Sylvia Townsend Warner was not a writer by half-measures. She falls into the category of authors whose work varies dramatically from book to book: Mr. Fortune, about a hapless missionary, isn’t like Lolly Willowes, about a frustrated woman who, partway through, sells her soul to Satan in exchange for kickass magical powers. Born in 1893, Warner was a queer Communist writer whose work followed a freeform dictate; her final book, published in 1977, Kingdoms of Elfin, is a set of interconnected stories about the interaction between elves and humans. Many of those stories were first published in The New Yorker—meaning that Warner was genre-bending over forty years ago.
Last year, Handheld Press reissued Kingdoms of Elfin. In her introduction, Ingrid Hotz-Davies hails Warner’s “ethnographic approach,” suggesting that the novel may be most closely connected to The Corner That Held Them, originally published in 1948, also the recipient of a deluxe reissue treatment from NYRB Classics. While the two books diverge at first glance—The Corner That Held Them focuses on several decades of lives in a fourteenth-century English convent—both raise questions of belief and mysticism while emphasizing ritual and the complex relationships between ideology and power. The Corner That Held Them is far more politically radical than one might expect a historical novel about nuns published at that time to be.
Mind you, it’s also a story about a medieval nunnery that begins with an adulterous, post-coital scene that quickly turns bloody. Alianor de Retteville gazes across her bed at her lover, Giles. “She did not speak,” Warner writes. “She had nothing to say.” Meanwhile, Giles looks out the window, takes measure of the sky, and then falls asleep. Shortly thereafter, Alianor’s husband Brian and two of his cousins brutally murder Giles. Years pass. Alianor dies. Eventually, Brian establishes a Benedictine priory at a manor known as Oby, once part of Alianor’s dowry.
Eventually, Brian dies as well; by then, the year is 1170. And we’re only six pages in. The vast majority of The Corner That Held Them is set between 1349 and 1382, but this initial betrayal hangs over the proceedings, coloring everything that follows. Warner is not simply writing about the misadventures of nuns in the pages that follow; the story’s beginning signals the underlying power and gender dynamics that inform nearly all subsequent interactions. Alternately: following a scene of a woman’s pleasure with an act of decidedly male violence serves as a reminder of who holds the power in this society. Warner writes about a society of women undergirded by a patriarchal society; you can see where the potential exists for things to go very, very wrong.
To the extent that The Corner That Held Them has a plot—it’s largely episodic in nature. The narrative opens with the Black Death; the end anticipates the genesis of the Despenser’s Crusade. Aside from these historical milestones, much of the action in Warner’s novel is oriented inwards, on the affairs of a small religious institution: power struggles, unexpected deaths, and rumors that have an extraordinarily long half-life. Rather than following a single character, the priory is the central personality, and its shifting circumstances form the spine of the novel.
Where Warner excels here is in blending the quotidian and irreverent in a novel about a nominally sacred space. Halfway through the novel, her description of the ailing Dame Beatrix notes that she “had suddenly become cantankerous, as though the arrogance of her cancer had infected her character.” Elsewhere, an inquest into the death of another nun ends with the prioress boxing the ears of one of her subordinates—not exactly the first action that comes to mind when one thinks of nuns in a holy place.
That subversion runs throughout the novel. At one point, Warner turns the narrative eye onto two prospective nuns, each from a troubled background. “To be called Dame and live in a cloister was a better prospect than their natural future of scrubbing trenchers, clacking at a loom, and bearing great hordes of hungry children,” she writes. In a novel abounding with irony, this makes a much more subversive case for cloistered life. An all-female space in the center of a patriarchal society; a society where class distinctions matter less than they would outside of the cloister’s walls. Warner is not making a case that the cloister described within these pages is a utopia, but her description of it does make it sound far more inviting than one might first expect.
When history breaches the narrative, though, it does so in an unexpected way. The characters in this novel might be living through history, but they’re not necessarily aware of these events as having a massive effect on their society. The effect instead is more intimate: history as lived experience rather than as the sweeping actions of larger-than-life figures. “Craving for adventures, Dame Blanch,” on of the first nuns readers encounter, “had enjoyed the Black Death.”
She [had been excited, dauntless, and even sought-after. Her chatter about knights and fortresses had suddenly seemed heartening and authentic, and when she assured them that the battlefield smelled much worse than the infirmary because of all the entrails, no one remembered to remember that in fact she had entered religion at the age of ten, having seen no nearer approximation to warfare than a provincial tournament.
It’s also telling that Warner structures this around the Black Death: this isn’t a novel where the historical elements involve cameos by kings, queens, and heroes. Instead, the largest historical elements involve a disease, and the more one stays away from those sweeping historical currents, the safer one is.
Periodically, bishops arrive at the priory, a reminder of the gendered power structures these nuns dwell within, and of the fraught economics of priory life. While the characters’ faith seems incidental, elements of The Corner That Held Them suggest that the novel is about a matriarchal utopia—until, of course, Warner reminds us that the structure only exists through the largesse and whims of wealthy men.
“Yet the events of history carry a certain exhilaration with them,” Warner writes early in the story. At its best, this novel lives up to that pronouncement—both in its stylish prose and attention to detail. Warner’s writing is itself an exhilarating event, a radical work of fiction from seventy years ago which resonates sharply today.