The Corner That Held Them - Sylvia Townsend Warner I’m happy to report, if only to myself, that the Warner love affair continues with The Corner That Held Them, the author’s look at the lives of the nuns of Oby from the Black Death’s irruption in England in 1349 to the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. There is no book-length story arc and no recurring characters except for Ralph Kello, the convent’s “priest,” (see below for why I put this in quotes) but Warner evokes a cumulatively powerful portrait of the cramped, oftentimes frustrating lives of the priory’s inmates and their neighbors, and I can’t help but imagine that this book would make a wonderful BBC or Canadian TV series:

EPISODE #1 “Orate Pro Anima”: The pilot sets up the background, recounting the convent’s establishment in the 1160s by the cuckolded Brian de Retteville in honor of Alianor, the wife who dishonored and despised him. We pass over the subsequent centuries and end with the nuns’ priest abandoning them to minister to plague victims and save the Church in England.

EPISODE #2 “The Tuft of Wormwood”: The nuns acquire their new priest, Ralph Kello, an affair as irregular as the manor’s original founding: Ralph is no ordained priest but a vagabond former student who arrives at Oby one Spring day. Learning that the old priest, Peter, has left and died of the plague, Ralph claims the title and winds up assuming the office:

“My daughter, I am a priest.”

He had thought to himself: Enough to comfort them, and then be off – off before they rise from their knees and begin to ask questions. Perhaps, too, there entered into this hare-brained falsehood an element of superstition; as though by going to meet the pestilence he would insure that it would fly him. Waiting to be let in he had time enough to examine every aspect of his folly, and to quake with fear and to remember that there is no beast of worse omen than a weasel. And yet at the same time he was saying to himself: I am certainly fasting.

Weeping with gratitude, she let him in.
(p. 21)

We also meet Ursula, a fallen nun who ekes out an existence in the kitchens with her bastard son Jackie, who will return to bedevil the nuns in Season 2.

EPISODE #3 “Prioress Alicia”: In this episode we learn of the strained relations between convent and manor: Since the Black Death the relations between convent and its manor had been getting steadily worse. The work was still done, the dues were still paid – but with delays, cheats, interminable English arguments. The bailiff became more and more like an ambassador carrying terms from one camp to another” (p. 51).

And Ralph goes mad for a time from guilt and fear.

EPISODE #4 “The Spire”: The spire is Prioress Alicia’s great project that has progressed in fits and starts for years and now is finally finished, only to collapse in a storm, killing Dame Susanna.

EPISODE #5 “The Lay of Mamillion”: In this episode, Ralph develops a passion for falconry, and Prioress Alicia happily resigns her office.

EPISODE #6 “Prioress Johanna”: The final episode of Season 1 sees the dark-horse election of Dame Johanna:

Dame Cecily glanced from face to face, and her distress at the miscarriage was swallowed up in a more personal regret: that she could not at once use her sketch-book and her silver style. Such physiognomies would supply initials for the whole length of Jeremy’s Lamentations. What had happened was one of those accidents that overtake the righteous in the midst of their prosperity. Feeling sure of Dame Matilda’s election, grateful to be relieved of the old prioress whose temper had grown so disturbing, nun after nun had yielded to the thought: Why not vote for that poor Dame Johanna? – one vote can’t upset the result, and it would please the poor wretch.” (p. 130)

EPISODE #7 “Prioress Matilda”: Our second season opens with the election of Matilda as prioress and the emergence of factions in the nunnery. On one side is the de Stapledon party, comprising the new prioress’s partisans. On the other side is the de Retteville party. What separates them? Little but the petty jealousies and fault-finding that fester and poison any small, isolated community.

EPISODE #8 “Saint Leonard, Patron of Prisoners”: Dame Lilias receives a visitation from the nunnery’s patron saint, Leonard, and decides to become an anchoress.

EPISODE #9 “The Fish-pond”: Dame Alice deals with the problem of Father Ralph and the Widow Figg in a most final manner. Dame Lilias’s ambition to become an anchoress is frustrated. And Bishop Walter threatens to assign a custos to oversee the establishment’s ailing finances.

EPISODE #10 “Triste Loysir”: Henry Yellowlees, the feared auditor, arrives. A frosty reception is ameliorated by the beginning of a friendship with Father Ralph. We also discover that Henry has a passion for the new musical style, ars nova. And we see a little of the daily life of one of the convent’s dependencies.

EPISODE #11 “A Sacrifice to Woden”: Dame Sibilla, Bishop Walter’s great-niece, comforts him on his death bed, “a new truth was made plain” and Dame Lilias’s dearest wish is revived.

EPISODE #12 “The Candlemas Cuckoo”: The Peasants’ Revolt touches the nuns and prompts simple Dame Adela to leave; and Ursula’s Jackie has a hand in despoiling the convent of its altar cloth.

EPISODE #13 “A Green Staff”: Father Ralph finally passes on, and the nuns are faced with electing a new prioress.

EPISODE #14 “Prioress Margaret”: In our final episode, the convent loses its silver altar pieces, Dame Lilias and Dame Sibilla go to the cathedral to beg alms, and Dame Sibilla becomes a pilgrim to the Holy Land.

The Corner That Held Them is a tale of small people leading small lives but its Warner’s attention to the details and her loving descriptions of these lives that make them precious. As Henry Yellowlees muses:

Yet what was real life? Not his own life, assuredly. He felt no pavement of reality under his feet, wandering among a change assemblage of geometry, hunger, sickness, loaned horses, debts and shifts and other people’s intentions. Whose life was real? – old Longdock’s in the wildwood, the chaplain’s at the leper-house, the suave Killdew clerk’s? Each of them in his way knew what he wanted and sought it with self-will, and for that matter, with self-denial; for no doubt the Killdew clerk must have denied himself something in order to live with such a rotundity of worldliness, he must have trampled down some artless predisposition such as wishing to recite his own poems. (p. 219)

A few passages that I found memorable (but couldn’t incorporate into the review otherwise):

For each one of us lives in his microcosm, the solidity of this world is a mere game of mirrors, there can be no absolute existence for what is apprehended differently my all. (p. 215)

Mankind untutored and savage will fight for bread or a bedfellow, but must be schooled by theologians before it will fight for a faith.” (p. 229)

No, the wretchedness of the poor lies below hunger and nakedness. It consists in their incessant incertitude and fear, the drudging succession of shift and scheme and subterfuge, the labourings in the quicksand where every step that takes hold of the firm ground is also a step into the danger of condemnation. Not cold and hunger but Law and Justice are the bitterest affliction of the poor. (p. 257)