There are great pools of ignorance in my knowledge of literature, and one of these pools is in the region of early 20th century novels by female authors – which is why I so much enjoy the Stuck In A Book blog, because it introduces me to books and writers I simply haven’t come across before. It was there that I first heard about Sylvia Townsend Warner, not in the context of her novels but because Simon was reading a memoir about her. When I stumbled across The Corner That Held Them in my local library, I recognised her name and thought I’d give it a go.
Warner wrote a range of novels on various subjects and periods, but this sounded as if it was up my street, as it follows the life of a community of nuns in an isolated convent in Norfolk over forty years in the 14th century. As time passes, very little changes. The nuns are not particularly spiritual women: they have been placed in the convent because they are expendable: either because their parents want to store up some spiritual credit, or because the women are plain, ill-formed or simply surplus. They are driven not by vocation but by tradition and duty. And that, of course, is exactly how it must have been. These women, who have rarely chosen to leave the world, bring the world with them in the form of their squabbles, their jostling for power and their formation of factions. The world, for its part, doesn’t abandon them either: they must negotiate with their bailiff and the labourers on their manor; they have to wrangle with bishops to get recognition and support for their convent; and there is the constant niggling of financial troubles.
The evocation of the 14th-century setting is meticulous. This is a world that is beginning to grow out of the feudal state and become something more modern, more recognisable. In some ways, Warner’s convent and its manor seem divorced from the wider world, alone in its broad fen-lands with its herons and floods and bleak flat vistas. It is a world within itself and, as such, the women are unwittingly clinging to principles and traditions which are already considered old-fashioned in more cosmopolitan parts of the country. Tellingly it’s usually the men in the story – the priest Sir Ralph and the custos Henry Yellowlees – who have the chance to travel into the outside world and to see the cultural changes that are underway.
Sir Ralph witnesses the growing interest in vernacular English as a literary language, as it shuffles out from the shadow cast by clerical Latin (this is, of course, the age of Dante and Chaucer, both of whom popularised their respective vernaculars). For Sir Ralph, revelation comes in the form of the Lay of Mamillion, a chivalric epic bequeathed to him, which then begins to exercise an almost possessive force over his mind. Henry Yellowlees, on the other hand, finds himself touched by the new musical styles of the ars nova, which displaces the monophonic chanting of the monastic tradition and ravishes the mind and soul. And, more broadly, both these men witness the results of the Black Death on the feudal hierarchy, as the decimated peasant classes gather more bargaining power into their hands and begin to consider what advantages they can gain.
However… I feel rather ashamed to admit that I wasn’t gripped by this book, and I say ‘ashamed’ because I can see that it is sophisticated and well-crafted. Just to compound my feeling that I’ve missed something, the book-cover boasts snippets which proclaim it ‘one of the great British novels of the twentieth century’, ‘spellbinding’ and ‘magnificent’. Now, I don’t like to think that I’m the kind of reader who only enjoys a book if it’s sensational and melodramatic; but, at the same time, I read primarily for pleasure, as a way to become lost in other worlds. A monastic setting can be completely gripping (take The Pillars of the Earth, the obvious comparison), but something about Warner’s measured plot and prose kept me at a distance. It’s difficult for me to pin down what I found unsatisfying. I couldn’t really empathise with any of the characters, for a start, except perhaps the troubled convent priest, Sir Ralph. The nuns all blended into one another after a while. And the whole point of the book is that there is no real plot arc. Warner does this deliberately and it’s a fascinating experiment. We watch the life of the convent across forty years, but there is no overriding narrative which that period brings to a close (instead of the plot being a bell curve, it’s more of a straight line). We simply drop in at what seems to be an arbitrary point, follow the convent politics and struggles for independence, and then we leave again, equally arbitrarily.
Perhaps someone will argue that it isn’t quite that arbitrary; and, forestalling such a comment, it’s true that our glimpse of the convent is sandwiched between two events of climactic national importance – the Black Death of 1348 and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. You could say that the dramatic developments don’t take place within the convent, but within the world outside, which changes from a medieval to an early modern world even as the nuns remain unchanged, squabbling over petty matters within their walls. Or you could argue that the story looks at the status of women in the 14th century and that it is bookended by two women’s acts of rebellion against the male authority that tries to keep them in their place. In the prologue, Alianor de Retteville’s adultery is the catalyst for her husband’s foundation of the convent; and at the end of the novel… well, to avoid spoilers, I’ll only say that another woman takes her destiny into her own hands. Despite all this, however, I’m afraid that the book simply didn’t click with me. That’s not to say that I won’t try more Warner. I’d like to read her Lolly Willowes, which Simon has also talked about, and which sounds rather fun. (Much to my relief, while revisiting Stuck In A Book just now to find links, I discover that Simon has read The Corner That Held Them and wasn’t impressed either: Simon, I’m with you!)
Interestingly, Oby is actually a real place, although in reality it is now abandoned and classed as a ‘deserted village’. I was intrigued by the references throughout the novel, in songs and legends, to the Viking invasions and it seems that such stories were a genuine part of the village’s heritage: the poet George MacBeth wrote Yuletide in Norfolk, contemplating the area’s Danish past, in his collection titled Poems from Oby (1982).