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Posts Tagged ‘The Corner That Held Them’

Ever since I read Lolly Willowes a few years ago I wanted to read more Sylvia Townsend Warner. Recently, I was looking for an escape, and picked up The Corner That Held Them. It fascinated me that the same author who wrote a book in which the devil appears as a sympathetic character would write another — considered a masterpiece — about a convent in the English countryside in the 1300s.

Although some people include this on plague novel lists, the Black Death plays a small (albeit pivotal) role in the book. It’s really about the human drama of a close-knit community, and about the management of a small convent in the Middle Ages, when such places got by on the dowries rich families paid for their daughters to become novices. And on the rents paid by by nearby tenants, and the manors on which they were founded. Which are some topics I’m a bit hazy on, and I plan to look into further.

The novel tells the story of the nuns’ lives — as a community, without dwelling too long on individuals —  their ambitions and fears, the way the convent’s well being depends on the bishop as well as the bailiff. Which near as I can tell is the property manager or overseer, who manages things like firewood and harvests and livestock. The prioress has some power but must manage up — the bishop, his custos (another kind of overseer, who reports on the management of the convent itself), the nuns’ priest (Sir Ralph, who is quite a fascinating character), the families who would place their daughters as novices.

There are a number of dramas of varying impact — a building project that goes awry, some personality clashes that even become violent, and endless financial issues. And towards the end of the novel, an uprising of poor people who are tired of being sent to the king’s wars, and tired of the church’s wealth. In fact, the pivotal events that lead to a surprise ending are triggered by the uprising, and by a visit from a beggar woman, Annis, who has fallen in with a thief who was raised at the convent.

Annis is working out what to do with a silly nun who wants to sell something (that isn’t hers to sell) “for the relief of the poor” when she has a thought that could probably sum up the novel’s theme:

“It is not hunger or nakedness that worst afflict the poor, for a very little thieving or a small alms can remedy that. No, the wretchedness of the poor lies below hunger and nakedness. It consists of their incessant incertitude and fear, the drudging succession of shift and scheme and subterfuge, the labouring 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.”

Townsend Warner wrote this in the 1940s about the 1300s . . . and it’s still an accurate description of systemic poverty.

And the writing took me away. Here’s a bit about the family members of Dame Matilda, come to see her installed as prioress in 1368: “Even with one’s eyes shut one could tell what manner of folk they were by the smells that came from their garments: an uncle’s lined boots, a grandfather’s hat, the velvet gown a great-great-grandmother had bequeathed.”

Or this description of Sir Ralph, ensconced in his role as nuns’ priest: “Now, in his dusty chamber or walking his accustomed rounds, a mere thinking could pierce his heart with pleasure.” Townsend Warner lists a number of these pleasurable ordinary thoughts, including, “. . . Saint Paul’s transfigured faith suddenly bursting out amid his polished arguments as the face of a satyr looks out from the laurel bush.” As vivid a simile of Paul’s letters as you’ll read.

An entrancing read, as forthright about the problematic power structures of the church as about human nature, entertaining and beautiful and strange. I’ll be thinking about this book for a while.

 

 

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