I accidentally left The Corner That Held Them (Virago Modern Classics 2012) on a train, but fortunately only after I’d finished it. And I’m glad I did finish it because it would have been very hard to be cut off from it in the middle – not because so many important things happen, but because so many unimportant things flow so steadily in such a stream of gentle vitality that not reaching the end would be like a river dammed and ruined at its most limpid and beautiful.
Published in 1948, the story begins around 1153 when Brian de Retteville catches his wife Alianor in bed with her lover Giles. Giles is summarily and bloodily killed, as is the old woman who was supposed to stand guard. Alianor lives for another ten years, and when she dies de Retteville, in an excess of grief, founds a convent by the Waxle river, presumably somewhere in the fens and moors of East Anglia. From these beginnings of sex and murder springs the tale of a community of (theoretically) chaste and (theoretically) benevolent ladies, who must manage the lands belonging to their convent, maintain their religious ceremonies, and negotiate with various bishops and businessmen for funds and recognition. Meanwhile, the world between 1349 and 1382, when the bulk of the story takes place, is a dangerous and unstable site of conflicting religious theories, rebellious peasants, fraudulent friars and an occasional anxiety about the apocalypse which must surely loom very near. The nuns themselves reflect this turmoil – their superstition, jealousy, and worldly concerns are not expunged with holy water, and the various power struggles and secrets threaten to upset the entire convent and their relationship with God.
The Corner That Held Them is masterfully written. The narrator displays evenhanded insight – no one nun emerges as a heroine, no one man of God as a complete villain, and the various preoccupations of this community of women ranging from the very old to the barely pubescent are told in realistic detail – there are pustules and plagues as well as heavenly visions and vocations, worry about harvests and decay as well as the aspiration of building a new spire for the glory of God. Curiously for such subject matter God and religion are left shadowy; masses and prayers are such a matter of rote that little special attention is paid to them, which I think enhances the immersion of the reader into the novel – historical novels are often written with big signs pointing to “period detail” instead of it emerging naturally from the narrative. New philosophic and spiritual ideas of man’s place in the world and by extension women’s place in relation to man are woven skilfully into the mundane events of the rural community, and the hostility of peasants and Lollards is also made real. Overall, this is a great book; the nuns themselves become very real the further you read.
Sylvia Townsend Warner also wrote Lolly Willowes, which I reviewed here for CBR IV.