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The Corner That Held Them

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In memory of the wife who had once dishonoured and always despised him, Brian de Retteville founded a 12th-century convent in Norfolk. Two centuries later, the Benedictine community is well established there and, as befits a convent whose origin had such ironic beginnings, the inhabitants are prey to the ambitions, squabbles, jealousies, and pleasures of less spiritual environments. An outbreak of the Black Death, the collapse of the convent spire, the Bishop's visitation, and a nun's disappearance are interwoven with the everyday life of the nuns, novices, and prioresses in this imagined history of a 14th-century nunnery.

310 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1948

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About the author

Sylvia Townsend Warner

106 books279 followers
Sylvia Townsend Warner was born at Harrow on the Hill, the only child of George Townsend Warner and his wife Eleanora (Nora) Hudleston. Her father was a house-master at Harrow School and was, for many years, associated with the prestigious Harrow History Prize which was renamed the Townsend Warner History Prize in his honor, after his death in 1916. As a child, Sylvia seemingly enjoyed an idyllic childhood in rural Devonshire, but was strongly affected by her father's death.

She moved to London and worked in a munitions factory at the outbreak of World War I. She was friendly with a number of the "Bright Young Things" of the 1920s. Her first major success was the novel Lolly Willowes. In 1923 Warner met T. F. Powys whose writing influenced her own and whose work she in turn encouraged. It was at T.F. Powys' house in 1930 that Warner first met Valentine Ackland, a young poet. The two women fell in love and settled at Frome Vauchurch in Dorset. Alarmed by the growing threat of fascism, they were active in the Communist Party of Great Britain, and visited Spain on behalf of the Red Cross during the Civil War. They lived together from 1930 until Ackland's death in 1969. Warner's political engagement continued for the rest of her life, even after her disillusionment with communism. She died on 1 May 1978.

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Profile Image for Katie.
439 reviews265 followers
February 20, 2016

When I was 19 years old I lived in England for a year, and I was very depressed (not your fault, England). When I was feeling particularly sad or down, I would often go on a long walk/bike ride to Godstow Nunnery along the River Thames. It had been shut down long ago, of course, and it was mostly just old walls and a few windows. I would just kinda walk around and think about all the women who had lived there, over hundreds of years. This could very likely qualify as "wallowing," but I'll ask you to cut me some slack. I'm from the east coast USA suburbs, and rural England is a much more picturesque place to be depressed.

I kept thinking about Godstow while I was reading The Corner that Held Them, and quiet, wistful novel about the passing of time at a rural English convent called Oby (a real place in Norfolk, though as far as I can tell not actually ever home to a convent). It's a book about a place, and about the passage of time, and how arbitrary it is: and, because of that, it doesn't have a real protagonist or story arc. This will inevitably be frustrating to some readers, but it's where the real beauty of the book is felt: the narrative drops in and out of stories, characters lunge towards and away from objectives, and there is nothing at all (save the location) that ties the story together into a neat little bow.

Take the story of Dame Lillias, probably my favorite nun.

She enters the convent (and story) as a child, sensitive to light and sounds, inquisitive, assumed by nearly all to be the next infirmaress. But she only pops up periodically, around the novel's edges, until on p. 152 she snaps into the center of the narrative and the reader learns that she is depressed:

But from the hour that snapped off her rather indefinite intention, she was overcome by a sense of coldness and stagnation. Little by little the sensuality which had quilted her wore thin and fell away. No one could have guessed it. ...She was cold: cold to pleasure, cold to her own coldness, even. When she lounged in, late as always, for the night office, yawning and shrugging her shoulders, no one could have guessed that she came - not from sleeping, but from a frigid and boring wakefulness.

Amid her companions, her langour was diagnosed as pride. She was too proud to speak... I was God's will, she supposed. God's will had taken away Dame Cecily's eyesight, God's will had taken away her sensuality. She could feel neither pleasure nor disgust, neither rebellion nor contrition.

Lilias eventually draws the attention of the convent's false-priest, Sir Ralph, who diagnoses her with accidie (sloth of the spirit, as close a pre-modern conception of depression as was available). And after a long period of time without progress, Lilias finally lurches out of it: she believes that she has received a message from St. Leonard, patron saint of prisoners, that she is to remove herself even further from the world and become an anchoress.

It would be easy for her story to spin off from there, but instead it stutters. The bishop has the wrong temperament, and refuses her request for a new vocation. It is revealed later that St. Leonard never spoke to her at all, it was simply her imagination after an act of cruelty from another nun. Dame Lilias once again recedes into the background and her story seems to be over.

But she surges forth again once before the end: in a time of poverty, she and another sister are sent to the city to beg alms for the convent. On the way, she sees the sea for the first time:

She looked, and it was as if new eyes had been put into her head... Half the world was hung with blue mantle criss-crossed with an infinity of delicate creases, and the whole outspread mantle stirred as though a separate life were beneath it. Coming to her sense she knew that this must be the sea. But nothing that she had seen in pictures or read in books or heard in sermons was true to what she saw. Their sea was dark, turbulent, vexed with storms, a metaphor of sin, and exiled from heaven. This was calm. It lay as blissfully asleep as though it still lay in the trance of its first creation. Its color was an unflawed virtue; it lay there and knew nothing but the God who had made it.

There's a sense of a turning point, that Lilias could escape her life and her self by traveling, by seeing new things. But before this sense of momentum gains too much traction, Lilias gets once again shackled to the past: her traveling companion reveals that she is planning to bring her to the new bisho, the old one having died in the interim, to fulfill her vocation as an anchoress. By Lilias veers away wildly from the suggestion, insisting that it had all been a mistake. And after making a final rejection of the life of an anchoress, her mind swings in the opposite direction, particularly after she encounters a group of pilgrims:

All day Dame Lilias's thoughts sailed to Jerusalem over a blue transparent sea, blue as a flower and wide as a sky... These people going by her now, so many of them and all unknown and none to be met again, dizzied her imagination, and it seemed to her tha tinevitably she would be drawn to go with them as a tuft of dry grass is pulled from the river-bank and carried with the travelling waters to the sea. To Venice, and thence to take ship for Jerusalem

And then, just as she is about to join them, there is a reverse: it turns out her traveling companion has joined them already. Dame Lilias loses her nerve, she stays where she is, and she does not appear in the narrative again.

I could have done something like this for nearly a dozen characters in the story. They dip in an out, have moments of beauty and dejection, but it nearly never adds up to a single - or even complete - narrative strand. It's the sort of story that stutters, but in a way that makes it feel real and true rather than incomplete.

Historical fiction divides from history not so much in its invention of facts, but it's insistence upon the imposition of a narrative. There is a Main Character, they have a clear character arc, their story has an ultimate low, a climax, a conclusion. In any other novel, the false-priest Sir Ralph would be the center of the story, driven either by the need to hide his secret (he was never ordained and lied to the sisters amid the chaos of the Black Death) or his literary passion (half way through the story he becomes intermittently obsessed by an epic poem written in vernacular English). But here they simply poke into the narrative and fade away, pieces of a person that could have arisen into a full and coherent story but never quite did. I can understand that being frustrating, but it's also beautiful, and it makes this one of the most realistic attempts at historical fiction that I've ever read.
Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books781 followers
December 9, 2021
At the start of this novel, I was reminded of Lauren Groff's Matrix, which I recently read, and I wondered if she might've read this. Of course, both writers were likely drawing from the same research; but as I read on, I realized more differences than similarities exist between the two books, though both are about convent-living during basically the same time period.

If Townsend Warner seemed to be employing research in the beginning, any research she might’ve done seems unused as the story goes on. She’s not interested in history, except for the history she herself gives her small community. As real-life historical events go, pestilence and a peasants’ uprising are mentioned, and feared, but not dwelled on: Life, with its many duties for survival, has to go on. The story could be of almost any time period.

The cast of characters is large and, as I read on, I had to refresh my memory on several of the nuns, especially as some names are reused, just like would happen in real life. Also as in real life, people go “mad” over certain things that happen (or do they?), they go away, they die. They leave us wondering why they did the things they did or what will happen to them now that they’re no longer within the confines of Townsend Warner’s circumscribed world.

I thoroughly enjoyed her world and its inhabitants and I missed them when I was finished. Despite the work’s “realism,” flashes of metaphors speak to Townsend Warner’s love of an unreal world, a world of fairies and shadowy wolves.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,178 reviews1,935 followers
April 17, 2023
“To be called Dame and live in a cloister was a better prospect than their natural future of scrubbing trenchers, clacking at a loom, and bearing great hordes of hungry children”

This is a historical novel set in a Benedictine convent in the fourteenth century. It runs from 1349 (the Plague) until 1382 (just after the Peasant’s Revolt). The convent of Oby is in Norfolk. It was published in 1948 and Warner worked on it during the war. Warner herself warned that there was no real plot and what she was exploring was whether a community run by women can survive under patriarchy following vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. There are multiple points of view in the novel and the reader becomes immersed in the ordinariness of daily life.

“it seemed that nothing new ever happened or ever would.”

Warner was a musicologist (amongst other things) and so her accounts of liturgy tend to be spot on.
The plague at the beginning of the novel has been compared to the rise of fascism in the 1930s and 40s:

“It travelled faster than a horse, it swooped like a falcon, and those whom it seized on were so suddenly corrupted that the victims, still alive and howling in anguish, stank like the dead. All across Europe it had come, and now it would traverse England, and nothing could stop it, wherever there were men living it would seek them out, and turn back, as a wolf does, to snap at the man it had passed by.”

The parallels are clear and it also reflects the anti-Semitism of the time. For all the broad themes the action is narrow and doesn’t stray far from Oby, just to nearby villages and a couple of towns. Over the years there is adultery, fraud, murder, deception, jealousy, a priest with a secret, corruption as well as the mundane. There is a tension between the life of the spirit and the daily grind, the necessity of feeding and clothing the body. Warner did do some research for this. She consulted a seven hundred page book by historian Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries.
Life, death and nature all figure and Warner does manage to pull off the feel that this is a time limited slice of life. There are interesting characters around the nuns and the locals are just as sharply drawn as the nuns.
In the US edition Warner adds a historical note which indicates the background that she is working from: how the Black Death led to the Peasant’s Revolt:

“In the years immediately following the Black Death the labourer had the best of it. By the next generation the situation had changed. The population was rising again. Many landowners had adjusted themselves to the labour shortage by converting their acres from arable (which needs many hands) to sheep-rearing for the woollen trade (which needs few), and in so doing had made over common fields and grazings into sheep-walks. And though wages had risen, the cost of living had risen more. Serfs who had welcomed the opportunity to move about and strike their own bargain found themselves at a disadvantage, and Parliament, which had disapprovingly watched the crack spreading through the old feudal structure, now applied a plastering legislation of wage-fixing and price-fixing (the former, as always, more adhesive than the latter), and pressed for a reversion to the status quo ante. Yet the crack had been made and was kept open by a pressure of dissatisfied thinking.”

On the whole I enjoyed this. I could see the parallels with what was happening in Europe at the time it was written. Because it is a slice of life there is now real ending and a distinct lack of plot. The sheer number of characters does mean there is sometimes a lack of characterisation. But it’s an interesting analysis of a community of women.
Profile Image for JimZ.
1,019 reviews458 followers
January 17, 2020
I enjoyed this book. The version of the book I got was published by Virago Modern Classics in 2012. The Introduction was by Philip Hensher and it was quite good. This book was also re-issued by the New York Review of Books in September 2019 as part of their classics series. I appreciate the remarkable writing job/style of Sylvia Townsend Warner. I have read ‘Lolly Willowes’ and The Music at Long Verney (short story collection) and loved them both.

This novel is about a nunnery and the people who inhabited it spanning a period from 1349-1382. In that time at least four prioresses ran the convent, and there was an ersatz priest who was also part of its community. I read a couple of reviews after completing the book and would agree with them that nothing much of consequence happened at the nunnery…life was fairly mundane. If you can call picking lice from your head and squishing them mundane… Good God when I read that I nearly retched. But that was life back then. I found this book oftentimes to be witty, and I think that was certainly one reason I liked the book. Another reason was that it was a historical novel and I certainly learned what living in a convent was like in the 14th century. For a good chunk of the novel it was an interesting read and had my attention. And I was “forced” by the author to look up words that she used that really piqued my curiosity. Words such as: obtrude (become noticeable in an unwelcome or intrusive way), quire (an obsolete spelling of “choir”), dovecot (a structure, usually at a height above the ground, for housing domestic pigeons), reprobate (an unprincipled person), appurtenance (an accessory or other item associated with a particular activity or style of living), verderer (a game warden), and trull (prostitute), among others!

Here is a website in which you can read a review of the book: https://www.bookforum.com/fiction/the... ;

And here are what others thought of her novel:
In The Corner That Held Them, [Warner] has observed and blended the nice trivialities, the emotional upsets and the occasional spiritual reflections of the some fourteenth-century nuns. . . . The form of the novel is outwardly as ramshackle as the convent buildings . . . but this is a license that may be allowed to the charm, the wit and the speculation which make the book very remarkable. (The Times Literary Supplement)

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them strikes one as a masterpiece. As an act of imagined history—the life of a fenland nunnery in the fourteenth century—this novel has few rivals. Warner conveys the strange ordinariness of a distant yet immediate past with utter authority. But her chronicle of lives under pressure, at once visionary and petty, makes for a fiction of extreme density. No one after Hardy has interwoven more closely the sheer feel of material things, of weather, of light across water or foliage, with the inward landscapes of character. The prose precisely matches the theme and settings: it is at once bone-spare and of a rich, troubling opacity. A classic, whose resonance deepens inside the reader in proportion to its austere, luminous discretion. Also, as it happens, a work of high, frequent comedy. (George Steiner, The Times Literary Supplement)

A spellbinding piece of historical fiction—spare, luminous. . . . One starts rereading as soon as one has reached the last page. (The Sunday Times)

A magnificent recreation of the life of a medieval convent. (The Daily Telegraph)

One of the great British novels of the twentieth century: a narrative of extraordinary reach, power, and beauty. (Sarah Waters)
Profile Image for Ali.
1,242 reviews337 followers
February 6, 2012
I bought this book in a charity shop last week. I had heard of this book and on flipping through it I was instantly intrigued by it. I decided to read it straight away while my interest was piqued.
‘The Corner That Held Them’ is an historical novel, set in a Benedictine convent in the 14th century. There is no plot as such; although there are many stories, the novel follows the fortunes of the convent over many years. Under each of the five different prioresses, the concerns of the nuns are mainly worldly and particularly economical, rather than spiritual. Many of the women find themselves leading a religious life due to family connections or business like transactions. Although for many women it was life that was to be preferred than the alternative, for some, it was, socially speaking a step up.
What this novel demonstrates beautifully is the passage of time, and how each of us is but a bat of an eye within it. Seasons come and go – people die and are born and time goes on, the life of the community carries on as it always did. The characters in this novel are subject to jealousies, deceits and ambitions, these emotions drive the stories of the convent. A priest who is not really a priest, the building and then collapse of a spire, a murder, a disappearing nun, elections of prioresses and visits by a bishop and his custos are among the stories that are told in this beautifully written novel.
The historical details are well done – yet are subtly drawn rather than rammed down the readers throat like in some more modern popular historical novels. I think the stories of these characters will stay with me for a while. I found this a delightful read, and rather different to many other virago books I have read.
Profile Image for Jesse.
435 reviews419 followers
October 7, 2021
My first read of the 2020 lockdown, & in those early, anxious, insular days I found great solace in this bird's eye view take on the passage of time & the evergreen foibles of humanity (given the context I was so struck with how the Black Plague is accorded a few unnerving paragraphs before history indifferently ambles on). Some epochs & episodes are less compelling than others, but Warner is such an elegantly robust prose stylist that everything unfolds with a smooth, irresistible fluidity. In its quiet way quite the narrative marvel.
Profile Image for James Murphy.
982 reviews160 followers
January 12, 2020
One of the attractions of The Corner That Held Them is that it's a little unusual. I can't think of another novel-length work like it. It most resembles a slice-of-life short story, though it's 400 pages long.

What Sylvia Townsend Warner does is tell the story of an English convent, Oby, between the years 1340 and 1382. Though it has many characters who come and go, enter into devotion and die, not one can be said to serve as protagonist. Some characters are more prominent than others because Warner focuses on their story, but they don't propel the action more meaningfully than figures who're more inconspicuous. For a while I flirted with the idea the novel tells the story of the convent rather than its people, but I finally decided the busyness of individual lives and personalities are the vital components humming within the convent's walls and between the covers of the book. Beginning with a priest who's not a priest but nevertheless decides to stay and live his long life there and ending with a nun who departs in 1382 on pilgrimage, Warner's story brims with characters who display as much ambition, spite, anxiety, and compassion as the rest of us. The nuns seemed mercurial to me, perhaps products of a 14th century infested with unfounded beliefs and delusion. The men, I thought, whether priest, bishop, secretary, farmer, or laborer, are steadier. Maybe because they see more of the world than the cloistered nuns, their piety seems less sincere

This is a compact little world, the convent at Oby. One might say that nothing much happens of note outside the everyday rounds of worship and chores. But one achievement of Warner's realistic style is its ability to make the mundane remarkable and important. At one point the priest Sir Ralph reflects that life at Oby is as busy as the Georgics with its rounds of devotion braided into a life surrounded by nature and all the season-regulated work associated with crops and animals. Warner has deftly highlighted 4 decades of the deep past and made them live through characters who're remarkable only for having once walked the earth.
Profile Image for Terence.
1,160 reviews387 followers
December 20, 2010
I’m happy to report, if only to myself, that the Warner love affair continues with The Corner That Held Them, the author’s look at the lives of the nuns of Oby from the Black Death’s irruption in England in 1349 to the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. There is no book-length story arc and no recurring characters except for Ralph Kello, the convent’s “priest,” (see below for why I put this in quotes) but Warner evokes a cumulatively powerful portrait of the cramped, oftentimes frustrating lives of the priory’s inmates and their neighbors, and I can’t help but imagine that this book would make a wonderful BBC or Canadian TV series:

EPISODE #1 “Orate Pro Anima”: The pilot sets up the background, recounting the convent’s establishment in the 1160s by the cuckolded Brian de Retteville in honor of Alianor, the wife who dishonored and despised him. We pass over the subsequent centuries and end with the nuns’ priest abandoning them to minister to plague victims and save the Church in England.

EPISODE #2 “The Tuft of Wormwood”: The nuns acquire their new priest, Ralph Kello, an affair as irregular as the manor’s original founding: Ralph is no ordained priest but a vagabond former student who arrives at Oby one Spring day. Learning that the old priest, Peter, has left and died of the plague, Ralph claims the title and winds up assuming the office:

“My daughter, I am a priest.”

He had thought to himself: Enough to comfort them, and then be off – off before they rise from their knees and begin to ask questions. Perhaps, too, there entered into this hare-brained falsehood an element of superstition; as though by going to meet the pestilence he would insure that it would fly him. Waiting to be let in he had time enough to examine every aspect of his folly, and to quake with fear and to remember that there is no beast of worse omen than a weasel. And yet at the same time he was saying to himself: I am certainly fasting.

Weeping with gratitude, she let him in.
(p. 21)

We also meet Ursula, a fallen nun who ekes out an existence in the kitchens with her bastard son Jackie, who will return to bedevil the nuns in Season 2.

EPISODE #3 “Prioress Alicia”: In this episode we learn of the strained relations between convent and manor: Since the Black Death the relations between convent and its manor had been getting steadily worse. The work was still done, the dues were still paid – but with delays, cheats, interminable English arguments. The bailiff became more and more like an ambassador carrying terms from one camp to another” (p. 51).

And Ralph goes mad for a time from guilt and fear.

EPISODE #4 “The Spire”: The spire is Prioress Alicia’s great project that has progressed in fits and starts for years and now is finally finished, only to collapse in a storm, killing Dame Susanna.

EPISODE #5 “The Lay of Mamillion”: In this episode, Ralph develops a passion for falconry, and Prioress Alicia happily resigns her office.

EPISODE #6 “Prioress Johanna”: The final episode of Season 1 sees the dark-horse election of Dame Johanna:

Dame Cecily glanced from face to face, and her distress at the miscarriage was swallowed up in a more personal regret: that she could not at once use her sketch-book and her silver style. Such physiognomies would supply initials for the whole length of Jeremy’s Lamentations. What had happened was one of those accidents that overtake the righteous in the midst of their prosperity. Feeling sure of Dame Matilda’s election, grateful to be relieved of the old prioress whose temper had grown so disturbing, nun after nun had yielded to the thought: Why not vote for that poor Dame Johanna? – one vote can’t upset the result, and it would please the poor wretch.” (p. 130)

EPISODE #7 “Prioress Matilda”: Our second season opens with the election of Matilda as prioress and the emergence of factions in the nunnery. On one side is the de Stapledon party, comprising the new prioress’s partisans. On the other side is the de Retteville party. What separates them? Little but the petty jealousies and fault-finding that fester and poison any small, isolated community.

EPISODE #8 “Saint Leonard, Patron of Prisoners”: Dame Lilias receives a visitation from the nunnery’s patron saint, Leonard, and decides to become an anchoress.

EPISODE #9 “The Fish-pond”: Dame Alice deals with the problem of Father Ralph and the Widow Figg in a most final manner. Dame Lilias’s ambition to become an anchoress is frustrated. And Bishop Walter threatens to assign a custos to oversee the establishment’s ailing finances.

EPISODE #10 “Triste Loysir”: Henry Yellowlees, the feared auditor, arrives. A frosty reception is ameliorated by the beginning of a friendship with Father Ralph. We also discover that Henry has a passion for the new musical style, ars nova. And we see a little of the daily life of one of the convent’s dependencies.

EPISODE #11 “A Sacrifice to Woden”: Dame Sibilla, Bishop Walter’s great-niece, comforts him on his death bed, “a new truth was made plain” and Dame Lilias’s dearest wish is revived.

EPISODE #12 “The Candlemas Cuckoo”: The Peasants’ Revolt touches the nuns and prompts simple Dame Adela to leave; and Ursula’s Jackie has a hand in despoiling the convent of its altar cloth.

EPISODE #13 “A Green Staff”: Father Ralph finally passes on, and the nuns are faced with electing a new prioress.

EPISODE #14 “Prioress Margaret”: In our final episode, the convent loses its silver altar pieces, Dame Lilias and Dame Sibilla go to the cathedral to beg alms, and Dame Sibilla becomes a pilgrim to the Holy Land.

The Corner That Held Them is a tale of small people leading small lives but its Warner’s attention to the details and her loving descriptions of these lives that make them precious. As Henry Yellowlees muses:

Yet what was real life? Not his own life, assuredly. He felt no pavement of reality under his feet, wandering among a change assemblage of geometry, hunger, sickness, loaned horses, debts and shifts and other people’s intentions. Whose life was real? – old Longdock’s in the wildwood, the chaplain’s at the leper-house, the suave Killdew clerk’s? Each of them in his way knew what he wanted and sought it with self-will, and for that matter, with self-denial; for no doubt the Killdew clerk must have denied himself something in order to live with such a rotundity of worldliness, he must have trampled down some artless predisposition such as wishing to recite his own poems. (p. 219)

A few passages that I found memorable (but couldn’t incorporate into the review otherwise):

For each one of us lives in his microcosm, the solidity of this world is a mere game of mirrors, there can be no absolute existence for what is apprehended differently my all. (p. 215)

Mankind untutored and savage will fight for bread or a bedfellow, but must be schooled by theologians before it will fight for a faith.” (p. 229)

No, the wretchedness of the poor lies below hunger and nakedness. It consists in their incessant incertitude and fear, the drudging succession of shift and scheme and subterfuge, the labourings in the quicksand where every step that takes hold of the firm ground is also a step into the danger of condemnation. Not cold and hunger but Law and Justice are the bitterest affliction of the poor. (p. 257)
Profile Image for Anna.
1,686 reviews636 followers
December 1, 2018
Here is a distinctive historical novel that greatly reminded me of a non-fiction book, Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village 1294-1324. Eschewing traditional plot structure, Sylvia Townsend Warner recounts life in a small Benedictine convent during the 14th century. The narrative begins with the convent’s somewhat inauspicious founding and covers the subsequent 33 years. Rather than centring on any particular incident or character, multiple perspectives are used to evoke the shape of daily life. Of course, it takes an extremely skillful writer to conjure up the prosaic details of existence 700 years ago with any conviction. Illnesses, petty disagreements, financial troubles, and lapses of sanity occur and are dealt with by the resilient community of nuns. ‘The Corner that Held Them’ subtly shows how women achieved greater freedom in the closed environment of a convent to the patriarchal world outside. Despite the setting of an obscure rural backwater, a sense of gradual historical change filters in through new forms of music and rumours of peasant uprisings. The democratic election of prioresses by popular vote was delightful.

While I found the lack of obvious plot took a little while to get used to, I was pleasantly surprised to also find much of the novel very funny. I should have expected this from Townsend Warner, whose wit I so loved in Lolly Willowes and Summer Will Show. I didn’t adore ‘The Corner that Held Them’ with the same intensity as the former two, but it still made me smile on a long train journey with observations of this sort:

Entering, Dame Matilda received a meaning glance of comradeship from her prioress. It was as if with one mind and soul that the prioress and treasuress of Oby conversed with Steven Ludcott. For the cloistered life develops in women infinite resources both of resentment and intuition; or perhaps it merely develops their sensibility, from which arise both understanding and delight in being misunderstood. Dame Matilda and the prioress might have been rehearsing their strategy for months. Though Steven Ludcott left Oby with every jot of his errand completed, the interest agreed on and his spleen vented, he rode away with the sensation of having been horribly mauled between the pair of them.

He was no sooner out of the house than a spirited defensive action became a defeat. The prioress had hysterics, Dame Matilda cursed like a crusader, and Dame Margaret, who had sat reading her psalter during the interview, sped off to tell the convent that Oby was certainly ruined and would most likely be dissolved by the bishop.

It was to the aftermath of all that that Pernelle Barstable returned, explaining that the Waxelby merchants were asking such exorbitant prices that she had thought it best to go on to Lambsholme, where she had bought such raisins as had never before been eaten at Oby. The price of raisins was the only thing in her story that made an impression. Dame Matilda said it was much too high.

And this made me laugh:

But when that subject was exhausted, his own plight came to his lips and he broke out into a complaint of his isolation at Lintoft.

“What else can you expect?” cried Sir Ralph briskly. “A strong young man like you must do more than preach and say masses if he is to earn the esteem of his parishioners. You should work, young man, you should work! If you want to be a good priest you must have the best sow, the best beans, the sweetest honey, the cock that crows loudest. You will do nothing with book and prayers. Turn your mind to pigs.”

As though he had summoned them a number of pigs just then rushed screaming and grunting into the parsonage cabbage-yard. Screaming and grunting the priest’s house-keeper rushed out and drove them away by jabbing at their noses with an iron-shod staff.

“I hate pigs!”

“Very well, then!” - Sir Ralph’s voice was injuriously tolerant - “Why not take up basket-making?”

A dear friend once told me, ‘The more I think about it, the more I realise that you’d have made a brilliant medieval nun.’ On the basis of this novel, I think she has a point. Although I would have hated getting up early for Matins, the self-governing community of women in this novel is very appealing. The presence of spirituality is secondary to practical organisation, guardianship of the novices, and creation of objects to enhance the convent, such as illuminated texts and embroidered altar pieces. Sylvia Townsend Warner brings this world of the past to life beautifully, with a mordant wit and eye for striking details.
Profile Image for Leah.
516 reviews66 followers
June 13, 2016
Slow, ponderous, meandering, vicious, fascinating, dragging, feminist, difficult, uncomfortable, and ultimately ambiguous.

I would not recommend this to anyone, per se, because it was incredibly time consuming and I'm not certain the effort was entirely worth it. But, as usual, Warner's skill with a phrase can cut through any drudgery the reader is feeling in one incisive instant. Her knack of winnowing out the way women were treated, whether it be in a long-distant history, like here, or in a curious modern day (like in Lolly Willowes and shining a quietly strong light onto it never stops entertaining me.
Profile Image for Gretchen Rubin.
Author 42 books88.8k followers
January 26, 2021
A fascinating historical novel where nothing much happens over the decades at a Benedictine convent in the late 12th century through 1382.
Profile Image for Jonathan.
917 reviews948 followers
April 15, 2015
confess to having skimmed the last half pretty quickly as had lost all interest....there is nothing wrong here really, and I am sure others may find much to enjoy, I just found the prose dull and the narrative and characterisation similarly boring.
Profile Image for J.M. Hushour.
Author 8 books200 followers
December 29, 2020
"There is more to being a prioress than ruling a household of nuns; beings who are, in any case much less interesting when seen from above than when studied sideways."

Warner is a superlative author and less unsung these days it seems, which is good, because she deserves the attention. However, as much as I love her work and this novel in particular, I wouldn't necessarily recommend Corner to the novice Warner enthusiast.
Warner did what all writers should do: she wrote for herself, so her works range far and wide in theme, but always consistent in containing her quiet, steady genius and wit. Her other works are more accessible than this novel, one of her later works. That said, Corner is fantastic. It is little more than a plotless, pseudo-history of a pathetic convent somewhere in Norfolk (I think). The work covers about 30 or 40 years and charts itself largely by its various prioresses. There is a wide range of personalities among the nuns, some funny, some sad, some terrible, some angelic. The convent has as its priest a former drunk who isn't really a priest, but it doesn't hurt anyone to not know that, it is reasoned. The plague comes and so do the Lollards. Things happen, things don't happen, seasons pass, people die and nothing ever seems to get better, or change for that matter.
I'm likely making it sound duller than it is. If you know Warner's tetchy, thorny ways, though, you'll recognize at once what she could with such meat. Where else will you hear a priest declare, "The Last Judgement may have happened already. In any case, it would be a mistake to expect too much from it."

Profile Image for Becca Younk.
413 reviews37 followers
August 19, 2020
The story of a convent throughout the years. That's all it really is. Women arrive as novices, grow up to become nuns, some die, some live, and some leave. The town surrounding the convent changes as well, really the only character who is present throughout almost the whole novel is the priest. This might be a perfect novel for me. No plot, not much character development with people because the true main character of the book is the convent itself. I'm doing a terrible job describing this but it was calming and relaxing to read, not because it's upbeat and happy, because it is definitely not. This was the perfect quarantine novel to read.
Profile Image for Kristina.
199 reviews
July 6, 2019
This is a very beautiful book, rather different from Summer Will Show or Lolly Willowes. After reading those two novels, I began to think of Sylvia Townsend Warner as a writer whose novels set up a very believable, realistic world and then, very slowly, take you into an entirely different, somewhat less realistic world, so that by the end of the novel, you're in a completely different place than you were before. This aspect of her plotting was what began to convince me that she actually was a modernist writer, even though she seems in many ways to be quite different from other modernists; her sentence-level style, for instance, is gorgeous (I was compelled to read aloud more than once) but not particularly experimental, and she tends to write historical fiction, not especially popular among modernists.

The Corner That Held Them , she does not have the subtle plot shift that the other two novels have. In fact, in a sense, there is no plot -- or at least, no overall plot. The individual characters do have story arcs, and things DO happen (a lot of things, actually). But generally, this is really a study in the passage of time. Many of the characters are almost interchangeable, or at least, take a very long time for the reader to distinguish; they often emerge slowly, almost imperceptibly, as characters. And then, sometimes the reader will be told of gossip from the villagers in which certain nuns or priests have taken on a mythical meaning, different from the more mundane existence they actually led. It's hard to explain -- almost like a piece of music, how maybe there is a kind of background of strings from which a theme will emerge and recede, replaced by another, and then be reprised in a slightly different way.

The world Townsend Warner creates here is somehow both brutal and banal. The pervasive tone, in my opinion, was a sense of impending doom, mainly due to the way the convent was founded, which is followed by the mortal sin of Sir Ralph, which affects all of the nuns. Even so, my favorite parts of the novel -- aside from hints of witchcraft and odd little rebellions from the nuns -- were the elections of new prioresses, during which things never go as planned, the right person is rarely chosen, and even when she is, somehow she is not quite the leader everyone had wished for -- so like politics. As with Lolly Willowes,, Townsend Warner draws a particularly vivid picture of remote English locales; as with both of the other novels of hers I have read, the world she creates is utterly immersive, convincing, and troubling. This was a strange and beautiful reading experience.
Profile Image for Jeff.
268 reviews
April 27, 2022
4.5 stars. I finished this oddly magnificent novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner in late May but stalled on my review because by then I was under the spell of The Element of Lavishness, Warner's exquisite, 40-year correspondence with her New Yorker editor, fellow author, and intimate friend William Maxwell. (I heartily recommend it.)

Warner, the author of more than 150 New Yorker short stories, seven novels, several collections of poetry, and a biography of T.H. White, stretches out in The Corner That Held Them, her own favorite of her books, a 424-page novel detailing the life and times of a 14th-century nunnery. Sounds dry, doesn't it? Nope. It's an episodic wonder, its pages roiling with gloriously flawed humanity. There is murder most foul in these pages, and there is radiance. One memorable passage, describing the experience a character has on hearing an innovative new piece of music, is breathtaking and stands as the 'holiest' moment in the book. In marked tonal contrast, the collapse of the convent's spire, which had been devoutly wished into being over the course of years, is tragically comic.

There is no conventional plot here; Oby, the Benedictine convent at its center, is in some ways the book’s main character, and the episodic structure is low on narrative momentum. However, it is high on Warner’s fiercely efficient, electric prose, and for me this unusual book never flagged. The arrival at the convent of fake priest Ralph Kello, who is seeking shelter from the Black Death, and his eventual departure decades (and hundreds of pages) later, act as Corner's loose framing device. Within that frame, we are privy to a series of wide shots and close-ups that chronicle the preposterous and heartbreaking existence of a singular community.

A spectacularly shocking burst of violence during the novel's prologue ushers in the convent's origin story, and from there Warner's world-building -- unlike the shaky architecture of the convent's spire -- is flawlessly imagined.
Profile Image for Rosamund Taylor.
Author 1 book122 followers
April 19, 2021
After 200 years, the convent at Oby has the usual troubles: not enough novices, too many expenses, too few sources of income. Then, in the 1340s, the bubonic plague comes to the convent, and life grows even more difficult. The novel describes forty years in the convent following the advent of the bubonic plague. Heralded as Warner's masterpiece, this is a strange piece, mainly interested in atmosphere and place. In some ways, it reminds me of Moby Dick for nuns: a very individual, discursive work that breaks all the rules of the novel and digs down into its subject until that subject eclipses everything else in the world. The Corner That Held Them uses beautiful, careful language, and on a page-by-page study it continues to be compelling and lively. But it's far too long for what it achieves: the exploration of life in this place could be pared down considerably and still have the same impact on the reader: at half its length, it might be a more successful book. Warner adds various incidents to the text which enliven the reading, but she shies away from any true exploration of character or emotion. Major traumas and events are brushed over, and character growth all happens in the margins. This makes her characters, and the place she describes, seem more trivial than it really is. In many ways, I found myself fond of this book: there's something charming about its refusal to engage with the usual structures of the novel, and its fascination with place and minutia can be really interesting or surprising. Warner does succeed in making her readers feel as though they are inhabiting a 14th century convent. But for me it fails as much as it succeeds, and left me wandering, confused, through the Norfolk marshes, hoping it wouldn't be too long before I could turn the final page.
Profile Image for Lyn Elliott.
687 reviews178 followers
March 13, 2022
As often happens now, its reviews of books by Goodreads friends that spark my interest and lead me into corners I wouldn't have discovered by myself (pun deliberate, I'm sorry).

I'd never consciously come across Townsend Warner's writing before, though my husband said he remembered his mother reading her books. After reading reviews of The Corner That Held Them by Teresa and James Murphy, I ordered it from the library and hope I can find others by her.

Its now some weeks since I finished it and at this remove one of the things that stands out most for me is her portrayal of the complex, superficially calm world of the small convent at Oby in damp, flat Norfolk; vicious rivalries amongst the nuns and between them and the male clergy, especially the bishops who ultimately controlled the income and the rule of the convent.

Her portrayal of the daily texture of the women's life is vivid. In the background, the Black Death is rampant and there are violent uprisings in the poor rural communities. Convent life is affected by these wider disruptions but they remain in the background.

I admire Townsend Warner's skill in juxtaposing the very different elements of her fourteenth century world without giving us an overtly historical drama. The women, and the false priest, remain at the centre of her story.

Profile Image for Brad.
206 reviews23 followers
June 25, 2007
This novel, in part, about a medieval building project in an isolated village, is finely written and is truly the antidote to a recent book, Pillars of Earth, that takes on similar territory but with execrable, cornball writing and supermarket checkout stand plot twists. Ugh. The Corner That Held Them is the real deal.
Profile Image for Brian.
142 reviews11 followers
September 27, 2022
c.f. Here, The Years, Morning and Evening Talk
Throughout her short sickly life she had accepted the idea of an early death; but now she thought that, after all, she would be sorry to exchange the ambiguity of this world for the certitude of the next. There is pleasure in watching the sophistries of mankind, his decisions made and unmade like the swirl of a mill-race, causation sweeping him forward from act to act while his reason dances on the surface of action like a pattern of foam. [81]

“I have often asked myself why you sent Dame Sibilla to Oby.” Her eyelids closed down, as though the sight of his distress were something that must be eaten in private. [285]

The rough ground stretched for a little way and there broke off in a line of stiffened tussocks, heath bushes, and close gorse-dumps. Beyond this, half the world was hung with a blue mantle criss-crossed with an infinity of delicate creases, and the whole outspread mantle stirred as though a separate life were beneath it. Coming to her senses she knew that this must be the sea. [383]
Profile Image for Lauren.
1,364 reviews67 followers
January 30, 2021
What an unexpected pleasure. Historical to be sure, but so deliciously humorous. I loved the way the plot just trickled along over centuries and BIG HAPPENINGS - which would have been the centerpiece of another different kind of novel, just kind of occur and then everyone moves on and oh yeah, there's a butterfly on a windowsill or the milk has soured. This is true of some huge historical events as well, like the Black Plague or the Peasants Revolt which hover in the background, impacting on the most human scale. It's quite astonishingly good, laugh out loud in parts, and just a bit slyly subversive.
Profile Image for Mary Durrant .
347 reviews123 followers
May 29, 2015
I found this book of a medieval convent very interesting.
I had no idea that for many young girls it was a business transaction bringing in much needed funds!
An outbreak of the Black Death,the collapse of the convent spire, a mad priest who isn't all he seems.
A disappearance, dramas of a cloistered community has been brought vividly to life.
Profile Image for Rachel.
1,306 reviews102 followers
November 21, 2019
THIS BOOK. In the time it took me to finish it, I finished about five other books. It's not a book that draws you in. It's a book that's written one hundred percent on its own terms, and does not give a fuck what you think about them.

In the first three pages, . IN THREE PAGES! This book has so much plot carelessly thrown into the mix, it's like the book version of those admirable people who can cook amazing food without a recipe. It follows decades of life in this fourteenth century nunnery, during and after the Black Death. And no, it's not a doom and gloom misery-lit 'woe is us' scenario (like the admirable but definitely twentieth-century-biased Doomsday Book by Connie Willis).

Not that I can certify this one way or another, but Warner writes like she's been there. She writes with the authority of someone who lived five decades as a nun in the 1300s. The Black Death? Bit like the climate extinction issue. Definitely a huge problem, sometimes personally annoying, but completely possible to ignore in favour of the day-to-day niggles of electing a new office manager/prioress, sewing a new altar cloth/doing up the kitchen, or wishing you were an anchoress/struggling with depression.

It's a cold book, it keeps you at a distance. I kept mixing up characters. I kept forgetting who someone was in my frequent breaks away from it. And yet it's still remarkable, the kind of book that makes the whole endeavour of writing worth the effort and counterpoints all the bad books and all the books that sell because they're popular or easy or written by a celebrity.

Plus, it's funny! In a very subtle way that suggests Warner doesn't give a shit if you don't get the joke.

"[...] And if the saint were a layman his administration of the sacrament would be void.'
'Surely a saint would know that?'"

"The prioress remarked that it was not till christian times that simplicity became a virtue; the good characters of the Old Testament were ingenious as well as virtuous.
'That was because they were Jews,' said Dame Beatrix."

"[...] it was not much use; the recollection of Adela's novice loveliness wavered out before the image of Dame Margaret maintaining a pleasant expression."

"[...] but as there was no record that the Apostles began to understand owls Christians must wait until the second coming of the Paraclete before they tried to do so"

"In carefulness, in anxiety, in unpopularity, she was already almost a prioress, and it was strange that having so real a foretaste of the wormwood of office she should be so determined to drink it out of the official cup."

And she's wise.

"[...] compassion, stretched out too long, materialises into nothing more than a feat of endurance."

"Paradise is full of the damned. It is their doom and their torment to be in the presence of God. Where else could they feel such infelicity?"

"And as paradise is made for man, this music seemed made for man's singing; [...] as in paradise where the abolition of sin begets a pagan carelessness, where the certainty of Christ's countenance frees men's souls from the obligation of christian behaviour, the creaking counterpoint of God's law and man's obedience."
Profile Image for Emma.
Author 8 books1,047 followers
July 20, 2017
There is something breathless about this book, the way the perspective changes from character to character, never settling, never resting, and yet there are so many clear, even luminous, moments when the narrative stops and there is an astonishing description to linger over. For instance, this (p. 383):
'The rough ground stretched for a little way and there broke off in a line of stiffened tussocks, heath bushes, and close gorse-clumps. Beyond this, half the world was hung with a blue mantle criss-crossed with an infinity of delicate creases, and the whole outspread mantle stirred as though a separate life were beneath it. Coming to her senses she knew that this must be the sea.'

No character is allowed to be preeminent, no one is good or evil, no one is entirely knowable, and certainly not predictable. The story is expansive and runs on at a pace, but narrower concerns (the pain of loneliness, the discovery of a new kind of music, the desire to become an anchoress), when they appear, are excruciatingly poignant. What an extraordinary book, and what a stroke of unusual genius, to use the backdrop of a Fourteenth Century Norfolk nunnery to explore every kind of human frailty, to expose the depth and pettiness of people and their relationships.

One of my favourite passages (p. 61):
'...to Ursula's Jackie it seemed that nothing new ever happened, or ever would. The bell rang and the nuns went into quire. The bell rang and the serfs in the great field paused in their labour and crossed themselves, and then scratched themselves, and then went on working. The little bell rang and Christ was made flesh. One day the thought had risen up in him: Suppose I don't ring my bell - what then? This thought had come on a summer afternoon when the noise of the grasshoppers was everywhere. For an instant the sun had seemed to smite him with a tenfold heat, he felt himself dissolving like wax, and the butts of the mown grass where he lay pricked him like a thousand daggers. What then? The end of the world perhaps. The bell silent, Christ not made, the world snapped like a bubble. Perhaps. But also a beating.'
Profile Image for Jonathan.
912 reviews40 followers
March 1, 2017
Not an easy book to get to grips with. Hailed by many as the author's masterpiece, the story flows around the lives of 14th Century nuns in a fenland convent in England, starting with the convent's foundation in the 1100s and then mostly covering the years from the onset of the Black Death until 1382. The novel appears light on plot - there is a lot of description of the everyday struggles that the nuns face, the many illnesses, deaths, financial problems that they have to deal with, but the general feeling I got as the novel progressed was one of a community of women who pretty much had to look after themselves, with very little help from the outside. Although men were lacking (in more ways than one) in their world, they were usually the only outsiders that had any involvement with the nuns, but hardly ever had a positive influence on their lives.

I had to ask myself while reading the book, whether I would take for granted its authenticity or view it as pure imagination. How much research of the day to day lives of nuns in this period had Sylvia Townsend Warner done, and how much was fanciful invention? On the surface the book had everything that played to the idea of comedy nuns - madness, nun-on-nun violence, murder, harsh attitudes - the list goes on, but given the context of the period it was set in it all seemed quite reasonable. I decided to believe it all, and even though there are a few light-hearted moments, overall it played to my vague understanding of the harshness of life at this time in history. The fascinating thing of course is that it was mostly about women, living together and surviving (for the most part, as a lot of them died) largely without the help of men.

So I did enjoy the book. It helped that I have had to read it quickly for a reading group meeting tomorrow, as I thought I could have quite easily put it aside at the beginning. As it is it has made me think a lot, and certainly be willing to try another of the author's books.
Profile Image for Maggie.
618 reviews
February 27, 2020
Nothing happens. And yet...it's completely ephemeral and odd and rather wonderful and lovely. And pigs fly: "the horde of invisible swine which flew over during a storm" (p. 251). Absorbing.

Also, I love a book where I have to look up a lot of words. In this case, a few were: bower woman, leman, verderer, corrodian, anchorite.

It's beautifully written.
p. 151: "Yet the afternoon was not entirely unpleasant, for his seat by the window was cushioned and he could look out and see the dragon-flies darting over the moat, or the aspen quiver of the reflected sunlight on the mossed wall, or a water-rate swimming across and dragging its wheat-ear pattern of ripples after it."
p. 240: "Wasps, he thought, are the laity of bees."

And I had to do a dive into the works of Machaut (not Machault): https://open.spotify.com/album/2EykDN...
Profile Image for Lisa.
598 reviews42 followers
February 2, 2021
A strange and lovely book, very drily funny and really hits a sweet spot between current events/politics (the Black Plague, Peasants' Revolt) and everyday interpersonal life. Beautiful descriptions of the natural world, as well. There's no plot other than that corner of the world and its history, but that's enough, honestly—or else I was just in the mood for that kind of narrative that feels as though you're floating by in a boat taking note of the details. Unlike anything else I've read in a while, and I have a feeling bits and pieces will keep surfacing in my head at odd moments.
Profile Image for Jed Mayer.
505 reviews14 followers
September 24, 2019
Another marvelous, one-of-a-kind classic of daft realism from the creator of "Lolly Willowes," this is the only other novel I've read by her that comes even close to the magic of that earlier triumph, though this is very different: less focused on character, more on the imperceptible movement of time passing, people growing together, moving apart, crises arising, energy abating, a simply wondrous reading experience.
Profile Image for Jayaprakash Satyamurthy.
Author 36 books469 followers
March 23, 2023
I finished THE CORNER THAT HELD THEM by Sylvia Townsend Warner yesterday. I'd started reading it in January, and had stalled a little under halfway through, picking it up again earlier this month. The two previous novels I've read by Warner are LOLLY WILLOWES and SUMMER WILL SHOW, both of which take time to get to their most interesting events, but have more of a linear, structured plot than THE CORNER.

This book is about a convent founded in Britain late in the 12th century by a nobleman taking a kind of revenge on his unfaithful wife. His murder of her lover opens the book, and after this dramatic beginning, nothing very much happens for a couple of centuries. Then, the narrative zooms in on three decades in the 14th century which begin with the coming of the Black Plague and end in the aftermath of the peasants' revolt. War with France hovers in the background. Indeed much of history and the world hover in background for this small, insular almost completely feminine community, far away from urban centers. There are tides and currents of power and opposition as successive Prioresses are elected, a towering spire is added to the convent, bishops come and go, labourers and foremen oversee work and demand pay, and a priest of dubious origin attaches himself to the convent in the plague year.

The personalities and names of the nuns start to bleed together - but I'm sure if I read the novel again I will be able to pick them out more clearly. What stands out is the evocation of an inward looking hothouse like atmosphere, underscored by religiosity but fenced about with worldly concerns. Nor is this wholly a novel about women - some men who pass through the orbit of the convent become significant characters.

For a novel with such an outwardly circumscribed setting, all of life can be found here. As can Warner's love for medieval church music, her socialist politics, her impatience with conventional religion and her fascination with the devil, who is as real for the inhabitants of this little world as he was to Lolly Willowes, albeit without a walk-on role this time. In fact, this book can be read by the most determined skeptic without any outrage to their sensibilities.

Early on, I compared this novel to one of those crowded Brueghel works with a hundred little scenes and stories going on around the main conceit. The impression remains accurate. Think of this novel less as a conventional narrative than as a detailed still life that simultaneously covers a large expanse of time. A long take. It plunges us into a remarkable recreation of the medieval world and mind that shows us how close, and how far, it is from how we live and think today. It is a slow-cooking delight, with everything from tragedy to farce in it. Read it slowly and don't be afraid to take breaks or reread passages.
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