Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner that Held Them: Managing Isolation and Becoming the Fabric of a Place – Joanna Mason

Image via archive.org

January and the New Year are often dreaded in their insistence that we look back on what we have achieved, or what we meant to. This year, the looming of March feels the same, with its marking of the anniversary of the initial lockdown. It is easy to be hard on the progress you have made locked indoors during a disaster; it is not helpful to be reminded that King Lear was (maybe) written during a plague year. However, I am determined not to scrutinise my lack of progress this year, to make my March the anniversary of nothing but spring. Constructing these resolutions, I was surprised to find that alongside pangs of regret I felt small pangs of nostalgia. Now midway through a Master’s degree, all that free time I had in March no longer feels like being at the bottom of a very deep well, but instead almost a gift. I remember the small solace I took in the fact that being shut up indoors would give time at least to get some proper reading done.

 I was newly graduated and even more newly unemployed, and unused to the weeks of free time that stretched before me. After several weeks spent in stunned lethargy, I eventually managed to shake it off and devote a week of my time to Sylvia Towner Warner’s The Corner that Held Them (1948). Despite the novel being widely praised, Sarah Waters citing it as “one of the great British novels of the twentieth century”,it was not one that I had heard of, nor seen set on any literature course during my time at university. Warner devises a chronicle of Oby, a fictional English convent, and its nuns. It is an ambitious and stunning work; part historical narrative, part astute internal exploration.I admit that I am verging on cliché, and perhaps insult, in my suggestion that we turn to novels like Warner’s in response to the current, ongoing global situation.This is not an attempt to conflate being stuck at home with devoting one’s life to one’s religion and God.However, reading The Corner that Held Them for the first time in April, unable to stray far from the living room of my Glasgow flat, I found immense comfort in the at once bustling and isolated lives of the nuns at Oby. Former CEO of The Guardian, Andrew Miller, has described The Corner that Held Them as “witty, knowledgeable and gently on the side of women.” A gorgeous depiction of a quietly feminist novel. And it is pretty wonderful to feel that when trapped and stifled, we can simply turn to Warner’s alcove of fourteenth-century England for respite, but also familiarity and perhaps comradery.

The pandemic has engendered a revised relationship to our homes; what was once comforting, and indeed homely, is forced to take on a different visage when it is the only option.These last nine months, particularly those in the strictest lockdown, I have found myself enwrapped in a peculiar state of yearning. Even when walking outside, I am wishing that I was outside – a caricature of pining. A similar dichotomy necessarily defines many of the nuns’ relationship to the convent. Although Oby is by definition an intensely religious place, the nunnery also functions partially as a business. The majority of the nuns at Oby do not find themselves there as part of a personal spiritual journey, but because it was the will of their families. Oby ‘holds’ the nuns both in an embrace, but also in a more sinister and isolating way.

On first reading the novel, I found parallels with my new experience forming, as I endlessly scrolled news headlines like a deer in the headlights, feeling at once hyperaware, wrapped up in the world around me and a million miles away. The convent functions as a liminal space in a similar way, frozen in time and removed from outside societal goings on. Oby is situated directly in opposition to the ‘real world’; defined as a space away from the arena in which things happen. Many of the nuns are placed at odds with their confine; young women sent away to dwell on becoming holy, the fantasies of an outside world always within and just beyond reach. Dame Adela is one such girl for whom a life cooped up in devotion is a family necessity rather than personal spiritual endeavour. In one moment, upon seeing that their daughter has grown up to be beautiful, Dame Adela’s parents “had tried to snatch her back into the world.” There is little spirituality here; when Dame Adela’s physical worth (and by virtue material worth) overtakes her holy potential. Dame Adela’s parents eventually decide to leave her at Oby because she talks too much of the luxury which she cannot wait to be reunited with when she returns home. “Perhaps it was her chatter which in the end made her parents decide that God should keep her: too beautiful for the convent, she was too silly to be safely invested in the world.” Warner is insistent in her inclusion of the stark cruelty which places and keeps many of the nuns at Oby and thus imprisons them in a bubble of pining.

The business-like manner of their placement in Oby leads many of the nuns to have a confused relationship to God. Often, Oby itself seems more the object of their faith than concrete religion does. Indeed, patriarchal forces conspire to further the women from God. Warner reveals that the nuns are forbidden from learning Latin – their connection to God is therefore seen as acceptable only when mediated through a man, their priest. The nuns are held, almost steadfast, in their temple. Warner is acutely interested in these apparent ‘dark ages’, and dedicated to her delivery of a bustling English history. However, the nuns are separated from any change the world around them is taking part in. The symmetries of dwelling within, and outside of, a moment reverberated through the book for me. Their exclusion from worldly history deepens the sisters’ relationship to their home. Much of their history is understood through their relationship to the convent as a physical building.Histories and mythologies of Oby fuse and work to establish the tapestry of the place. Though, this too tends to exclude the nuns further from the outside world as they occupy an almost fairy-tale status residing in a living mythology. Warner perfectly articulates the struggle between intense belonging to a place and resistance to letting it therefore define you:

“Day by day, season by season, Dame Lilias, walking in the cloisters, looked at the spire and her mind experienced the same train of thoughts. There was the spire, and here was she: the same day had ceremonialised them both into the fabric of Oby, and a long, too long novitiate had preceded that day.”

Dame Lilias’ pull to the spire, her identification with it; its erection coinciding with her graduation from novice to nun, binds them almost like mother and daughter. The Corner that Held Them encourages us to accept these familial bonds to the buildings that hold us and how they eternally shift and grow.The nuns continually redefine their relationship to Oby; it is a living, breathing symbiotic arrangement. Sometimes Oby stretches, readjusts itself, the spire falls, the river breaks, and the nuns are set to scramble back into its crevices and make themselves comfortable learning the new shape of their abode. Warner’s balancing of a lifelong pining to be outside with a shifting, breathing relationship with the place in which one lives, endows her characters with a puzzling and vibrant internality. Cooped up, getting to know the strange new texture of my flat, a place I had assumed was nothing if not familiar to me, these passages were a curious solace. Feeling irritated with your home, bound to it or smothered must be natural in these frankly horrifying times and Warner assures us that the relationships we have with our homes can be as complex and cautious as human ones.

Image via Unsplash

The Corner that Held Them also offers us an eventual departure from confine, a release out of pining. Towards the novel’s close two of the nuns, Dame Lilias and Dame Sibilias, are sent from Oby to procure money when the convent has fallen on hard times. For almost their entire adult lives, both women have been shut up within spiritual confine. Warner’s description endows their venture into the world of the living with divinity. She writes, “Dame Lilias continued to stare out on the strangeness of the world, the purpled leaves that hung on the bramble-clumps, the mild white face of the foremost horse drawing the waggon that followed theirs,”. I am, once again, not going to be naïve enough to suggest that, after we eventually transcend this pandemic, we will all become like the isolated nuns of Oby. However, I have found Warner’s tentative and playful embrace of natureto have particular resonance in these lonely times. Dame Lilias’ meeting with the world is an impressionistic one and the reader encounters the scene alongside her as she discovers the meaning of being outdoors. There is a richness in Warner’s delicacy; the horse whose face is “mild” and “white” appears at first not a horse at all but some spectral guide. Unable to contend with the tapestry of newness confronting her, Dame Lilias apprehends images without definition,attempting to absorb every bit of the abundance of the outside world in equal measure. The world is just as abundant now as it was in the fourteenth century, as it was in 1948 when Warner was devising her Middle Ages. During these troubled times we are, at least, allowed to walk outside. I have long struggled to get anything meaningful from either yoga or meditation.However, I believe I have close to the desired effect now in my attempts to embody Dame Lilias on my daily walk. I was lucky to read the book for the first time in the Spring, when nature was reassuring me with newness. Newness comes again now; at least the seasons are reliable in their changing.   

Nature is the hero of The Corner that Held Them; its presence is far more rewarding than the apparently omnipresent one of God. Careful attention to the changing seasons, the burgeoning plants and flowers and the encroaching wind ensure the tenants of the convent that, although they are ostracized from the great historical changes developing around them, the world they inhabit is still growing, changing and aging. The natural world seeks to connect, assuring the nuns at Oby that they still reside in the same world as everyone else. Indeed, Warner’s nuns’ dedicated appreciation of nature and their animal neighbours informs the development of the convent’s strange and personal collective history. In one such moment, a “daylight owl” sets up roost at Oby: “There had always been plenty of owls round Oby, but this spring owl somewhere nearby had taken to hooting by day.” The owl’s appearance has coincided with the death of the bishop, leading some of the nuns to fear it as an incarnation of his spirit holding grievances which disallow him to graduate from the mortal world. Others pity the owl, believing its affliction of daytime hooting to be his own personal cross to bear:“the poor creature must be kept awake by the thought of its own sins,”. Whether the owl is the bishop incarnate, a tortured soul or just an owl, it is thus enveloped in Oby’s mysticism. The nuns adeptly and naturally weave such figures from the natural world into Oby’s narrative, the daylight owl becoming just as much a resident at Oby as the priest or the prioress. Dame Adela takes this kinship a step further and begins to hoot back at the owl:

“Now when the owl hooted, she answered it; and if it did not hoot, she would hoot herself, and provoke it to reply. No one troubled to check her. Perhaps even they were inclined to encourage her. If there was anything alarming about an owl hooting in broad daylight, there was nothing alarming about Dame Adela, so the one approximated to the other.”

This touching passage reminded me of this tweet from earlier in the lockdown. Anecdotes and odd moments like these have permeated the last few months for me. People seem to be reassessing the places that have always held them, having nature revealed to them with comic timing.

It is the extraordinary community fostered at Oby which I found immensely comforting during my reading. The formidable Bishop Dunford visits Oby and interviews the nuns to discover whether they are properly adhering to their duties and abiding from pleasure: “She admitted that there was often talking at meals and after compline, that sometimes the nuns ate sweets in the dormitory, and gossiped, and took the name of God in vain, and kept pets.” The Corner that Held Them is a novel that takes the treatment of its history seriously – it does not convey convent life as a never-ending girlish sleepover. It is, after all, only “gently” on the side of women. However, in the nuns’ sins, we are reminded of the pleasure of being with others and sneaking treats and misbehaviour; I miss gossiping and being in close enough quarters to share sweets!

Here is a closing statement which I believe marries a consideration of belonging to a rudimentary form of sisterhood and the busy beauty of the natural world:

“It was a sudden hot day, as hot as summer, bees were lolling from one golden tuft to another, and followed the cut boughs into the chapel. Light-headed from the conjunction of Lenten abstinence and this luxurious weather the nuns were frisking about and pretending to beat each other with the willow boughs when a messenger rode up amongst them. Where was the prioress? There was the prioress, trying to put a bee down Dame Phillipa’s neck.”

It is a joyous moment; to see these women endowed with spirit and humour.

The pandemic does not seem to be going anywhere fast, but thankfully neither are the seasons. If there is one book you read to celebrate the onset of spring, or the anniversary of our time in quarantine, I urge you to make it The Corner that Held Them. I have touched little on the novel’s depth as a chronicle – it is an astounding and bright imagined history of England. I feel incredibly thankful that this work came to me when it did. Warner helps us find a social comfort in the pleasures of residing simply in your home or nature, while reminding us that it is good to pine for the comfort of a community which is gently on your side.

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Joanna is 24 and currently living in Amsterdam whilst studying for an MA in English Literature. She writes on literature and film (at ScreenQueens) and her work particularly focuses on issues of the body. She enjoys being around animals. 

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