To become a nun in the fourteenth century was often a business transaction rather than a spiritual calling; it is small wonder, then, that the inhabitants of the Benedictine convent of Oby are prey to worldly ambitions, frustrations, pleasures and jealousies. An outbreak of the Black Death the collapse of the convent spire and a disappearance are the dramas that strike this cloistered community, which is brought to life in Sylvia Townsend Warner's masterpiece.
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...that begins with an adulterous, post-coital scene that quickly turns bloody ... 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 ... 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 ... '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.
Warner was a remarkable English writer ... Over the years, her reputation as a writer, along with her queerness, has been nearly rubbed out. That’s a mistake: In its style, form, insight, and quiet subversion, The Corner That Held Them is one of the finest novels of its time ... Throughout the novel, Warner’s singular irreverence is a pleasure to behold. There’s the convent’s less-than-illustrious founding, for example, as well as the insistence, all the way through, on economic affairs, rather than spiritual. Her point isn’t, quite, that the tedious is imbued with holiness, that the sacred is profane. Rather, the quotidian is, in fact, quotidian, and the sacred is quotidian, too ... Implicit in Warner’s novel is an argument of some subtlety and even subversion. No, history is not made by 'great men'—nor is it composed solely of holocausts and plagues, though these certainly leave their stain. The nuns perform their chores and endure mundane frustrations with each other. Living, even living that devotes itself to the sacred, is mired in the banal ... Life goes on and on and then, eventually, abruptly, it ends.
The novel, newly reissued by New York Review Books Classics, follows the fortunes of an English convent named Oby from its founding in the late 12th century through 1382 ... Through the gap between the official record and the women’s lives Warner sidles in, bringing the modern novelist’s tool kit with her ... Warner’s style is delicate and arch, consisting of a gentle skewering of religious ladies that recalls Barbara Pym. Though she teeters on the edge of satire, she lands instead (like Pym or Evelyn Waugh) on poignancy. The nuns strive to be good, and to live up to the ecclesiastical demand that they absent themselves from history altogether. But — whether by dint of plague, unsympathetic bishop, flood or vanity’s insistent whisper — the world just keeps happening to them. Beneath the surface of Warner’s humor is a quiet but powerful meditation on what it means to be mortal.