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Fantasy teachers

The sweet-faced nun from Antonia White's Frost in May has a mission: breaking the spirits of little girls with her cruel put-downs

Well this is something new. We haven't had a nun before.

Mother Frances is no ordinary nun. Sweet-faced but with a wounding tongue, she uses vicious verbal sideswipes to enforce humility on girls at The Convent of The Five Wounds. Presenting each nine-year-old with an animal to place in the Christmas crib, she offers Marjorie a sheep "Because you really are rather like a little sheep, aren't you?" while Nanda gets a pig "Because pigs are the most obstinate animals in the world, aren't they dear?"


And all with the sweetest of smiles, as when she mocks the school's high-achievers for their right to wear a pink ribbon: "A reward for being almost unnaturally good for eight weeks on end - but don't mistake a pink ribbon for a halo, that's all."

What's her problem then?

Mother Frances, like all the nuns at Nanda's convent, believes in breaking the spirit of little girls. They are spied upon, their letters home are intercepted, their friendships discouraged. And their bi-weekly baths must be taken in cold water while clothed head to foot in a modest calico gown to ensure there is no danger of delighting in their own young bodies. Self-love is the sin that Jesus abhors most of all, at least as far as Mother Frances is concerned.

I say this woman needs treatment.

Well this is the 1930s and the poor thing is dying of tuberculosis. In fact, the whole school is more like a preparatory ground for death than for life in the world outside. Young Nanda is trained to sleep rigid like a corpse so "if the dear Lord were to call you to Himself during the night you would be ready to meet him as a good Catholic should".

Surely this is harmful stuff?

You said it. Nanda gets so concerned that she may be prey to spiritual pride that she starts being naughty in class specifically so she will not get the much-coveted pink ribbon.

So all this enforced piety proves counter-productive?

You can see why it is not on the national curriculum. Eventually Mother Frances is admitted to the infirmary and succumbs to a sentimental death. Afterwards Nanda gets in with the wrong set and writes a secret novel about sin and repentance (majoring too much on the former). This gets her expelled which means she has to go to a secular high school where, as Mother Frances once remarked contemptuously: "They put their hands up to answer questions."


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