Book Mole Frann Michel reviews The Corner That Held Them, published in 1948, the sixth novel by British queer communist musicologist and writer Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893–1978). Set mostly in a 14th-century Benedictine convent between the Black Death of 1349 and the Peasant's Rebellion of 1381, the book focuses on the mundane material realities of a community of women and illuminates how a pandemic illness may contribute to the transformation from one mode of production to another.
text/transcript (scroll down for audio)
In 2019, New York Review Books republished Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1948 novel, The Corner that Held Them. It's a beautiful, witty, and surprisingly timely read.
The book opens in late-twelfth-century Britain, on a scene of aristocratic, adulterous post-coital lounging, violently interrupted by the arrival of the Lady's husband. Years later, the aggreived and grieving Lord donates to the church one of the properties the Lady had brought to the marriage, converting an old hunting lodge into a convent. Unfortuately, the location is lovely only during hunting season, and the buildings and grounds insalubrious much of the year. Nonetheless, the fictional convent of Oby persists, through a series of mundane struggles, sometimes laconically recorded in the style of medieval annals: "In 1223 lightning set fire to the granary. In 1257 the old reed and timber cloisters fell to bits in a gale," and so on. The nuns squabble and make do, for instance by converting the old dovecot into a chapterhouse, although "it made a very unpersuasive place of assembly. However, the arrangement was allowed as a temporary expedient, and as such it became permanent." Such wry and elegant prose moves us quickly into the 14th century, where the narration settles for the rest of the book.
The second chapter brings the arrival of Ralph Kello, a drunken vagrant with a religious education. Unaware that the pestilence has arrived at the convent, he stops there to ask for a meal, and is mistaken for a monk because a bad case of ringworm has left his hair in the pattern of a tonsure. When the nuns tell him they are desperate for someone who can perform mass, because their own priest has fled to another town, Ralph tells them, on impulse, that he is a priest, although, in fact, he is ineligible for priesthood because he was born illegitimate.
But although Ralph remains at Oby, he is not the main character, either. Warner herself once said of the book that "It has no conversation and no pictures. It has no plot, and the characters are innumerable and insignificant."
Certainly, many of those characters are vividly drawn, as are many small dramas of daily life in a fourteenth-century Benedictine convent. Yet unlike, for instance, Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, another fiction written in the early 20th century and set in the 14th, The Corner That Held Them does not offer a humanistic narrative guided by willful individual choices against a backdrop of historical context clarified for the bourgeois modern reader. Instead, it remains rooted in local perspectives while registering the impact of wider social forces, attending both to ideological idiosyncracies and to relations of production and power.
As Ralph thinks at one point, "causation tunnels like a mole under the surface of our free will."
There's no evidence that Warner's mole reference alludes to Marx's figure of the subterranean forces of revolution, though it does resonate with Marx's observation that we make our own history, but we do not make it just as we would like. However, it's safe to assume that Warner knew those references. An active member of the Communist Party of Great Britain from the 1930s into the 1950s, she and her life partner Valentine Ackland worked on anti-fascist and Marxist projects, organizing and demonstrating against Oswald Mosley and other British Fascists, campaigning on behalf of the British Medical Aid Committee supporting the Spanish Republicans, and traveling to Spain during the civil war there.
Warner's other novels also reflect her interest in the history of people's struggles for justice. Summer Will Show (published in 1936) is set during the French Revolution of 1848, and After the Death of Don Juan (published in 1938) is inspired by the Spanish Civil War. Warner's first novel, Lolly Willowes (published in 1926) is perhaps her best known work. Although written before her formal involvement with left movements, it is nonetheless an anti-authoritarian work, a queer feminist fantasy about a middle-aged spinster who happily sells her soul to the devil and becomes a witch.
Yet The Corner That Held Them seems especially right for our moment.
Its resistance to conventional plot helps invite slow, immersive reading, a kind of antidote to the distraction induced by much of our contemporary life.
Moreover, it's set mostly between between the Black Death of 1349 and the Peasant’s Rebellion of 1381, and the book illustrates the impact the pandemic had in empowering the surviving half of the working-age population of laborers. Throughout the text, the various prioresses at Oby worry about convent finances, and after the plague, they have trouble getting workers to fulfill their traditional obligations to bring in the convent's crops.
But it's not all economics and plague.
Part way through The Corner That Held Them, for instance, one character discovers the new music known as the Ars Nova--Latin for new art--marked by the introduction of polyphony--that is, using multiple simultaneous but relatively independent melodic lines, as in counterpoint--and the experience unfolds for him a vision of freedom. This, he thinks, was "paradise itself," this
"was how the blessed might sing, singing in a duple measure that ran as nimbly on its four feet as a weasel running through a meadow, with each voice in turn enkindling the others, so that the music flowed on and was continually renewed. And as paradise is made for man, this music seemed made for man’s singing; not for edification, or the working-out of an argument, or the display of skill, but only for ease and pleasure, as in paradise where the abolition of sin begets a pagan carelessness, where the certainty of Christ’s countenance frees men’s souls from the obligations of christian behaviour, the creaking counterpoint of God’s law and man’s obedience.”
In The Corner That Held Them, the mole of sociopolitical change, tunneling under the surface of our individual free will, moves toward freedom not just through material struggle, but also through the ease and pleasure of art.