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.
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 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.
Spanning more than two hundred years in the life of the abbey, this strange chronicle is more concerned with the petty travails of a small community than with the great events of the plague, the Peasants’ Revolt, or any other historical convulsion ... the narrative meanders. What lends the novel vitality and inestimable charm is the fullness of Warner’s love for characters as unholy as us all. Her attention alights completely on a single character, granting them a rich interiority usually only reserved for a book’s heroine, then she leaves them, on to the next ... The Corner That Held Them is Warner’s masterpiece and her favorite of her novels, perhaps because it is the work which, in doing away with plot, most blatantly disregards convention. She seems to have become free to experiment, as Harman puts it, 'purely for herself.'