and indecency’ (Dunn, [1998] 2000, p.46), her father, already aligned with God in her mind, did not offer salvation but instead rejected her – an event faithfully reproduced in Frost in May.

White was never part of an archetypal Oedipal triangle. For her, [t]he perfect outing was capped by tea with her father.... ‘That was my crowning bliss, the thought that he and I were sharing something highly pleasurable from which my mother was excluded’. She was in sole possession of the prize of her father’s attention and love.... In considering her father’s character after his death, she recognised that... ‘He... treated his wife like a child, his daughter like a wife’ (Dunn, [1998] 2000, pp.27-28).

In support of this analysis of Cecil Botting’s relationship with his daughter, Dunn cites an incident recounted in White’s second autobiographical novel, The Lost Traveller: ‘“now and then, I try and fancy how it would be if you and I were not father and daughter”.... [H]e kissed her goodnight, more lingeringly than he had done for many months, stroking her hair’ (White, [1950] 1979, pp.113-115). Although I will later consider this aspect of their relationship as it appears in Frost in May, it should be remembered that Klein ‘substitutes a structural for a developmental notion’ which ‘facilitates the making of a connection between adult psychosis and infant development’ (Mitchell, 1986, p.116). Indeed, as I have already noted, White’s persistent romantic fantasies/phantasies about her father – which he appears to have encouraged and reciprocated – evidence the paranoid-schizoid position. In the paranoid-schizoid position, ‘the most powerful weapon the infant has... is a phantasy in the negative mode: a negative hallucination, a denial….  [T]he object is annihilated from the infant’s mind. It is not thought of. It has been made not to exist’ (Roth, 2001, p.39). White remains indifferent to her mother, whilst unremittingly devoted to her father. Further, when her father can no longer idealise her – when he has read her scandalous novel – he retaliates by denying her existence. 

According to Klein, the paranoid-schizoid position originates first but quickly gives way to the depressive position. Both of these types of psychic functioning continue to alternate throughout life and are, therefore, evident in older children and adults too. Priscilla Roth offers an accessible gloss of their characteristics:

a person in the depressive position feels concern for and worry about damage to his objects – his loved ones – in external reality and in his mind...; while a person in the paranoid-schizoid position feels anxiety for himself: for his own safety.... Thus, anxiety in the depressive position is linked to guilt...; while anxiety in the paranoid-schizoid position is persecutory.... And while someone whose state of mind is more characteristic of the depressive position can view his loved ones as whole people, with their own real good and bad qualities, it is characteristic of people in the paranoid-schizoid position that they see other people as being either perfect... or very persecuting (Roth, 2001, p.33).

Although Klein detailed the depressive position in 1935, she did not elaborate on the paranoid-schizoid position until 1946. Nevertheless, in the earlier paper she ‘deal[s] with depressive states in their relation to paranoia’ and draws on ‘patients, both adults and children, who [have] displayed mixed paranoiac and depressive trends’ (Klein, [1935] 1986, p.117). Klein notes that both states or positions are characterised by anxiety and acknowledges that it is ‘difficult... to draw a sharp line between the anxiety contents and feelings of the paranoiac and those of the depressive, since they are so closely linked’ (Klein, [1935] 1986, p.123). However, she elaborates that in the depressive position, ‘the ego comes to a realization of its love for a good object, a whole object and in addition a real object, together with an overwhelming feeling of guilt towards it.... [A]nxiety for it’ is linked ‘with guilt and remorse, with a sense of responsibility for preserving it’ (Klein, [1935] 1986, p.125). Hence, a person in the depressive position may also feel self-reproach and ‘feelings of unworthiness and despair’ (Klein, [1935] 1986, p.125). In contrast, the paranoiac, or a person in the paranoid-schizoid position, experiences anxiety for him or herself rather than for a loved one: ‘the persecution anxieties and the anxiety for himself are... so strongly in operation he cannot endure the additional burden of anxieties for a loved object’ (Klein, [1935] 1986, p.126). In this position, a person is likely to distort, to idealise or deprecate, his or her objects as, ‘[w]here the persecution anxiety for the ego is in the ascendant, a full and stable identification with another object, in the sense of looking at it and understanding it as it really is... [is] not possible’ (Klein, [1935] 1986, p.126).

Klein goes on to note that although ‘the sufferings of the depressive position thrust’ a person ‘back to the paranoiac position... the liability to depression is always there’ (Klein, [1935] 1986, p.126) and, hence, there is an ongoing oscillation between these two positions. She attaches a greater importance to the role of the mother in the earliest months of life: ‘a good relation to its mother and to the external world helps the baby to overcome its early paranoid anxieties’; further, ‘a happy relationship to its real mother’ enables the child to more easily ‘overcome the depressive position’ (Klein, [1935] 1986, pp.141-143).

Having considered Klein’s theories of psychic development and functioning and White’s own accounts of her early childhood, I will now endeavour to produce an alternative reading of Frost in May.
White was baptised at Farm Street Catholic Church on 8th December 1906 and entered the Convent of the Sacred Heart in 1908. Frost in May begins in 1908 as Nanda Grey is taken to the Convent of the Five Wounds for the first time. Having already considered the significance White invested in names, it seems appropriate to comment on her choice of name for this self-representational protagonist. The surname Grey appears to be simply connected to her own adopted surname, White, although it has connotations of someone sullied or impure and, perhaps, suffering from an underlying sense of depression. Nanda is the name of a young girl in Henry James’ The Awkward Age. Fernanda, however, is an old Italian name meaning adventurer or traveller, but, during the twentieth century, the Anglicised version has been linked with the flowerless plant, the fern. This meaning is appropriate when the full meaning of the title Frost in May is considered. Elizabeth Bowen writes: ‘The subject of this novel is in its title – Frost in May. Nanda shows, at the start, the prim, hardy pink-and-white of a young bud’ (Bowen, [1948] 1978, p.vii). Dunn takes this metaphor further: ‘She... crowned her work of art with the perfect, understated but ominous title, for what can be more devastating to blossom, fruit, growth, life even, than the unexpected frost at night when the tender new buds are just unfurling’ (Dunn, [1998] 2000, p.149). For White, the ‘late frost’ came

stealthily and with deadly effect.... [H]er tender new growth was blackened and shrivelled on the bough. All the nourishing roots of faith and friendship and learning were also brutally severed: she was torn out of the ground and transplanted into a different soil. She physically survived but her flowering was to be late, and then only a poor reminder of what might have been (Dunn, [1998] 2000, p.47).

Fernanda, however, like a fern, can never flower as she has no part in White’s later works.

Nanda is taken to the Convent by her father. They share ‘the one-horse bus’ with an Irishwoman who, in conversation, discovers that Mr Grey is a recent ‘convert... only received into the Church a year ago’ (p.13). Nanda’s fate is lent a sacrificial quality: ‘wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing now if she was to offer her life to God as a thanksgiving for the great blessing of your own conversion, sir’ (p.15). This sacrificial theme might be linked to the novel’s denouement – Nanda is not actually expelled from the Convent for her misdemeanours, but her feelings are ultimately sacrificed so her father can save money on her education by moving her to a High School. Like White, Nanda might be described as having already metaphorically devoted herself to “God the Father” and as having ‘absorbed enough of the Catholic point of view to see how very appropriate such a sacrifice would be’ (p.15).

At the Convent, Mr Grey symbolically passes his daughter from the care of one mother to another. As Klein’s theories are essentially matricentric, this would seem significant. In ‘The Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States’, Klein observes that the child initially relates

to part-objects.... The object-world of the child in the first two or three months of its life could be described as consisting of hostile and persecuting, or else of gratifying parts.... Before long, the child perceives more and more of the whole person of the mother.... The child’s libidinal fixation to the breast develops into feelings towards her as a person (Klein, [1935] 1986, p.141).

Nanda’s relationship with her mother is not clearly defined and Mrs Grey is a relatively minor protagonist in Frost in May. In some ways, within the text, she is only ever a ‘part-object’, never perceived as a whole person. She is subject to her husband’s patriarchal authority, an authority reinforced by the Catholic faith, and clearly occupies a marginalised position. White herself eventually came to ‘realise, with some anger, what her mother had always known; “The Church really does hate women – you can’t get away from that! We are still ‘bags of tripe’ to them as we were to the Early Fathers”’ (Dunn, [1998] 2000, p.220). Nevertheless, Mrs Grey exhibits genuine affection for her daughter and, at times, this seems to be reciprocated. When Nanda’s parents visit her in the Convent for the first time, she catches ‘sight of her father and mother sitting in a window seat’ and intends ‘to fling herself upon them’ (p.37 [my italics]). Nanda does not intend to exclude her mother from this energetic embrace, but she is restrained by Mother Pascoe. Consequently, as she approaches her parents, having been reminded that she ‘must make a curtsey to them’, her mother becomes a “bad” object who frustrates Nanda, ironically ‘spoil[ing] her careful curtsey by pouncing on her and kissing her’ (p.37).

According to Klein, objects are either ‘hostile and persecuting, or else of gratifying parts’ (Klein, [1935] 1986, p.141); that is, they are split into “good” and “bad”. Initially, in the paranoid-schizoid position, there is a good mother who gives pleasure exclusively to the child. When this mother is absent, the child feels anxiety: s/he may be left in the care of a bad mother who is distressing and persecuting. Gradually, the child realises that the good and bad mother are one and the same and moves to the depressive position. As a form of protection, the child begins to feel ambivalence towards the mother and guilt because s/he has attacked her, in phantasy. In Frost in May, it is gradually revealed that Mrs Grey has been absent for much of Nanda’s childhood: ‘Mrs. Grey was known vaguely to be “delicate” and actually did spend a considerable time in nursing homes (p.167); ‘Mrs. Grey was away at Bournemouth recovering from one of her mysterious indispositions’ (p.172). At times, Nanda may be said to feel ambivalence towards her mother who she can recognise as a whole person with both good – sometimes loving and demonstrative, ‘pouncing on her and kissing her’ (p.37) – and bad – sometimes frustrating, ‘spoil[ing] her careful curtsey’ (p.37), often absent, ‘spend[ing] a considerable time in nursing homes (p.167) – characteristics. This ambivalence towards her mother is indicative of the depressive position.

There are also instances where Nanda may be said to hate her “bad” mother (whilst idealising her “good” father). Her hatred of her bad mother is suggestive of the paranoid-schizoid position. For example, Nanda becomes anxious that her mother’s presence in the Convent will lead to her persecution. Her mother talks too ‘loudly’ and is embarrassing: ‘Nanda felt herself turn scarlet’ (p.38). Further, by commenting on Nanda’s ‘lovely hair’ (p.38) and ‘sweetest little hands’ (p.39), she encourages ‘personal vanity... the most contemptible of all the sins’ (p.38). Klein writes: ‘The absence of the mother arouses in the child anxiety lest it should be handed over to bad objects, external and internalised, either because of her death or because of her return in the guise of a “bad” mother’ (Klein, [1935] 1986, p.121). Nanda may have come to believe that her mother returned from one of her absences ‘in the guise of a “bad” mother’. Alternatively, as she experiences more of Convent life, she may, like the reader, come to believe that she has been ‘handed over to bad objects’ in the guise of the nuns.

The nuns might be said individually to be part-objects although together, they constitute one whole mother-figure. Throughout Frost in May there remains a tension between the nuns as individuals and the nuns as an homogenous mass. Nanda first meets Mother Radcliffe. Despite being cast in a welcoming role, she becomes a persecuting, bad mother: ‘Her pale face was so narrow that her goffered  please check this word – I can’t find it in a dictionary  this is correct – it means pleated or crimpedwhite bonnet sloped to a point under her chin. This bonnet scratched Nanda’s face when Mother Radcliffe bent down to kiss her’ (p.17). Her individuality is eroded by further description of Mother Radcliffe as having ‘the characteristic walk of all the nuns of the Five Wounds, smooth and sliding, never slow, never hurried’ (p.17). Nanda is next taken to see Mother Frances. Although she does not immediately do anything to threaten Nanda, her expression suggests that she is cold and aloof, causing Nanda to remark ‘She’s like the Snow Queen.... I shall never be comfortable with her’ (p.22). However, Nanda’s misgivings are soon reinforced. Mother Frances is described as ‘some expert torturer’ who keeps ‘her cruellest shot for the last’ (p.24) and ‘a bored but efficient officer’ leading ‘a compact regiment’ (p.25). In addition, Nanda’s meeting with Mother Frances prompts further reference to the nuns’ homogeneity: ‘Having already met several nuns during her wanderings, Nanda had begun to wonder how she was ever to identify them individually. In their black habits and white crimped bonnets, they all appeared exactly alike’ (p.22).

The fact that the nuns are all called “Mother” highlights both their similarities and their quasi-maternal role, whilst their individual characteristics are all “bad”, persecutory and hostile. Mother Percival, the forbiddingly titled Mistress of Discipline, is ‘blunt and forceful’ and ‘bullying’ (p.73). Nevertheless, all of these references to the nuns are rather superficial. Nanda herself remarks:

How strange it was... that living side by side with the nuns, the children knew nothing of their lives. She had never seen a nun eat or drink; she could not imagine Mother Frances, even on her death-bed, dressed otherwise than in her black and white habit. Did they wear night-gowns? Did they have looking-glasses? It must be difficult to adjust those veils and wimples without them (p.89).

Ironically, it is whilst at the Convent that Nanda is told ‘Mother love [is] the highest of earthly loves, because [it is] essentially unselfish’ (p.131). However, in a later interview, Mother Radcliffe makes it clear that the nuns’ purpose is not to nurture girls like Nanda: ‘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. I don’t think your will has been quite broken, my dear child, do you?’ (p.145). This rhetorical questioning is certainly threatening, whilst Mother Radcliffe herself is a rather sinister figure: ‘a tall, inexpressive, black-and-white presence, betraying no emotion’ (p.165). Any interaction with these threatening bad objects would, understandably, force Nanda into the paranoid-schizoid position.

There are many references to food throughout Frost in May. For the most part, it is unappetising and unwholesome, further emphasising the lack of nurture Nanda and the other girls receive. Klein suggests that a person’s attitude to food may also reveal their psychic position:

Let us take inhibitions and anxieties about food.... The anxiety of absorbing dangerous substances destructive to one’s insides will... be paranoiac, while the anxiety of destroying the external good objects by biting and chewing, or of endangering the internal good object by introducing bad substances from outside into it will be depressive (Klein, [1935] 1986, p.127).

In the Convent of the Five Wounds, Nanda is frequently presented with food which causes anxiety because it is so unpalatable.

Nanda’s first meal at the Convent is a ‘[s]upper consist[ing] of stewed meat and rice, cabbage drowned in vinegar, and sweet tea, already mixed with milk, poured from enormous white metal urns’ (p.27). Although Nanda does not appear to believe the food she is given to eat on this occasion is ‘dangerous’, it may be ‘destructive’ to her insides as ‘the combination of foods sicken[s] her’ (p.27). Further, ‘the President of her table, the irreproachable Madeleine’, is persecutory, ignoring the pleas of ‘a pleasant Irish girl... for a little relaxation of discipline for a new child on her first night’ (p.27). Both Nanda’s anxiety caused by the sickening food and Madeleine’s persecution are indicative of the paranoid-schizoid position.

The nuns encourage the children to eat unpleasant food to demonstrate their piety. Mother Poitier is particularly cruel and menacing:

Nanda dropped her bread and jam. She had been too much excited by the story to remember to eat it. Mother Poitier stooped and picked it up; then, extracting a rusty penknife from her immense pocket, she carefully removed any actual pebbles from the bread and jam and held it up with an inviting smile. The slice still looked very dirty.
            “Now, here is a nice little penance for someone.... Who would like to eat this nice bread and jam? ... Louise, you were wanting to imitate the saints a little while ago. Here is your chance, dear”.
            Louise... held out her hand for the dirty bread. Her nose crinkled with disgust as she swallowed, but she said nothing (p.62).

The food in the Convent is usually very simple. During Lent, breakfast is ‘eaten in complete silence’ and is described as ‘consist[ing] of two thin slices of dry bread and a cup of tea without milk or sugar’ (p.194). On another occasion, however, it is just as austere: ‘at half-past seven they had a silent breakfast of dry bread and milkless tea’ (p.206). Later, whilst anxious that she will be punished for having written her scandalous novel, Nanda finds even this simple fare inedible: ‘At breakfast, she could only swallow a cup of milk. The bread and butter stuck in her throat’ (p.209). Lunches are similarly unpalatable. On one occasion, lunch consists ‘of salt fish and bread and water’ (p.207). Another day, they eat ‘stale rolls’ outside ‘under the trees’ (p.121).

After one confession, Nanda is urged by Father Robertson to ‘make a sincere act of contrition’ (p.78) for her sins. She attempts to mortify herself by changing her eating habits:

She gave up sugar in her tea and forced herself to eat the things she hated most to the very last scrap. Even the saintly Madeleine was impressed by her zeal and... gave her a second helping of particularly nasty cabbage. Having read somewhere of a Jesuit novice who mortified one of his senses every day, she tried to imitate him.... On Thursday, she put salt instead of sugar on her rhubarb to mortify her sense of taste (pp.78-79).

As yet oblivious to the patriarchal attitudes of the Church, Nanda is surprised to observe that Father Robertson’s diet is very different to her own: ‘She noticed that he had two pink sugar cakes, and wished that they sometimes had sugar cakes for goûter instead of stale bread and jam’ (p.77). The irony of the scene is intensified by the priest having not just cakes, but delicate ‘pink sugar cakes’, surely more appropriate for girls’ tea parties. Despite her wish, Nanda’s fare remains, for the most part, Spartan. Only whilst in the infirmary does she experience ‘the unaccustomed luxury of hot buttered toast’ (p.102). Her most lavish meal proves to be her most traumatic. On her fourteenth birthday she has ‘a cake with... fourteen candles’, but the celebration becomes a ‘ghastly travesty of a birthday tea-party’ (p.213). Her novel discovered, Nanda must ‘leave [her] guests to finish the party without [her]’ (p.214), as she is summoned by Mother Radcliffe to face her punishment.

As I have already mentioned, White idealised her father. Correspondingly, Nanda may be said to idealise her “good” father and hate her “bad” mothers. In Frost in May, Nanda describes Mr Grey as ‘her own father, whom she admired more than anyone in the world’ (p.136). When Mr Grey leaves his daughter at the Convent for the first time, he gives ‘her an affectionate squeeze’ (p.18). Although this might not seem overly demonstrative, I would suggest that it would have been unusual for a father to be so close to a young child – Nanda is only nine years old at this point – in 1908. Women were still the primary care providers and, in a middle-class family, the burden of care would not have fallen entirely on the child’s mother as the family would have employed servants.

When Mr and Mrs Grey are both with Nanda, Mr Grey appears to favour his daughter. Their Oedipal power struggle sees Nanda and her father unite against her weaker mother: ‘helped by her father, she kept her [mother] in fairly good order’ (p.38). Mrs Grey appears to be the child, and Nanda the wife – a role reversal White was acutely aware of. Further, it is Nanda rather than Mrs Grey who wins Mr Grey’s ‘rather rare smile’ (p.39) on this occasion. As father and daughter converse, Mrs Grey becomes ‘bored’ and destructively ‘pok[es] her umbrella into a flower-bed’ (p.40). This childish behaviour leads Nanda, still in the adult role, to reprimand her: ‘Reverend Mother is awfully particular about those beds’ (p.40). Mrs Grey ignores Nanda and continues ‘poking the bed’ (p.40). Nanda retaliates by directing the rest of her comments exclusively to her father: ‘“We’ve got a Scotch gardener”, Nanda told her father’ (p.40). When they part, Nanda says a cursory ‘Good-bye, Mummy’, having ‘fervently kiss[ed]’ her father (p.41).

There is further evidence to suggest that Nanda has a romantically charged relationship with her father. Chapter 10 of Frost in May is reminiscent of the erotically charged scene from The Lost Traveller, quoted earlier. This chapter details Nanda’s Christmas holiday with her father. Mrs Grey is ‘away... recovering from one of her mysterious indispositions’ (p.172). Interestingly, during this period Nanda is aware that she feels ‘a little guilt... mingled with her pleasure’ (p.172). Guilt is usually associated with the depressive position. As the type of anxiety a person feels is indicative of their psychic state, it is worth further consideration. Nanda goes on to wonder what ‘her father [would] say if he knew of some of her recent interviews with Mother Radcliffe’ (p.172). This could suggest that she is worried that he will be hurt and disappointed by her behaviour. This would be further evidence of the depressive position.

It is possible that Nanda could also be experiencing guilt because, in her mother’s absence, ‘she and her father’ are living ‘in a state of blissful companionship’ (p.172). Nanda, still only thirteen years of age, observes that ‘[t]o her great delight, her father had begun to treat her as a grown-up person’ (p.173). It would seem that in her mother’s absence, Nanda has become a particular sort of ‘grown-up person’ – a romantic partner for her father:

He dressed for dinner in her honour, asked her permission before he lit his pipe, and bought her pink carnations on the great gala nights when they dined out at a restaurant.... They dined at home that night; Nanda in last summer’s white muslin and blue bows, and her father in his scrupulously brushed, green-black dinner jacket (p.173).

At the end of the evening, he reminds Nanda of her complicity: ‘for goodness’ sake, don’t tell your mother I kept you up so late’ (p.179). Before she leaves, he holds ‘her for longer than usual as she kiss[es] him good night, smoothing back her hair from her forehead, and looking into her eyes’ (p.179).

Nanda appears to admire her father’s intellect. He invites her into his study and she remarks on the three files ‘containing the notes for Mr. Grey’s important, but not yet written, pamphlet on the Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad, a work for which she had a most daughterly and ignorant reverence’ (pp.173-174). Mr Grey has always directed the course of Nanda’s education according to his own interests and expertise. Earlier in the novel, there is evidence to suggest that has been a point of conflict, causing further anxiety for Nanda. For example, she laments that despite her knowledge of classical architecture, she has never had a horse or pony unlike many of the other girls at the Convent:

No one could trip Nanda up on the difference between Corinthian and Ionic columns. Mr. Grey had taught her to distinguish between these on her first visit, at the age of five, to the British Museum. How she wished that he had also or even instead, taught her to distinguish between a bay and a chestnut (p.29).

Nanda has actually received the same kind of education as the boys at the school where her father teaches – a masculine rather than feminine education. Her education sets Nanda apart from other girls, even at school:

“None of you do Latin yet, but Nanda’s going to do a Latin exercise every day and send it to her father...”. Poor Nanda reviled the Latin which had dogged her from the age of seven. Her father believed strongly in the importance of a classical education.... Nanda blushed over her parent’s eccentricity and felt a wild impulse to run away from the group of grinning little girls whose fathers did not insist on teaching them Latin (p.24).

However, it becomes apparent that Mr Grey has taken such an interest in Nanda’s education because she ‘must have a training that [will] enable [her] to earn [her] own living’ (p.175). Instead, he wants her to attend ‘a really good High School’ (p.176) so she can be coached ‘to take examinations such as the Cambridge Senior’ (p.175).

Nanda realises she does not want to leave the Convent. When her father suggests moving her to a local High School, her voice becomes ‘sad and quavery’ and she has ‘a horrible feeling that she [is] going to cry’ (p.175). As her father explains his plans for her, she can ‘keep back tears no longer’ and is ‘overwhelmed with a passionate affection for the place’ (p.176). Her father is clearly distressed by her emotional outburst: ‘He did not look at Nanda, but she saw that his hands were shaking’ (p.177). However, he cannot afford to keep her at the Convent until she is eighteen: ‘“I’m not very well off, and… Lippington is an expensive school…”. “Oh, Daddy, I never realised that…. If things are like that… I’ll leave Lippington to-morrow, if you like” (p.178). Mr Grey tells Nanda that she can stay at the Convent, ironically using the words ‘I’m not going to let you sacrifice yourself’ (p.178). Instead, he sacrifices Nanda by allowing her to believe she must leave the Convent for writing a ‘disgusting’ (p.215) novel. In fact, she ‘was not officially expelled’ and, although Mother Radcliffe ‘had... suggested that she might be removed to another house of the Order’ (p.217), her father declines this offer so he can send her to a High School – as he had intended all along. When Nanda realises that ‘[n]ever, never, could things be the same.... Never again could she love him in the old way’ (p.217), I would suggest that on an unconscious level she is aware that her father has sacrificed her to save himself. When Mother Radcliffe explains to Nanda that ‘God asks... the sacrifice of what we love best’ (p.218), this is ambiguous. Nanda is sacrificed by and for her father. Their relationship is severely damaged by his betrayal – he denies her:

“Daddy...” she gasped....
“I would rather you did not use that name, if you please.... I wish to God that I had never had a daughter” (pp.215-216).

Consequently, Nanda experiences the ‘distressed feelings... connected with the... loss of the whole loved object’ (Klein, [1935] 1986, pp.130-131). This is what finally breaks her.

It is evident that Nanda has struggled with an inescapable ‘liability to depression’ (Klein, [1935] 1986, p.126) whilst at Lippington. At various times she is described as feeling ‘odd fits of melancholy’ (p.110), being ‘interested... in the mechanics of sorrow’ (p.120), ‘long[ing] passionately for a definite, solid grief’ (p.120), ‘lay[ing] awake at night worrying miserably’ (p.135), and feeling ‘an hysterical relief’ after giving ‘herself up entirely to convulsive tears’ (p.166). Further, she finds the lives of the saints ‘depressing and repulsive’ (p.136). At times, she even contemplates her own death (pp.98-100).

Jane Temperley argues that

[t]he need to have a good object within one, to introject and incorporate it... can be followed in the beliefs underlying the Christian service of Holy Communion. The Christian believes that in this ceremony he installs in his inner being a loved and loving protector... who will sustain him.... Loss of the divine object’s good will is attributed to the believer’s neglect of, and attacks upon, it and this loss results in guilt and intense fears of retaliation and Hell (Temperley, 2001, p.50).

Instead of providing sustenance, Nanda’s First Communion proves to be a particularly distressing experience. Nanda looks forward to this important event ‘with a mixture of awe and excitement’ (p.74), but during the mass she cannot concentrate and feels ‘light-headed and empty, unable to pray or even to think’ (p.83). The crucial moment arrives:

Nanda was horrified at her own detachment.... In a trance she heard the bell ring for the Domine non sum dignus.... She felt the wafer touch her tongue and waited for some extraordinary revelation, for death even. But she felt nothing.... ‘This is the greatest moment of my life. Our Lord Himself is actually present, in the flesh, inside my body. Why am I so numb...’ (p.84).

Although this moment might be linked with the depressive position, as Temperley suggests, for Nanda, it is another moment of persecutory anxiety more suggestive of the paranoid-schizoid position.

Later, Nanda is able to experience ‘[s]omething... happening to her... that had not happened when she made her First Communion’ (p.104), but ‘this new feeling, whatever it was, had nothing to do with God’ (p.105). In fact, Nanda discovers that she is moved by literature – in this instance, the poems of Francis Thompson. It would appear that Nanda, like White, has more in common with her mother than she realises. By idealising her father she seems to have limited her relationship with her mother, never allowing herself to admit that she could love and be loved by her. Nanda’s passion for literature is denigrated by her father: ‘But what, after all, are literature and music’ (p.176). Significantly, although White’s mother was more encouraging – she actually gave her ‘the copy of the poems of Francis Thompson’ (p.85) as a present on her First Communion – she does not clarify this in Frost in May. Of White, Dunn astutely comments:

It is significant that it was her mother, at this time despised by Antonia... and marginalised by her daughter’s obsession with her father, who had shown in this gift just how... sympathetic she was to her daughter’s passionate character (Dunn, [1998] 2000, p.45).

I would argue that, from a Kleinian perspective, in Frost in May there is much evidence of Nanda’s oscillation between the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions. For the most part, her close relationship with her father, which undermines and restricts her relationship with her mother, and her destructive relationships with her symbolic mothers, the nuns, push her towards the paranoid-schizoid position. Her ongoing struggles with the Catholic faith push her back to the depressive position. Once, during the early months of life, ‘the depressive position has been reached... the liability to depression is always there’ (Klein, [1935] 1986, p.126). Although Nanda does not reappear in White’s  later autobiographical fiction, in The Lost Traveller, The Sugar House and Beyond the Glass, periods of mental illness continue to dominate Clara Batchelor’s adult life, just as they continued to dominate White’s own life. Autobiographical fiction remains highly problematic, although by choosing to work within this genre, White clearly wanted to be identified with Nanda. White remained indebted to her analyst Dr Carroll. Many years after the end of her analysis, she wrote a letter ‘where she mentioned her gratitude to Dr Carroll, and to Dr Freud himself who was still just alive’ (Dunn, [1998] 2000, p.240). Although her fictional works were greatly influenced by her knowledge of and belief in Freudian theory, this alternative Kleinian reading suggests the fallibility of authorial intention, commonly attributed to the existence of the unconscious mind.  


1. All references to Frost in May will be in parenthesis immediately following quotations. They are to the 1978 Virago edn.

2. The title of this paper is given as ‘Early stages of the Oedipus Conflict’ in Juliet Mitchell (ed.), The Selected Melanie Klein.




Boswell, Jill, 2001. ‘The Oedipus Complex’ in Catalina Bronstein (ed.), Kleinian Theory: A Contemporary Perspective, pp.77-92.

Bowen, Elizabeth, [1948] 1978. ‘Introduction’ in Antonia White, Frost in May, pp.v-x.

Bronstein, Catalina (ed.), 2001. Kleinian Theory: A Contemporary Perspective. London and Philadelphia: Whurr.

Callil, Carmen, 1979. ‘Introduction’ in Antonia White, Beyond the Glass, pp.3-7.

Cixous, Hélène, [1975] 1980. ‘The laugh of the Medusa’, trans. K. and P. Cohen, in Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (eds), New French Feminisms. Brighton: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Dunn, Jane, [1998] 2000. Antonia White: A Life. London: Virago.

Eccleshare, Julia, 2002. A Guide to the Harry Potter Novels. New York and London:

Hanson, Clare, 2000.Hysterical Fictions: The ‘Woman’s Novel’ in the Twentieth Century. London: Macmillan.

King, Pearl H. M. and Steiner, Riccardo, 1991. The Freud-Klein Controversies 1941-1945. London and New York: Tavistock Publications/Routledge.

Klein, Melanie, [1928] 1986. ‘Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict’ in Juliet Mitchell (ed.), The Selected Melanie Klein, pp.69-83.

Klein, Melanie, [1935] 1986. ‘A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States’ in Juliet Mitchell (ed.), The Selected Melanie Klein, pp.116-145.

Klein, Melanie, [1946] 1986. ‘Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms’ in Juliet Mitchell (ed.), The Selected Melanie Klein, pp.175-200.

Mitchell, Juliet (ed.), 1986. The Selected Melanie Klein. London: Penguin.

Moi, Toril (ed.), 1986. The Kristeva Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.

Nel, Philip, 2001. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Novels: A Reader’s Guide. New York and London: Continuum.

Phillips, John and Stonebridge, Lyndsey (eds), 1998. Reading Melanie Klein. London: Routledge.

Roth, Priscilla, 2001. ‘The Paranoid-Schizoid Position’ in Catalina Bronstein (ed.), Kleinian Theory: A Contemporary Perspective, pp.32-46.

Rowling, J. K., 1998. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury.

Temperley, Jane, 2001. ‘The Depressive Position’ in Catalina Bronstein (ed.), Kleinian Theory: A Contemporary Perspective, pp.47-62.

White, Antonia, [1933] 1978. Frost in May. London: Virago.

White, Antonia, [1950] 2006. The Lost Traveller. London: Virago.

White, Antonia, [1952] 2006. The Sugar House. London: Virago.

White, Antonia, [1954] 1979. Beyond the Glass. London: Virago.