A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
More nuns. 14th century English ones, this time. I hope that’s not too many nuns in one month, but I couldn’t get my very positive recollection of this novel out of my head while I was reading Sarah Dunant’s ‘Sacred Hearts’. The country, the culture and the context are wildly different, so there are no grounds for direct comparison, but what I thought was wrong about ‘Sacred Hearts’ was right with ‘The Corner That Held Them’. The author manages to conjure a whole world, and the mindset that goes with it. The characters are allowed their intelligence and their imagination, but these are infused with the reality that they know and see and unadulterated by what we know and see. So – I’ll be coming back to that.
The Corner That Held Them concerns the convent of Oby, in the damp wilds of Norfolk. There is something marginal and provisional about the place – it is on an island, in what I assume must be undrained fens. A flood can leave the Waxle Stream in a new course, and can leave the mill without water. It has a manor, a little patch of tilled and managed land carved out of a sprawling wilderness. The nuns barely command the service of the serfs on the manor, on which they depend for their existence. However, in a small way they have wealth, which always buys a semblance of loyalty because it underpins security, and a succession of strong-minded bailiffs. Their link to the outside world is through the travellers who come to their gate, and on a few momentous occasions, visitations from the Bishop, and other high-born connections of the nuns.
This is not a novel with a plot. It is a slice of the convent’s history, starting and ending with world-changing historical events, and it is the story of a succession of nuns and novices, their Nuns’ Priest, the people of this tiny, remote, unprosperous place. The novel’s genius is to recreate a world in which these events, that we know all about, are unfolding, and no-one yet knows what they mean, or how they are going to change things. The novel starts with the Black Death, which is real and terrible, and passes through their world and somehow spares them. And it ends with the stirrings of rebellion that came together as the Peasant’s Revolt. Both are preceded by rumour, and the narrative contrasts the rumour with the reality.
The convent and its community survive the Black Death, and one of the most satisfying aspects of the novel is the way in which the author conveys the resilience of the nuns. Some are wise, some are foolish, some astute and some misguided. But to say that they are sustained by their faith would be inadequate. What is so marvellous about this book is that it is the portrait of a mindset. Sylvia Townsend Warner meticulously builds up a consistent narrative of a group of people who see life entirely differently from us, because their religious belief is integrally woven into their thoughts and their actions and their lives – the good and the bad – and that does not just go for the nuns. The characters we meet who do not live under a rule and share the same way of life still have the same system of beliefs, and that system drives their thoughts. Until the end, that is, when only by listening hard, we hear in tales of random acts of violence and rumours of breaking of bonds that these certainties may not survive much longer. Right at the end, one of the nuns does break free, not to return to the world, but to express her faith by being a pilgrim instead of a nun. She is following her conscience, but she disobeys, and that really does knock away the foundation of the life of Oby.
Sylvia Townsend Warner is a writer of exuberant power. Her prose is cool and clear, even slightly malicious at times. She does not write a book full of spiritual people, loving God sacrificially and doing good. This is quite a harsh description of holy women, almost callously irreverent on the face of it, but very human. These are human beings, who have found a corner to hold them, and to protect them from the buffeting of an even crueller world. So they are dreamers and arch pragmatists all at once. They have worldly aspirations (building a spire, embroidering an altar cloth) which miscarry. Tensions grow so high that they sometimes strike out, and even murder one another. But none of this can be allowed to destroy the community – it is the only hope of survival for the individuals who live in it. So they keep to the rule, they keep their own and each others’ secrets, they elect their peers to offices, and it is discipline that is the true corner that holds them.
STW pulls off that most artful of feats – making a structured fictional narrative seem like a slice of life, with all its flat dull bits, surprises, random shocks, and weird coincidences. There is an exuberance too in the richness of the language. Again, it is carefully and artfully chosen to reflect the world of Oby. Gorgeous metaphors come from the landscape and creatures they would have seen – the frolics of weasels, the flight of a hawk. At one point, a character, sent on a journey he does not want to make, found Everywhere the cuckoos were screaming. It was a senseless noise, and turned his thoughts to how St Francis had preached to the birds. Did he number many cuckoos among his devotees? Cuckoos screaming! That is an author being so bold and brave – and so carelessly at the top of her game.
Hints of the wider world drift by – Sir Ralph, the Nuns’ Priest comes upon the manuscript of an English narrative poem. In the end, it is lost, yet it seems so real that its loss almost feels like a historical tragedy. Henry Yellowlees, the Bishop’s custos who supervises the convent, is on an errand to collect some rents, and on the way, he stays at a leper hospital where he discovers the new Ars Nova form of polyphonic music. On his way back, he finds the hospital has been sacked by ‘the Twelve Apostles’, and we’ve seen another small tragedy, another wisp of culture snuffed out, and the first hint of what we know with hindsight to be the Peasants’ Revolt.
It is impossible to tell which bits of the story will have a bearing later on, and which will just pass by. People have secrets, some of them so terrible that in a plot-driven novel there must be a tragic outcome, or the undoing of a carefully nurtured belief, at the end of it. But no – just as in life, the secret dies with the person, and the terrible consequences are unrealised. An enormous cast of characters passes through, each overlapping generation of nuns coming into focus then fading away. Prioresses are elected, set a tone, die, and are replaced. Great set pieces are there in the narrative, but they seem to rise up naturally from the flat land that is their community life, and either fade away back into it, or spike into unexpected joy, or madness or violence, which must then be smoothed back over. The chapters can almost be savoured like short stories. Round every corner is a surprise. They can come anywhere. For instance, I’ve given away the end (it really doesn’t matter – the narrative just peters out); but nothing on earth will make me give away the beginning. This novel has one of the most jaw-dropping opening chapters I have ever read. Just try it, and see if you are not reeled in by the end of page 4.
Sadly, outrageously, this novel is out of print, though copies are available through Amazon resellers and Abebooks, and, I’ll be bound, through your local library.
Sylvia Townsend Warner: The Corner That Held Them. Virago, 1993. (First published 1948.)
ISBN 9780860688785 pp310