BACK in the 1990s, the historian Eamon Duffy famously characterised the English Reformation as “the stripping of the altars”. Whether we agree or disagree with Duffy’s claim, not least among the effects of that era was the dismantling of ancient religious houses, both great and small, which dotted the English landscape.
Of course, nuns and monks returned to England in the mid-19th century. Such has been the shift in landscape and perspective, however, that perhaps the only nuns who register in most contemporary imaginations are either those of The Sound of Music or Black Narcissus. Or, perhaps, Sister Wendy Beckett.
I could not express my delight, then, when I discovered Sylvia Townsend Warner’s story of a convent of nuns set primarily in 14th-century Norfolk as they seek (and mostly fail) to make the best of their modest lot. While I am not the sort of person who readily proclaims any work a “masterpiece”, this deceptively sharp and mesmeric novel, first published in 1948, is a work of fierce, insightful, and determined genius. Rarely have I read a book in which so little seems to happen — this is, after all, a book about nuns praying and living in seclusion — and yet in which one finds the whole drama of life.
Leaving aside an opening chapter that charts the origin story of the convent of Oby, The Corner That Held Them unfolds in the after-effects of the defining crisis of the European Middle-Ages: the Black Death. This is a world of disruption and criminal gangs, in which the disease is the only thing that travels quickly. Anyone who comes to this novel expecting a plot-driven romp, however, is in for a shock.
Townsend Warner herself said that The Corner That Held Them was plotless. This is very far from true — the novel includes characters who commit fraud, seduction, adultery, and even murder — but her point holds truth.
The truth lies in the way Townsend Warner’s real interest is in how the nuns of Oby are caught up in their own obsessions while the world moves on without them. The reader feels Prioress Alicia’s longing for significance as she becomes preoccupied with building a new church tower; one comes to empathise with the convent priest Sir Ralph’s anxiety that his ugly secret will be revealed. One feels the nuns’ sense of irrelevance as time seems almost tangibly to flow though and around those confined in this small plot of eastern England.
Nor does this novel handle character in familiar ways. Townsend Warner wrote in a letter to a friend that the novel’s cast of characters were “innumerable . . . and insignificant”. Indeed, it takes a few chapters for the reader to begin to distinguish between the likes of Dame Lovisa, Dame Blanch, Dame Lilias, and the others. They emerge like details in a great painting: once spotted, they become dynamic and begin to re-form what we though we knew about the wider work of art.
© Dorset History CentreThe author, Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978): poet, novelist, translator, and a musicologist with a specialism in Early English church music
Townsend Warner’s handling of perspective is also impressive: Prioress Alicia might dominate the narrative for a few chapters, before another character reframes the story. Rather as in life, time is permitted to redeem or condemn individuals about whom we might have made too easy a judgement. Truths, falsehoods, promises, and doubts break open with a kind of gentleness which makes them only more shocking.
Part of the pleasure of The Corner That Held Them lies in its gift for granular detail: we smile when a novice, barely more than a child, is discovered attempting to put a bee down another nun’s neck; we share in Dame Lilias’s delight when she sees the sea for the first time in her life.
Townsend Warner’s musicological training means that her accounts of liturgy and song are especially strong. When the worldly Sir Ralph encounters ars nova, the new technique for singing music, for the first time, he says, “This was how the blessed might sing.” The reader believes him.
It is hardly surprising that a novel that handles women’s enclosure explores themes of power and jealousy. Yet the narrow world of Oby, in which individual personhood is supposed to be subsumed beneath Benedictine discipline, is much more than a hotbed of bickering over petty gradations in position and class. The Corner That Held Them is a work of humane, wry feminism.
The nuns seek meaning in worship, creativity (most notably through their embroidery), and the simple rhythms of the changing seasons. If their jostling for position at first seems petty, this reflects their desire to find meaning in a world in which their human value has been reduced to the spiritual capital that their families can derive from them.
At the close of the novel, it is hard not to cheer as Dame Sibella escapes Oby in search of a vaster world, but still one’s gaze looks back towards the quiet drama of the convent. Sarah Waters called The Corner That Held Them “One of the great British novels of the twentieth century: a narrative of extraordinary reach, power and beauty”. I find it hard to disagree.
Canon Rachel Mann is Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and a Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.
The Corner That Held Them is published by Penguin Classics at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9); 978-0-241-45481-7.
THE CORNER THAT HELD THEM — SOME QUESTIONS
- “There was a priest in the house, and a man.” What part do men men play in the convent at Oby?
- The Corner That Held Them is often described as having no teleological plot. Do you agree? How did this affect your reading of the novel?
- The nuns are confined to a small geographical area. How does this affect their lives and the way in which they relate to the outside world?
- How do finances feature in the life at Oby?
- “After all, she would be sorry to exchange the ambiguity of this world for the certitude of the next.” In what ways do the nuns view death?
- How does the medieval relationship with illness and medicine described in the novel differ from our own?
- The Corner that Held Them is unusual in having no main protagonists. What effect does this have, for you?
- In what ways might Townsend Warner’s politics (as an active member of the British Communist Party) have affected her writing in this novel?
- How does deception feature in the novel?
- “Before intimacy can be engendered there must be freedom, the option to approach or to move away.” What does Townsend Warner mean by this? Do you agree?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 7 May, we will print extra information about our next book, Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour. It is published by Orion at £8.99 (£8.09); 978-1-4746-0948-7.
Featherhood is the story of the relationship between the author and Benzene, an abandoned magpie chick. After seeing the chick fall out of its nest in a neighbouring junkyard, he and his partner hand-rear it in their London home, where it proceeds to make mischief: leaving bird droppings, stealing shiny trinkets, and building a nest on top of the fridge. The memoir is also the story of Gilmour’s relationship with his dying biological father, the poet Heathcote Williams, whose abandonment of Gilmour as a baby left a long and painful shadow in his life. Interwoven are Gilmour’s concerns about his own impending fatherhood.
Born in 1989, Charlie Gilmour is the son of the novelist Polly Samson. His biological father left the family in his early childhood, and he was subsequently adopted by the Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. In 2011, while a history student at the University of Cambridge, Gilmour was imprisoned for four months for violent disorder after participating in the student protests against tuition-fee rises. He has commented that “people are often punished when what they need is some form of treatment.” He now lives in London with his wife and daughter.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
June: The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
July: Cuthbert of Farne by Katharine Tiernan