History, Tolstoy insisted, is not driven by great men—the Bismarcks, the Napoleons of this world. It is constructed from an endless number of minute details, like drops of water, or grains of sand.
The protagonists of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them, recently reissued by New York Review Books, are not great men; they are not men. In fact, they’re nuns. The novel describes an unremarkable fourteenth-century Benedictine convent and what happens there.
Not a lot happens. “A good convent should have no history,” Warner writes at the beginning. “Its life is hid with Christ who is above. History is of the world, costly and deadly.” Nonetheless, an account of the convent is what follows. There is no plot to speak of, and no main characters. The bulk of the book takes place, quite arbitrarily, between 1345 and 1382. In the beginning, there is the Black Death to contend with; more often, there are smaller annoyances: weather, debts, and a shifting succession of prioresses.
Debts are a particular problem. For all her holy subject matter, Warner is scrupulous in her attention to worldly concerns—especially the cost of keeping up a convent. When the worst of the plague has passed, the prioress calls a meeting, where the nuns are “surprised to hear themselves urged to be more economical.” The prioress “talked on and on, darting from one precept of housewifery to another, the high price of pins, the extravagance of little loaves, the wastage of candles.”
Warner was a remarkable English writer. Born in 1893, she was an avowed Communist, and she was queer. She lived for decades with the poet Valentine Ackland. 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.
Among Warner’s innovations is her manipulation of the passage of time. The novel opens with a scene from the twelfth century, when Brian de Retteville and a couple of cousins discover his wife in bed with a lover. The cousins kill the lover, but Brian can’t quite bring himself to kill his wife. They live together for another ten years. When she dies, he founds the nunnery “in commemoration of her soul.” But Warner makes swift work of this founding father—his tale is told and tucked away within a few pages. She dispatches the intervening years with equal swiftness: “In 1208 came the Interdict,” she writes. “In 1223 lightning set fire to the granary. In 1257 the old reed and timber cloisters fell to bits in a gale.” This all takes place in the first fifteen pages. The rest of the book portrays the minutiae of daily existence at the convent in the fourteenth century.
The nuns are presented both en masse and individually. There’s Prioress Alicia, whose great ambition—in which, for years and years, she is thwarted—is to build a spire; Dame Susanna, who throws herself beneath the spire when it collapses; and Dame Matilda, who’s so practical and full of common sense that she sinks into despair: she has no one to talk to. There’s murderous Dame Alice who, when the priest wavers in his chastity, takes it upon herself to correct him; and ugly Dame Lovisa; and blind Dame Cecily. The narrative is handed off from one to another, like a baton, though the whole operation is handled rather more delicately than a relay.
The nuns are not the only subjects of interest. When Prioress Alicia makes a rare venture into the wider world to attend a christening, she finds herself seated with a motley crowd of laity. “Conversation turned on the infirmities of the flesh,” Warner writes. One man complains that his teeth have rotted, “but that, said his brother Steven, was better than a fistula.” “Yes,” says another man, “but a flux of the lungs, imagine that!” Meanwhile, a widow “continued to assert that the pains in her head would astonish anyone who could experience them, for sometimes it was as though the devil were stirring up her brains with a red-hot spoon.”
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.
Warner apparently spent years writing this book, which was finally published in 1948. That’s another oddity: a fourteenth-century convent isn’t quite the subject matter you’d expect from a writer who had just survived a twentieth-century war. But that war is reflected in the convent and in its concerns. The plague resembles nothing so much as the shadow of fascism that had so recently spread its long arms across Europe. “It travelled faster than a horse,” Warner writes, “it swooped like a falcon, and those whom it seized on were so suddenly corrupted that the victims, still alive and howling in anguish, stank like the dead.” She continues: “All across Europe it had come, and now it would traverse England, and nothing could stop it, wherever there were men living it would seek them out, and turn back, as a wolf does, to snap at the man it had passed by.”
There are other instances that reverberate with the legacy of the Second World War. One such moment is stunning not only for the casual anti-Semitism of the characters, but also for the way, in just a few lines, Warner manages to trace back more than six hundred years the devastation wrought in her own time. The nuns acquire a bower-woman, Pernelle Bastable, who has done a bit of traveling—at any rate, more traveling than they have done, which is to say: none at all. “No Jews now,” Pernelle observes,
to waylay poor little lads and hang them up in cellars. It was a good day for England when they were packed off. My grandfather—he was a ship’s captain—saw a whole shipload of Jews spilled and drowning off Wittesand. The waves were speckled with their bales and parcels bobbing up and down. My grandfather cast a hook and line, and hauled up one of the bales, and inside it there was a gold cup, and baby-clothes of finest linen, and little padded caps with furred ears, little gloves—christian babies, my grandfather said, had no such gear.
“Poor things!” says Dame Helen.
This is not to say that The Corner That Held Them offers up an analogy for the Second World War. It doesn’t; its insights are more tenuous than that, and more profound. 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. If there’s comfort to be found, it’ll be found within that truth, not despite it. Life goes on and on and then, eventually, abruptly, it ends.
Natalia Holtzman is a writer living in Ann Arbor, MI.