The Corner That Held Them
Sylvia Townsend Warner, Virago
It turns out I’m a sucker for books about nuns. I loved Matthew Lewis’s Gothic horror The Monk (1796), complete with pregnant novices, murder and mayhem, and suffused with fervid Catholicism. Martin Boyd’s Nuns in Jeopardy is a cooler but no less enjoyable read, which he apparently wrote when a friend came up with the title and dared him to use it for a novel. It’s a kind of Lord of the Flies for nuns – highly recommended.
How fortunate it was, then, that when I remembered the existence of Sylvia Townsend Warner as one of those authors I had never got round to reading and set out to choose a book by her, I found that the blurb on the back of one of them promised nuns and the Black Death – how could I resist?
I was not disappointed. You’re propelled instantly into the world of the 1300s, but you never for a moment feel as if it’s history. Warner has the same talent as Hilary Mantel for summoning up individuals from centuries ago with startling immediacy. Their surroundings may, in this case, be medieval, but their behaviour, their attitudes, even many of their words, could be those of our contemporaries – till a subtly placed ‘historical’ detail reminds us that they are not: when the follies of her charges try the patience of the prioress, her tense fingers dig into the little lapdog on her knee, making him yelp.
The central conceit is that the priest whom God apparently sends to Oby convent in the middle of the bubonic plague to replace the craven cleric who deserted his post, leaving the nuns at risk of dying unshriven, is not a priest. He’s a hungover reprobate with enough learning to pass muster as a priest, and knows a cushy number when he sees one. Once he’s recovered from his bout of Black Death (‘He felt like an empty cask’ – sounds all too familiar) he settles in for the rest of his life – leaving his flock in unimagined, and mostly unsuspected, spiritual danger.
But life at Oby goes on, with all the rivalries and resentments of shared living – especially as most of the nuns lack any true vocation and have in many cases been contributed to the order by their families, along with a large dowry, in a nepotistic bid for access to the kingdom of heaven.
The Fenland setting is bleak, but there are moments of evanescent beauty: ’the night’s rain … lay pearled in the clasp of daisies’ and the evocation of an impromptu part-singing session is sublime. There’s still plenty of ‘nasty, brutish and short’, though. Here is the leprous Dame Ludovisa (yes, all the nuns are called ‘Dame’ – no wonder I loved it!) scribing a psalter: ‘Her hand, moving in the sunlight, displayed all its defects, the toad skin, the misshapen nails, the look of being ingrained with dirt which overlies unwholesome blood.’ And the singing chaplain suffers a horrific death at the hands of the Lollards.
Yet the book is also infused with a sly and satisfying humour. Here, all the way from 1947 (the book’s publication date) is Warner’s spot-on definition of mansplaining (a term not coined till 2008): ‘For all men are alike; if one asks a direct question they reply with a treatise. Edmund Gurney the mason had been just the same, wrapping himself in long discourses about the natures of different kinds of stone. That is how men are made, and that is what they expect women to put up with.’ And I laughed out loud at the description of one of the convent’s more trying paying guests: ‘She filled the house with gossips and nephews, she got drunk and played on a trumpet, and at the most unsuitable moments she would appear with no clothes on, declaring that she was the Patriarch Job.’
I was quite reluctant to leave my immersion in the 1300s, especially given the plight of the hapless Dame Lilias at the end – and sadly Warner abandoned her sequel to the book. If you want to take a busman’s holiday from the pandemic, you could do worse than getting acquainted with the locked-down nuns of Oby.