Are any of you, dear readers, fans of Sylvia Townsend Warner? If so, you must hasten immediately over to A Gallimaufry, where Helen is hosting (for at least the second year) a reading week in Warner’s honor. In addition to some wonderful reviews of STW’s works, Helen has provided links to a great deal of Warner-related material (including a website maintained by the STW Society) as well as to prior posts and participants’ reviews. Among this year’s offerings are reviews of STW’s letters and poetry as well as her biography of T.H. White. Whether you’re a die-hard STW fan or a novice who’s simply interested in becoming a little more familiar with Warner’s work, it doesn’t get any better than this!
Altough I’ve yet to read much of her output (particularly the short stories), I’ve numbered Warner as one of my favorites since my long-ago days as an undergraduate student. Browsing aimlessly in one of my home town’s few bookshops (I was most probably skipping class at the time), I happened by sheer chance to pick up a beautiful used copy of Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman. Although I had heard of neither author nor book, I decided to risk the purchase price because it looked interesting and hardback books were scarce in my life at the time. It didn’t take long for me to become fascinated by Warner’s tale of an aging spinster who leaves behind her conventional London family to find friends in odd places and to carve out a life for herself in the process. I was totally entranced; I had simply never encountered anything quite like Warner’s combination of sharp social observation, realistic depictions of nature and delicate fantasy, all heightened by the mythic overtones of Lolly’s nocturnal ramblings through the dark woods adjacent to the village of Great Mop. Lolly Willowes remains one of my favorite books and I return to it every few years, when a certain mood strikes me; unlike Lolly, I don’t ditch home and hearth but I do spend a day or two immersing myself in that singular world that Warner creates in this wonderful novel.
After Lolly Willowes, I went on to Mr. Fortune’s Maggot; my edition was published with Warner’s The Salutation (a sort of related sequel) in one of those nice NYRB Classics editions. I’m afraid poor Timothy Fortune never had much of a chance with me; I was seeking a second Lolly Willowes, which these short novels most definitely were not. More satirical and far more overtly realistic than Lolly Willowes, but marked by the same sharp wit and beautiful writing, I found them enjoyable but vaguely unsatisfying. After so many years, these works are perhaps ripe for a revisit; and what better time than Warner Week? (As soon as I finish this post, I’m clicking over to see what Harriet Devine has to say about them in her newly posted review!)
Persisting in my search for a second Lolly, I next attempted The Corner That Held Them (considered by many to be Warner’s masterpiece), with disastrous results. Total shame prevents me from repeating my initial reaction (recounting it once was embarrassing enough), but I will say that at the time the novel left me totally baffled. Was it a historical romance of the frivolous (that opening scene was pretty sexy) or the serious type, á la Hilary Mantel (all those detailed descriptions of medieval convent life)? Was it even a novel? Was it some sort of weird, fictionalized history? I simply couldn’t fathom how (or why) the author of my beloved Lolly Willowes could also have penned this strange, oversized work. After far less than a hundred pages I was out of there and on to something else, something easier to categorize and quicker to read. And that, dear reader, with the exception of an elfin tale here and there, ended my flirtation with STW for several years.
Ah, but the Loving Huntsman (to use Warnerian terminology) wasn’t done with me yet! Several years ago, moved by an impulse that I couldn’t quite understand (o.k., o.k.; I had probably received the book as a monthly selection from the NYRB Classics Club!), I was compelled to try Warner’s Summer Will Show. Primed for disappointment after my spectacular failure with The Corner That Held Them, I was spectacularly surprised. For all the reasons that Helen so eloquently discusses, Summer Will Show is a wonderful tale of personal liberation and growth, of love and of intellectual engagement. Displaying STW’s beautiful style, wit and observational skill, it is nevertheless quite different from the other STW novels that I had read to that point.
And that, dear reader, is one of the keys to understanding my STW addiction. In some form or fashion, STW never fails to surprise, to thwart conventional expections. Just when I feel I have a handle on her work she throws me a curve ball (Mr. Janakay has his own addiction to baseball and some of the terminology has rubbed off). After finishing or attempting four of her novels, I had finally grasped a fundamental characteristic of Warner’s oeuvre, i.e., although consistently sharing her wonderful style and wit, Warner’s novels can be totally dissimilar in terms of tone or content. Armed with this insight, dear reader, I was finally ready to appreciate . . .
Not being one of your self-starter types, I needed a goad to begin my second (or was it third?) attempt. This came last January, when I decided to participate in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate), as Corner was a natural fit for my “abandoned classic” category.
There’s an amusing anecdote, one of Mark Twain’s I do believe, to the effect that when he was nineteen he considered his father a fool but when he became twenty-one he was amazed at how much the old man had learned. The anecdote springs to mind in connection with Corner because it rather accurately reflects my own changed opinion of Warner’s marvelous novel. Even in my very callow youth (and I really must admit that I wasn’t that young when I attempted my first read) how could I have so misjudged this masterpiece? The second time around I was hooked and mainlining right from page one and spent a wonderful week or so in late January, totally lost in the universe Warner created. Have any of you watched Bladerunner, with its AI replicants who were “more real than real”? Although the comparison jars a bit, it pretty accurately describes how I experienced the small corner of the medieval universe Warner creates. In this I found her skill to be comparable to the great 19th century realists, whose fictional universes are so skillfully constructed that we readers are deceived into thinking them snapshots of reality when of course they are no such thing. As Claire Harmon observes in her introduction, Warner’s novel is one of “contrived realism,” so skillfully done that it seems more historical that fictional.
But enough of my enthusing — it’s time for my formal review! And here, I must admit that I may check up short. Corner is long (almost four hundred pages); extends over fifty or so years; has numerous characters; employs multiple view points; and doesn’t center around any one, prominent event. Because I read it six months ago, moreover, I’ve forgotten some of the details. Aside from the fact that I’d welcome your opinion of the novel, please correct any factoids I happen to misstate.
At its simplest level Corner recounts the lives of the nuns in the small convent of Oby, built in the mid-14th century on a rise of land located in the marsh country of eastern England. If, like me, you’re familiar with religious life primarily from reading Hulme’s The Nun’s Story (great movie BTW) or Godden’s In This House of Brede, well, you need to forget both. Warner’s nuns are very worldly nuns (with respect to at least one of them, I found myself thinking of the very worldly prioress of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) or at least concerned with mundane matters; they do their religious duties, of course, but are more prone to discuss the design of the new altar hangings they’re embroidering or the details of the bishop’s next visit than more overtly spiritual matters. This preoccupation reflects the reality of a tough medieval world, politically and spiritually dominated by men, that Oby’s nun’s must navigate in order to survive. Warner is intrigued with the bread and butter issues of convent life, with how the nuns sustain themselves, how they keep their accounts and what those accounts record. Oby is a small convent and its economic base is precarious; STW never lets you forget how thin is the line separating its survival from its ruin. That altar cloth, for example, is a major financial investment that the convent intends to gift to the hostile bishop who’s causing it problems. Warner uses these quotidian realities of convent life to establish an absolutely convincing reality.
Because Corner spans four odd decades or so, it necessarily teems with characters. Novices enter Oby, take their vows or not, live their lives there as nuns and die and are buried. One prioress succeeds another, ditto for the bishops controlling the convent’s fate. The village that supports Oby’s economic existence sees a similar turnover of personnel; an honest and efficient bailiff dies and is replaced by a nephew; the bailiff’s widow moves on to another man. As in life, so as in literature — some of these characters are sympathetic, some aren’t. If you’re the type of reader who demands a central character, particularly one with whom you can identify, then this book isn’t for you. The closest thing to a dominant POV here is probably that of Ralph Kello, the vagrant clerk who comes to Oby by chance and remains there for the rest of his life, masquerading as a priest. Events in the great world outside Oby include the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt, but the reader experiences them only tangentially, in the same way that they are experienced by Oby’s inhabitants. More important than either for the convent is the great task of erecting a steeple for its chapel, a project that consumes its resources and dominates the tenure of at least one of its prioresses. The action never strays very far from Oby and, as Harman points out in her introduction, the narrative is as meandering as the marshy stream that Oby abuts.
Warner’s slyly irreverent and subversive wit is everywhere present in the novel. She begins, for example, by describing the adulterous act that will ultimately lead to the foundation of Oby, a nunnery commemorating the soul of the adulterous wife who narrowly escapes being murdered by her husband (her lover wasn’t so lucky). Ralph Kello, Oby’s “priest,” arrives at the convent after a night of carousing that leaves him too drunk to understand that it has been stricken by the plague; he remains there for the rest of his life, ministering quite adequately to the nuns’ spiritual needs. And then, of course, there’s the contrast between the life of the spirit, the raison d’être of the nuns’ existence, and the necessity of feeding and clothing the body, which preoccupies much of their daily existence. What could be more ironic than the necessity of the banal to support the life of the spirit?
And then, of course, there’s Warner’s spare, elegant, breathtakingly beautiful language (pages 15-17):
In 1349 the Black Death came to Oby.
* * *
Though there had been pestilences often enough before, there had never been, they said, such a pestilence as this. It traveled faster than a horse, it swooped like a falcon * * * 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.
I’m afraid I’ve made this great novel sound very dull (the fear of doing so has largely held me back from discussing it) when nothing could be further from its reality. The best way I can think of to say it is that Corner is a singular masterpiece that places singular demands on the reader. We all, of course, have to find our own way to appreciate works such as this. The approach that worked for me was to simply let the novel wash over me, without attempting to remember, with any great exactness, the individual characters; to regard the “Corner” itself as the protagonist, to see the novel as the story, almost, of a hive or a collective, with individuals having only very transient and minor roles. I’d be most interested to hear how others have navigated this very great and very eccentric work.
As for my STW addiction — well, after Summer Will Show, I’m afraid I’m hopelessly hooked. Luckily I have at least two novels and a wealth of short stories in store . . . .