Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them: Or how I became an STW addict

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Here’s a glimpse of my own little stash of STW titles (Mr. Fortune’s Maggot became separated from the rest of the horde and is still packed up somewhere)

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 . . .

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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  . . . .

 

 

 

16 thoughts on “Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them: Or how I became an STW addict

  1. I’ve only read Mr. Fortune and one short story – both of which were excellent – so I’ve no idea why I’ve failed not only to read more, but also to jump on the bandwagon for the reading week. I *have* felt moved to send for her new Persephone collection, however.. ;D

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s just so much Warner to read, isn’t there? It’s always so nice when a very good writer is also prolific! I’ve managed only a few of the novels and that over a great many years (it’s been so long with Mr. Fortune I really shouldn’t count it) and only a very few of the short stories. I’m really looking forward to sampling the new collection.

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  2. I love Lolly Willowes, too. The epiphany moment Laura experiences in the greengrocer’s shop is so beautifully done. I can see why it has become a much-treasured book. As for her other work, I’m still very much a novice – but it’s good to know you enjoyed The Corner That Held Them, even if it took a little perseverance!

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    1. The epiphany moment in the greengrocer’s is indeed wonderful — so psychologically acute and so beautifully described. Your comment prompted me to read it again — I remembered the beech leaves but had forgotten the flowers! In fact, I really loved the whole description of Lolly’s autumnal restlessness and her wandering through London; that streak of wildness buried beneath the oh-so-prim & proper spinster which prepares one just a bit for what is to come. Truly, a wonderful read! As for the rest, well, I’m still working on the novels, have only dipped into the short stories and haven’t even thought of attempting the letters and non-fiction . . . but then I guess that’s what Warner reading weeks are for!

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  3. I’ve never read any STW though blogger Simon Thomas over at Stuck in a Book is a great proponent of hers. I think I would certainly start with Lolly Willows if only because Simon and you sing its praises so loudly. I am often not impressed by the fantastical in novels but

    But your post in general points to two interesting and important influences over one’s reading life : (a) expectations and (b) timing. I know there are books I would appreciate more if I read them now, in my dotage than I did when I first encountered them. And there is nothing better than reading a novel that lives up to its hype but equally nothing quite so disappointing when it doesn’t.

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  4. Ruthiella–so nice to hear from you! (hope you’re staying safe in this awful plague year) I very much enjoyed your lovely review of Winds of Heaven the other night; I’m very slowly catching up on my blog reading and it was a treat.
    You are so right to point to expectations and timing as being enormously influential over our reading life. I think that’s one of the reasons I like re-reading; aside from the fact that I generally notice things on a re-read that I previously missed (I tend to skim read) In re-reading, I find it interesting to see how my reactions may or may not have changed. For example, the last time I tried Great Expectations, I could actually understand what a great novel it was (are you shocked, you Dickens fan you, that I truly hated that novel, the first time around?). I also suspect that, these days, I probably wouldn’t be totally wowed by Catcher in the Rye, although it left me totally in awe at age fifteen! To timing and expectations I’d also add the factor of sheer blind luck! I really was skipping class the day I discovered Lolly Willowes in my hometown’s not very good little bookshop. Had I been a more diligent student, well, someone else might be writing this review!
    Lolly definitely contains a fantastical element but it’s very delicately done, or, rather, Warner does a great job in subtlety preparing the reader for it. I find it one of the novel’s charms — it begins as one thing then–hey, presto–it’s something else. I also, however, loved Summer Will Show, which is sans fantasy and a more straightforward affair (or at least as much as Warner gets).
    And, yes, hype is the great destroyer of much reading pleasure. To mention one example, based on its glowing reviews I was all prepared to love Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I didn’t!

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    1. Hi Ruthiella, and I join with the expectations and timing, and share your reasons, Janakay, for rereading and Ruthiella’s sentiment that the more mature we become, the more some books gain potential to wow us. But again, the hype, I join there too!
      If our lives were infinite or eternal and we only read, we may be able to connect with all the classics.

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  5. What an absolutely lovely post! Far from making TCTHT seem boring, you’re making me want to reread it! I like the way you see it as the story of a hive, and also as a fictionalised history, they seem to me to be very much the point. 🙂

    It is amazing how our responses to book changes over time, isn’t it? I read ‘Crime and Punishment’ in my late teens and was absolutely bowled over by it and saw Raskolnikov as a tragic hero. Reread it at the age of forty and considered him a spoilt brat!

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    1. Helen: thanks so much for the kind words! Even more, thanks for hosting STW week, as it supplied the necessary spark that (finally) prompted me to write a review. I always feel a bit hopeless when confronted with a great novel, particularly one I enjoyed as much as this one. How does one discuss it in such a way as to do it justice? Or even to explain adequately just why one enjoyed it so much? I’m afraid I’m much better at reading fiction than in writing about it.
      I find your reaction to C&P very amusing. My reading of it occurred at roughly the same stage of life (late teens) and I must say I wasn’t nearly as appreciate as you — my eyes moved over seemingly endless pages and I mostly just wanted it to end. Given my experience with Corner, I suspect this means C&P is ripe for a re-read . . . !

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      1. I have that problem too! But I think you have overcome it very well here. I find it easier if I tell myself I’m not writing a ‘review’, like the reviews one reads in papers etc., but to pick out things I liked or thought interesting about the book and try to describe that. Though I rarely do it very well. I like the way you can convey your enthusiasm and combine it with some analysis too.

        I read quite a lot of Russian novels at that age and I should add I was completely uncritical about everything, I mean if you had pressed a loo roll into my hand and assured me it was a piece of fiction by a nineteenth-century Russian writer I’d have enthused about it! Still, C&P is an amazing novel and if you feel the urge maybe you should pick it up again…

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  6. The “loo roll” comment was just what I needed, here in early morning, hot, muggy, plague-stricken North American! I may now face my early morning exercise class with fortitude (quite an accomplishment, considering how painful it is and how very much I dislike it), having had a good laugh.
    Thanks for the reviewing tips — you point out a very helpful way to focus.
    I did most of my “great Russians” when I was totally unable to appreciate them; I have been remeaning to revisit but — ah, so many books, so little mental energy! I’ve thought of using Notes from the Underground as a way to perhaps dip my toe again into D’s waters . . .
    P.S. I infinitely preferred your review of Corner to mine — you gave a much better idea of what the book was about!

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  7. Ok, I have never heard of this author and I am so excited to discover her! Especially after your post. Also, love the photo – it’s always so fun to see other readers’ collections. 🙂

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  8. Janakay, wonderful review. Sorry for taking so long to read it and comment. Believe it or not, we bought a new house not ready until the end of August, and we are frantically working on ours to sell.

    It must be your former job as you shared with me, which makes you feel writing as laborious for you, because as a reader, it’s a great pleasure to read all your posts. I never skip anything in them nor find them tedious at all.
    I may very well become a fan of her, what I know for sure it’s that I am a fan of Corner. It may be the fact that you had alerted me of STW’s talent as a writer, or the tip about reading even if the many names get a bit tangled up initially, or it may be that it’s the perfect time to retreat to the world so skillfully painted in the book, but I am simply loving it.
    If your review doesn’t sound exciting to those who have not read any pages of it, I add that, as you say, the book is very enticing.
    Thanks for gifting me with a copy of it.

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  9. Silvia: speaking from my recent experience, if you’re buying/selling a house & preparing to move, I’m amazed you have the energy to do ANY blog reading at all! I’m glad you enjoyed the review and even glader that you’re loving Corner. It’s always such a pleasure when a friend likes something that you yourself enjoyed so much. Corner is a remarkable book and a wonderful read but for me — I had to try it at just the right time for it to “stick.” It’s interesting that we both came to it when dealing with moves. As you pointed out, it’s so easy during a stressful time to retreat into Warner’s perfectly completed little universe. It’s truly amazing, how much that novel contains; I feel I’ve only scratched the surface. At some point in the next four or five years, I hope to do a re-read but only after I finish all the Warner novels (I still have a couple) and at least a few more of her short stories.
    Best wishes (and best of luck) on your upcoming move!

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  10. Well I have finally got around to checking out your blog, so sorry it’s taken so long.
    I love STW. The Corner that Held Them was actually my first. I don’t think there is a typical STW novel, and I think I love her for that. I have read Lolly twice, Mr Fortune’s Maggot, Summer will Show, The True Heart and lots of her short stories. I didn’t get around to joining in this event, but hope to read more by her soon.

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    1. Ali — so nice of you to stop by. It’s very gratifying to meet a fellow STW enthusiast; there really isn’t anyone quite llike her, is there? Each novel is so very different that it makes her work as a whole rather difficult to categorize; I sometimes think that the difficulty (well, impossibility) of putting her into a safe little niche may be one reason that she doesn’t have the immense following she deserves. Like you, I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work — I still have most of the short stories and a novel or two in store.

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