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The Corner That Held Them

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  209 ratings  ·  45 reviews
In memory of the wife who had once dishonored 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 envi ...more
Paperback, Virago Modern Classics, 310 pages
Published 2008 by Virago (first published 1948)
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3.95  · 
Rating details
 ·  209 ratings  ·  45 reviews

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Jan 15, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Katie by: Katie Pappageorge

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 yo
Feb 21, 2010 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: All and sundry
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 p ...more
Jul 10, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, history
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 shap ...more
Feb 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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 main
Jun 25, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: novel
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.
Apr 14, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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.
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 cri
Jun 13, 2016 rated it liked it
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 cu
May 21, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
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 gen ...more
Jan 07, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
Loved it, hated it, liked it, loved it. I will miss reading about these nuns. Whatever happens to Dame Sibila?
Dmitry Nikolaev
Feb 04, 2018 rated it liked it
A history of a small English nunnery in 14th-c. England presented as a kind of Buddenbrooks saga. The most interesting characters appear towards the end, and then everything abruptly stops.
Jul 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: any scandal monger
Recommended to Wayne by: my own bitter-sweet experiences

"For neither might the corner
that held them
keep them from fear."
The Wisdom of Solomon, XVII,4.

Before I entered MY monastery,
a Carmelite nun told my mother
that even if I eventually left,
my life would be better for having
spent that time in the company of priests.
Today that promise would only appear horribly risible.

Seven years later, after I had left the company of priests,
people constantly told me that I had been living 'a sheltered life'.
I began to wonder just what they thought we DID in
Good - felt rather like you were eavesdropping on the convent rather than a standard plot driven novel, however that is a real problem when it gets to the end because it doesn't! No tying up of loose ends, nothing! For which I docked it 1 star from the 4 I would otherwise have given it. I wanted to know if they raised the money for new plate etc etc. I must say that it felt like a reasonable, if grim, depiction of the realities of a medieval English convent; fleas, rioting peasants, petty politi ...more
Jun 13, 2009 rated it it was amazing
this is a great read. if nabakov had been a woman who wrote about the day-to-day goings on of a 14th-century convent, this witty, irreverent, delightful, surprising and very earthy work would've been the end result. so vividly imagined. a modernist novel in historical clothes. considered starting over right from the beginning to get even more pleasure out of it. i also loved her novel Mr. Fortune's Maggot.
Feb 02, 2013 rated it liked it
My love affair with Sylvia Townsend Warner's work continues. Here she tells the story of the nuns of Oby,
a religious community of flawless mediocrity and relentlessly poor management. Henry VIII and the dissolution
of monastic houses could not have come fast enough to tear apart this place: it was already in tiny pieces.
Reading this made me glad to be a card-carrying heathen.
Feb 23, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I rarely re-read novels but this book demanded it. I can't effectively describe to my friends why this is one of the best things I've ever read, but I found it an unparalleled unique and wonderful book -- so hopefully simply mentioning that is enough.
Jul 29, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Nov 15, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: british
What a peculiar book this was. It tells of the goings-on at a small, rather impoverished, nunnery in North Norfolk during the second half of the fourteenth century; it has no plot to speak of, simply moving through the years from the Black Death in 1349 to the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, and detailing the day-to-day lives of the nuns; it has no notable characters - there are plenty of named nuns and whilst they are clearly defined individuals, they die off so frequently and fade in and out of the ...more
Jul 25, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Corner that Held Them is historical fiction of a daring and unusual kind. Telling the story of life in a medieval nunnery in the world turned upside down of the late fourteenth century (starting with the Black Death and ending at the time of the Peasant's Revolt), it has no grand narrative arc, no central characters and little in the way of plot. What it does have is a large cast of characters, who, befitting their communal life, have largely equal narrative value, and whose characteristics ...more
Jo Birkett
Feb 25, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2019-target
Have enjoyed the first 100 pages, I started with the right expectations which others didn't so expected very little to happen, but have had enough for now so am putting the remaining 200 pages aside. I found most of the characters forgettable which was confusing but liked a lot the idea of a kitchen drama set in a convent and it is very fresh for a book published in 1948 and set in 1351. I honk I may go back and finish sometime.
Feb 21, 2019 rated it it was ok
I abandoned this after 100 pages. As others have noted, the narrative has no direction, the characters are undeveloped, and it's generally difficult to care about what's happening. I believe others find the writing style interesting and unique, but I just found it tiresome. I had no desire to continue reading.
Stephen Mc
Jan 19, 2019 rated it it was ok
its an everyday story of country folk but these are nuns living in rural sussex or somewhere near the east coast in the 13th century. There are to many words on each page and there are all sorts of sub plots that are not resolved.It was a struggle .
Apr 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Fantastic - I loved the experimental approach to writing a novel and the in depth analysis of a community of nuns over a long period of time. The title is so apt - their lives are constrained by the one small area of convent land on which they live.
Mar 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is in my top ten list. An absorbing novel about medieval life in a convent threatened by plague and economic ruin.
Sorry - really well written but not for me.
Oct 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I was bereft when I reached the end of this book as I had become so immersed in the story and the characters. Brilliant.
Mar 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Beautifully written - manages to be timeless and to evoke a distant age, when religious houses, many of them small, inefficient and unregarded like Oby, covered the land. And often wryly witty too.
Feb 28, 2019 rated it it was ok
At the start, this book reminded me very much of Cold Comfort Farm in its irony, except set in a convent. However, it didn't live up to its promise and I was very disappointed with the story.
There were far too many characters, none of which were developed enough to gain interest in them, and in the end, I lost interest in the book altogether.
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Afternoon Tea and...: March 2019: The Corner That Held Them 17 11 Mar 18, 2019 01:08PM  
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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 ...more