Frost In May by Antonia White is a very Catholic book, and I am really wondering how I’d never heard of it or its author before a couple of weeks ago, me being the self-styled pseudo-“expert” in Catholic Lit that I fancy I am.
Humility is always just around the corner, it seems.
I won’t leave you in suspense: it’s an excellent little novel, terse, painful, ironic and complicated.
People have various views on how much the biography of an artist should weigh on our evaluation or understanding of the art. I tend to land on the “let the piece stand on its own” side most of the time, even though there’s usually one significant biographical fact that helps illumine a work and is good to know before you go on: Walker Percy’s grandfather and father both committed suicide. Flannery O’Connor’s father died young from lupus, and she knew she’d die young from it too after a certain point. And so on.
I think with Frost in May¸ knowing a bit about Antonia White is helpful. I hasten to say, though — not too much, for there’s an event in her young life that makes its way into the novel and is a definite, sad twist — and it’s good not to know what it is going in. So don’t do exhaustive research, and don’t read the introductions to modern editions before you read the novel.
(This is a pet peeve of mine — I have found this time and time again that these introductions to older novels, usually penned by popular contemporary authors, tend to give a lot of the plot away — so I’ve started skipping them. Perhaps it would be better for them to be supplementary essays in an appendix?)
But I will say that this incident — what happened to White and what happens to her protagonist — is an almost perfect distillation of the Plight of the Catholic Artist….