The Virago Modern Classics really began in a convent over 60 years ago. It was the sort of Catholic convent that should have been in deepest Ireland, but was, in fact, in one of the more elegant suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. There I was sent when I was eight, and from it I was disgorged at 16. The Loreto nuns who educated me were semi-enclosed, which meant no speech from dusk to dawn, Mass every morning at 6.20am, a tomato for supper on Sunday nights and much Irish brown bread the rest of the time. Rules, censorship and silence, and above all a sense of disapproval waiting to pounce on those rare times when you felt most entirely yourself. And an obsession with sin. What sort of sin? Answers came there none. Until 1977, when the writer Michael Holroyd insisted I read Antonia White’s Frost in May. This novel, about a nine-year-old girl closeted in an English convent, is a classic – funny, wonderfully written, its heroine a young Everywoman up against an authoritarian and frightening body of adults who insist on subduing her spirit in the name of God. Rosamond Lehmann used to tell me how often her readers… Read full this story
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