This was my final read for August, and I must say I absolutely loved it. Antonia White is mainly known for her quartet of novels which began with Frost In May, which was the first ever Virago Modern Classic. I re-read Frost in May about two years ago and although I enjoyed it – there was something a little disturbing about the story of the breaking of a young girl’s spirit. I have now collected each of the remaining three books of the quartet together – and I am so glad that I have.
In The Lost Traveller (which is apparently very autobiographical) Nada Grey of Frost in May has become Clara Batchelor – and The Five Wounds School has become Mount Hilary, but they are essentially the same place.
As the novel opens in 1914 Clara is fourteen, her paternal grandfather has just died, and with her father Claude grief stricken at the demise of the parent he had undeservedly put on a pedestal – Clara is called home from her Catholic boarding school for the funeral. Clara’s mother Isabel is a strange cool creature, irritated by her mother-in-law – she adores her daughter – but feels Clara’s reserve toward her very keenly. Clara both adores and fears her father; terrified of his disapproval she does what she can to please him.
At the heart of this novel is the complex relationship between Clara and her parents. Clara is an only child of Catholic converts, Claude a respected school master, and Isabel a fragile beauty whose ancestors were quite grand. Claude is ambitious for Clara – with a scholarship to Cambridge in mind for her, Isabel is less keen on the idea of a bluestocking daughter, wanting her only to be beautiful. Just as he worshiped his father, Claude worships his wife; Clara resents her, hating the way she speaks to Claude and her grandmother. The relationship between Clara and her father verges on the ever so slightly disturbing, Clara is a daddy’s girl, and yet the relationship with her father doesn’t always bring her happiness, at one moment revelling in a shared confidence or appreciation of a piece of music – the next made miserable by one of Claude’s dreadful rages.
“Oh thank you, Daddy. You do look magnificent,” she said, pinning on her flowers and gazing at him with admiration. Evening clothes suited him; they set off his fairness and made him seem taller. Never, she thought, had she seen him looking so young and handsome.
She giggled with sheer happiness.
“I never thought I’d go to the opera with you in your opera hat, I do feel grand.”
He offered his arm.
“Your carriage is waiting.”
To her amazement, it was no mere taxi but a hired car with a chauffeur in livery. A hired car was the very greatest of luxuries associated only with the most solemn family feasts such as her parents’ wedding anniversary. Never before had he ordered one just for Clara.
“Daddy you are spoiling me,” She said, leaning back on the thick grey cushions.”
Clara is irritated and even repelled by her mother’s affection. Isabel knows only too well the realities of a Catholic marriage, she wants her daughter to marry, but insists she must marry for love, in her terrible ignorance of the facts of life; Clara is bound to misunderstand her mother. Isabel is a wonderfully drawn character, often unhappy and jealous of Clara and Claude’s relationship. The one thing that Clara and Isabel seem to agree on is Pagets Fold, the Sussex country home of Claude’s family, a small house with 40 acres, where his two spinster aunts live in a sort of caretaker role. Clara and Isabel love the aunts and for Clara, Pagets Fold represents an idyll to which she looks forward to returning each summer holiday.
Shortly after the death of her grandfather, Clara is forced to leave her Catholic boarding school – that has become a blissful haven from home life – as her father can no longer pay the fees following a mysterious illness of her mother’s which resulted in high doctor’s fees. Clara will spend her final year of schooling and subsequent sixth form at a protestant day school. Saddened at the loss of her friend Nicole de Savigny – who Clara instinctively knows she will be unable to keep up with – their social orbits being of an entirely different kind, Clara fears her removal from the place where she feels safe. However at her new school Clara makes two particularly good friends, who serve to help Clara develop at little bit of spirit and creative flare. No longer quite as buttoned up, Clara starts to blossom, and is no longer quite sure that Cambridge is for her. On the brink of womanhood, and in the middle of the Great War – Clara leaves her family to spend six months as a governess in a good Catholic home, where she will be treated as one of the family and able to re-connect with her Catholic upbringing. Here Clara is supremely happy, reverting almost to childhood in her antics with her young charge. However when the first really tragic event of her young life comes along, Clara is really tested. Clara needs to work out how to heal herself and move forward.
I loved every page of this novel – and can’t wait to catch up with Clara again and so have put the next book The Sugar House on my pile of books to read in September.