“Lively and discursive as Chaucer’s pilgrims”: The Corner That Held Them

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.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Corner That Held Them.
NYRB Classics, 2019 (orignally published 1948)

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8 thoughts on ““Lively and discursive as Chaucer’s pilgrims”: The Corner That Held Them

  1. I liked Lolly Willowes better, but when i read this one I didn’t think the nuns were irreligious as much as that’s not what we were focusing on. They are a small community, with all of the good and bad things that come of that with humans. I liked it that they were described at one point as set in routine: “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.” There’s faith there, but an everyday kind.

    1. Exactly, faith was not the focus — I still found it a little strange that it was entirely absent. The daily round of the office was presented as a comforting source of stability for the nuns, but its content didn’t seem to have any impact whatsoever on anyone’s feelings or behavior. They seemed to repeat it by rote without thinking at all about what it meant. However, maybe that’s how it was at the time. I can’t know, not being a medieval nun myself.

  2. STW is one of my desert-island authors. I loved this novel, but I think having read her Kingdoms of Elfin prepared me for Corner’s oddness. The lack of traditional plot and major drama makes it stand out from other modern works set in medieval times. (I’m thinking especially of the Cadfael series, and Connie Willis’s Domesday Book.) I wasn’t bothered by the absence of explicit faith/religiosity. Those women led tough lives, but continuing each day, without despair, was itself an act of faith.
    Thanks, Lory, for reminding me of the STW celebration. It’s time I revisited her works.

    1. Their lives were very hard! I think Warner was brilliant at conveying the brutality of medieval life in general. No romanticized, sanitized visions of the age of chivalry here. I agree that “persistent human doggedness,” as I called it, was the major driving factor and source of faith. Often, that’s all we have to hang on to.

  3. Hello Lory – what a great post! It’s been a year since I’ve read this but you’ve brought it all back.

    I agree that it is very unreligious to a startling degree. The very reason for its foundation is shocking. So I think it’s a very ambivalent presentation of faith and its place in society – though like Jeanne I’d consider that it’s still there, in everything, just not always a very powerful force.

    1. It’s a fascinating exploration of the time and tour de force of literary imagination, anyway. Thanks so much for the push to finally read it, and I look forward to the other contributions for the week.

    1. That’s why I love events like these, they get me to read authors that have passed me by but that someone is super enthusiastic about.

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