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The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote seven novels, each one very different. The Corner that Held Them was published just after the war in 1948. You may have read Lolly Willowes, a curious but engaging story about a single woman who escapes dependence on her family by becoming a witch, published in 1926. This book is quite different, except that it also considers women’s lives, this time in the fourteenth century, in a convent in Norfolk. 

But this is not your run-of-the-mill historical novel. There are no velvet-clad heaving bosoms, not much sex and no romance, but instead we read of daily lives, a murder, a running away, the collapse of the newly built spire and several loose ends. I was very taken with it.

The Corner that Held Them

For neither might the corner that held them keep them from fear [The Wisdom of Solomon xvii 4]

This is history, but not the royal progress of male actions, not the events that made Britain great, not even the plucky pulling together of the war just won. Instead it is a view of women’s lives, and not of one heroine, but of a community. 

Nor is it a religious history. While they observe the rituals of convent life, the concerns of the nuns are mainly to do with survival and comfort. Their convent is not well endowed. It was set up in dubious circumstances, to do with adultery, murder and grief by the very impious Brian de Retteville on the death of his wife Alianor in 1163. The convent was established on a small rise near a stream and some villages  in Norfolk. The nuns depended upon any dowries brought by novices and the rents from a few local properties, which were far from reliable. 

After a shocking first chapter the novel settles down to relate the events of the three decades following the Black Death, the rise of each prioress, the arrival of a new priest (who wasn’t) and several bailiffs, and novices. The nuns may individually have admirable skills, embroidery or writing, but they disappear with the nuns’ eyesight, senility or death. Indeed, Oby has nothing going for it.

The Black Death was fearsome. It carries off many of the villagers who have to serve the convent, and sees the flight of their priest. In the decades that follow its terrible cull in 1349 we see the coming and going of four or five prioresses, the careers of novices as they become nuns, the arrival of Ralph Kello who claims to be a priest and stays until his death, the building of a spire, its collapse, the changing bishops and their treatment of the nuns, a sympathetic custos and a runaway. There is a murder, attempts at levitation, a vision and a rape.

There is always the necessity of finding more funding. This takes one prioress to a Christening, the custos to a parish that owes rent, the non-priest to find a new hawk and one nun to the death bed of a relation who is a bishop. Far from being cut off from life around them, the ‘corner that held them’ is exposed throughout the novel to the changes of the time, in society, traditional relationships, music and literature. 

In historical fiction events often hold great significance. But in this novel Sylvia Townsend Warner almost plays with the reader to suggest that this event was no more significant than any other. Small episodes reveal aspects of daily life, relationships within the community that continually change, the worries about funding, the economies or the luxuries. At page 310 novel simply stops. 

It is importantly a view of women’s history. Sylvia Townsend Warner had no sympathy for the established church, but the community of women, mostly without vocation, mostly living in Oby through convenience to them or their family, provide interesting material for this novel. We read of the everyday business of living and dying. For example, as a bishop’s visitation approaches a villager is drowned in the Oby fish pond. The carp will no longer be suitable to present to the bishop. There is a storm.

The storm broke the drought. But on the morrow it was as hot as ever – a steaming, oppressive heat. Everything began to go wrong. The cream soured. The food in the larder spoiled. Doors stuck. Patches of mildew came out on walls. The house was invaded by ants. Feeling as though she had been hit over the head by a pole-axe the prioress drove on through these various calamities, hearing of each new disaster with the grinning patience of despair. (176)

One of the charms of this novel is that it is without the prithhees and other anachronisms we imagine inhabited the speech of medieval people. They do use metaphors and images from their daily lives. For example, on his arrival the bishop meets the prioress and… 

… saw what he was prepared to see: a burly old woman whose air, at once imperious and jovial, made her seem better fitted to rule a brothel than a nunnery. (177) 

Another example:

William Holly was one of those small, tight men like a knot of wood, his cross-grainedness seemed a warrant of longevity. (219)

And her descriptions of the countryside are joyous as she describes some of the inhabitants of the nunnery as they strike out on their journeys. 

The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner was first published in 1948 and reissued as a Virago Modern Classic in 1988. This is the version I read, which includes an introduced by Claire Harman. 320 pp

Some other observations on The Corner that Held Them

On Vulpes Libris blog in January 2010 Hilary posted her reactions. She refers to Sylvia Townsend Warner‘s exuberant power’ as a novelist.

Kate Macdonald, of Handheld Press, wrote a very interesting post on her blog in 2017 exploring how innovative Sylvia Townsend Warner was in her historical fiction writing. Here is the link

There is an annual Sylvia Townsend Warner Reading week hosted by A Gallimaufry blog. You can find the round up for 2020 here

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So much more than an amusing Provincial Lady – EM Delafield

It would be easy write off EM Delafield as a one-hit wonder. Her most famous work is Diary of a Provincial Lady and it is very funny and very to the point. First published in instalments in the feminist periodical Time & Tide, it has been republished by both Persephone and Virago Books.

EM Delafield is another neglected and underappreciated woman writer. She deserves more recognition especially as she wrote so much more. Consequences is also republished by Persephone Books, and the short story Holiday Group was included in the Persephone Book of Short Stories. This writer still has a great deal to say to us.

Let’s celebrate her 138thbirthday on 9thJune.

E.M. Delafield by Howard Coster. Bromide print 1930s. NPG x 10670. Used under Creative Commons Agreement, with thanks to the National Portrait Gallery.

Consequences by EM Delafield

I chose to read this book because I did not know this writer well enough. It is the earliest of her works that I have now read, published in 1919, just after the end of the First World War. This was the moment when women’s lives were changing, when expectations for women were widening. Consequences is hard to read, kept me awake at night, because the protagonist, Alex, was damaged by her family and her education. In its quiet way this is a feminist novel as well as a tragedy.

Alex Clare is born into an upper-class family, not especially rich, with a catholic father and is the oldest child of 5. She is required to be obedient to Nurse and her parents who hold old-fashioned views about what girls should be, do and look like. She is expected to grow up as they require, come out as a debutante, find a husband and repeat the cycle for her own daughters.

But Alex is not able to follow this trajectory. Not especially beautiful, clever, or able to see what her parents want of her she craves affection, not given at home, and when she causes her younger sister to have an accident she is sent off to a convent in Belgium to be put right. Throughout her life Alex fastens onto people as objects of desire, wanting only their affection. This brings her up against the nuns when she has a ‘pash’ for Queenie Torrance, and later she transfers affection first to Mother Gertrude and then to her sister-in-law.

She tries to get it right, but receives no guidance. Her sisters Barbara and Pamela learn to do what’s expected and embrace it with enthusiasm. Alex does not enjoy the debutante scene in London, resolves her discomfort by becoming engaged, realises that engagement to such a vapid young man would not be right, but runs off to become a nun under the influence of Mother Superior Gertrude.

After 10 years as a nun the Mother Superior is posted to South America and Alex comes to see that again her life has been fixed on the approval of one person. She revokes her vows and returns to London, but is quite incapable of managing for herself. She is 27 years old, has no understanding of what an independent life could or should be.

Endpapers fror Consequences: Thistle, a Liberty Art Fabric, Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

While one may wish that the wretched and miserable girl had taken some responsibility for her life and for changing it for the better, we are in no doubt that Alex has had no support or guidance of any worth to achieve this. It’s a searing and feminist account of a damaging upbringing. It is hard to read because one can only imagine all the many young women who were as oppressed as Alex.

Consequences by EM Delafield, first published in 1919. Republished by Persephone Books in 2006. 421pp

Holiday Group by EM Delafield

Holiday Group is short story, first published in 1926. Again we read of women’s restricted lives. The Reverend Herbert Cliff-Hay comes into a modest legacy and takes his wife and three young children on holiday. It is a holiday for everyone except his wife, who is exhausted by ensuring that her husband’s ambitions for this rest time are realised. Her name is Constance. He has no idea that it is so bad for her, and indeed EM Delafield deftly shows this, does not tell us.

The Persephone Book of Short Stories, published by Persephone Books in 2012. 427pp

Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield

In this lively, funny and well-known novel some of the same themes emerge. The protagonist, the provincial lady, has wit, perception and skill as a writer, but the life she portrays is every bit as limited as Alex’s in Consequences or Constance in the short story. Here is a middle class lady living in the provinces (Devon) whose spirit clashes with expectations of social deference and behaviour and rebels against the mundaneness of her domestic life. Here is no self-pity or sentimentality, yet she manages to convey the limits of her life with lively self-deprecation. Here are the opening paragraphs.

November 7th

Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls. I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her, and beg her to sit down while I just finish the bulbs. Lady B. makes determined attempt to sit down in armchair where I have already placed the bulb-bowls and the bag of charcoal, is headed off just in time, and takes the sofa.

Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs? September, really or even October, is the time. Do I know that the only really reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem? … (1)

Published in 1930, there were further novels in the sequence.

Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield, first published in 1930 and reissued by Persephone Books in 2014. The complete collection of Diaries has also been published by Virago Modern Classics in 1984.

EM Delafield

EM Delafield was a pen name. The writer was born Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture on 69hJune 1890. Like Alex she spent some time in a convent before the First World War. However at the start of the war she became a VAD nurse in Exeter and married Arthur Dashwood in 1919. After some years in the Malay States they settled in East Devon, in Kentisbeare. She was a prolific writer. I counted 49 works on her Wikipedia page, including many non-fiction works, such as biography, and short stories. She died before the end of the Second World War in December 1943.

Jane on beyondedenrock blog posted A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors which caught my eye. This post represents my support for her celebration of the birthdays of the more neglected women writers.

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