The best-selling memoir Rock Me Gently has passages identical to Antonia White’s convent classic Frost in May.
Cheryl Juckes, the journalist who spotted the similarities between the two books, explains how she broke the story Ilike stories about nuns: novels, films, plays. My bookshelves are crammed with nun fiction and I have copies of The Sound of Music in more forms than you would imagine possible.
But one novel has meant more to me than any other – Antonia White’s semi-autobiographical convent tale Frost in May. I can’t count how many times I have read it but my guess is around 50. I keep a small pile of copies because if I get to know someone really well and they turn out to be interested in religion, the gift I want to give them is Frost in May.
For my 40th birthday three weeks ago, I received a book called Rock Me Gently subtitled – “A True Story of a Convent Childhood”, by Judith Kelly. It had a picture of a nun on the front so my friend Misha thought of me immediately. Rock Me Gently was published in February and became a top-10 nonfiction best-seller but the first I had heard of it was when I opened my gift.
I started reading it in the throes of a chest infection, struggling to hold the heavy hardback between coughs. After a few pages, I forgot to feel sorry for myself because what I was reading was familiar; it was unnervingly like Frost in May.
I dragged myself upstairs but couldn’t find my pet copy of Frost so I had to raid the present cupboard instead.
I started comparing the texts. My husband was trying to watch television but couldn’t because I kept reading him out chunks of the books and coughing.
I wrote the page numbers of all the bits that matched, using a tatty note pad belonging to my 8-year-old daughter, and ended up staying awake half the night even though I was due at work the next day. I found that some of the lines were on the same pages in both books pages 35 and 36 in particular.
Compare the following passage from Frost in May – “I shall never get to sleep,” she thought miserably, as she heard the outdoor clock strike eight. But even as she thought it her lids grew heavy and her crossed hands began to uncurl. She had just time to remember to whisper “Jesus” before she was fast asleep.
– with this passage from Rock Me Gently: “I shall never get to sleep,” I thought wretchedly. But even as I thought it my lids grew heavy and my crossed arms began to uncurl. I had just time to remember to whisper “Jesus”, when Ruth’s gruff voice rang out.
Some of the characterisation is also similar. In Frost in May Antonia White writes: [Monica] had only one talent, a great aptitude for drawing dogs. She could not draw anything else, but she really did draw dogs very well. Nanda thought it must be because she looked so like a Scotch terrier herself, looking up with bright, puzzled eyes through her mane of brown hair.
This extract is from Rock Me Gently: Ruth had only two talents: giving Chinese burns and drawing shaggy dogs. I thought it must be because she looked like a mongrel herself, with bright anxious eyes peering through an unkempt fringe that toppled forward over her face.
The overlaps seemed too many to be coincidental, particularly given that the events of the two books were some 40 years apart. Antonia White’s gripping novel recounts her own experiences before the First World War in the alien world of an aristocratic convent. White was a middle-class convert at a school that was filled with cradle Catholics from titled families from across Europe. The story unfolds through the eyes of Fernanda Gray, known as Nanda.
Its climax is Nanda’s expulsion for writing a novel; it was supposed to be about redemption but she had only written the section on vice when it was discovered by the shocked nuns.
Rock Me Gently is about a girl with a Jewish mother and a dead, Catholic father, who goes to a Nazareth House orphanage and is then tricked into asking to stay for good. But while Nanda’s sufferings are psychological Judith’s are corporal as well. The girls are fed mouldy food, beaten and in some cases sexually abused. Two of them drown on a day trip while the nuns pray on the beach instead of going to help.
I thought this warranted further investigation and I started with Carmen Callil because she commissioned Frost for Virago press in 1978. She had also befriended White before her death.
A Google search came up with an email address that looked right and I sent off a message outlining what I had found, that I was a big fan of Antonia White and that I was an economics journalist at Reuters.
Callil passed my emails on to Virago and to Alexandra Pringle, editor in chief at Bloomsbury Press, the publishers of Rock Me Gently and another rather more famous school story Harry Potter. Pringle was also an editor at Virago when Frost was republished, but Bloomsbury said she had read the novel only once, more than 20 years ago.
An email from Pringle, forwarded by Callil, said that Bloomsbury was aware of the problem; the author was horrified by what had happened and was going through the text to sort it out for the next edition. There were not, she wrote, enough similarities to count as infringement of copyright.
Kelly had written the book over the course of several years and had mixed up her own notes with notes she had taken from elsewhere, Pringle wrote.
I let Pringle know I had seen her email and queried whether Bloomsbury would be withdrawing Rock Me Gently until they had separated Kelly’s fact from White’s fiction. She told me they were taking the problem seriously and were investigating. At this point, I realised I needed to write a story and I emailed Pringle to tell her.
My speciality is economics so I went to our media correspondent, Jeffrey Goldfarb, who called Bloomsbury and Virago.
He also tried to contact Judith Kelly herself but couldn’t get through. Reuters ran a story that evening headlined “Parts of UK best-seller found to match 1933 novel”.
As for many reporters following up on a story, the next day I was filled with frustration. The story stalled.
Kelly emailed wanting to speak to me, then did not reply when I tried to contact her. Goldfarb phoned big booksellers to find out if they had any plans to pull Rock me Gently from the shelves but they said they would only do that on Bloomsbury’s advice.
Virago, Frost’s publishers, could only say they were investigating.
I then phoned big Catholic organisations, including the media office in the hope of getting some kind of comment, but no-one would speak and I began to wonder if this mattered to anyone.
Frost in May was the first novel under the Virago Modern Classics, imprint, which is dedicated to reviving out of print women’s literature. Both of Antonia White’s daughters have written books about her; there are editions of some of her unfinished work and of her diaries. There is also a biography of her by Jane Dunn.
The BBC televised White’s novels sequence in 1982, starring Patsy Kensit as the young Nanda and Janet Maw as she grew up. Daniel DayLewis was also in the series based on books which fictionalised White’s harrowing battle with mental illness and failed marriages.
White spent a period confined to a mental hospital and suffered terrible writer’s block. She had to rename her heroine before she could continue her story and Nanda becomes Clara Batchelor. The Nanda/Clara novels are the only complete novels by White.
The overlaps between Rock Me Gently and Frost in May raise a number of crucial questions. How far does the number of similar, and in some cases identical, passages to Frost in May undermine the credibility of the book as a whole?
At the time of writing I am still waiting for answers from Virago and Bloomsbury.
The paperback edition of Rock Me Gently is due to be published in February 2006.
Frost in May is published by Virago priced £6.99 Cheryl Juckes has been a financial journalist since 1987. She is a catechist in her local parish.