Over at A Gallimaufry, a Sylvia Townsend Warner Reading Week is happening from June 28 to July 4. I’m always up for investigating another blogger’s enthusiasms, and I’ve been meaning to read something else by STW (I’d only read Lolly Willowes). So I checked out The Corner That Held Them from the library, and set off to acquaint myself with a remarkable literary talent.
The Corner That Held Them is a striking evocation of medieval life, with all its stinks, vermin and diseases, along with the persistent human doggedness that was needed to keep people going through all that. Lively and discursive as Chaucer’s pilgrims, it’s not at all a conventional narrative, leading the reader along a winding road that seemingly goes off into thin air at the end. Though it’s set within and around a community of women religious, the imaginary English convent of Oby, it never becomes otherworldly and distant from the everyday; the world and its concerns are always present in the microcosm of this subset of flawed humanity.
In fact, readers who are allergic to religion need not fear, for there is none of it in the book. That is, there there is absolutely no sense of the immanence of God nor of any striving after Christian love. Rather than their souls, the primary concern of nearly everyone is money, as they struggle along to keep the convent going, preserve their small luxuries, and fend off the threatening and hungry poor. None of the nuns are remarkable for saintliness or forebearance towards their sisters, and many of them are quite unsavory characters, up to and including a murderess. Hers is not the only sin that is never discovered or punished; in this “holy” place, the temptations of the world seem to be hiding in plain sight.
I’m not sure whether this is meant as an expression of Warner’s own views against religion as an empty and hypocritical exercise, or as a portrayal of the kind of corruption in the religious life that led within a few centuries to the Reformation. The resentment of the surrounding community to the apparently lazy and useless nuns is powerfully portrayed, and there are shocking outbreaks of violence that reflect the pain and unrest of a people who, devastated by the Black Death, might reasonably feel themselves to be abandoned by God.
All in all, The Corner That Held Them is a wonderful exercise in language and imagination, lyrical, evocative, bawdy and melancholic by turns, an unforgettable excursion into an overlooked corner of history. Don’t read it if you want a conventional and comforting sort of tale, but do read it if you’re ready to be surprised, challenged, puzzled and even alarmed, but always enchanted by a storyteller who has thrown herself into the past with all her mind and soul, and brought us back what she found there.