Tag Archives: Norfolk

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

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Claxton by Mark Cocker

Claxton was a great Christmas present, given to me by my daughter last year and finished 12 months later. It’s lasted all year and indeed I can foresee dipping into it time and time again, savouring the detail of the observations, and the language of the short descriptions. The book’s apt subtitle is Field Notes from a Small Planet.

Summary of Claxton

Claxton is a village east of Norwich in Norfolk. Mark Cocker has lived there since 2001, and he makes minute and detailed observations of wild life and landscapes for his columns in the Guardian and the Guardian Weekly. 140 of these are collected here, arranged by the months of a year. I read each month’s collection of about 10 short pieces in the corresponding month of 2016.

There is so much to relish here. Most of the pieces relate to the immediate surroundings of Claxton, but some are from travels further afield in the UK and even in Greece. He has a particular eye for bird life, but other fauna and flora, especially trees, are also lovingly observed.

The significance of place is emphasised in his Introduction.

Claxton is above everything a book about place, but it is also a celebration of the way in which a particular location can give shape and meaning to one’s whole outlook. (1)

Some examples

Orange banded Bumblebee (1894) Popular Science Monthly vol 45 via WikiCommons

Orange banded Bumblebee (1894) Popular Science Monthly vol 45 via WikiCommons

 

11th June 2012 on bumblebees:

Wait by the flowers and watch them traffic back and forth. Follow one for a few seconds and you’ll quickly appreciate the insatiable busyness of these wonderful creatures. We often think of them as amiably slow but the sheer speed with which they assess each flower, take nectar, or truffle through the pollen and move on to the next bloom is astonishing. In a minute they can cover hundreds of flowerheads. … Within a short while the foraging ceases and the bee will swing windward and rise high above the garden, vanishing into the horizon sometimes at canopy level. So much of bumblebees lives is spent in perpetual transit and even when you find a nest its happening as subterranean and largely hidden. (91)

16th August 2005 on meadow brown butterflies:

Meadow Brown Butterfly, by Ian Kirk, Dorset (August 2013) via WikiCommons

Meadow Brown Butterfly, by Ian Kirk, Dorset (August 2013) via WikiCommons

Some meadow browns seem almost an exact analogue for the spent condition of the season. During the course of their two-week adult life the wings become bleached to a dull sepia and the edges clipped almost as if a child had patterned them with a butterfly-sized pair of scissors. Occasionally they are so tattered it is a wonder that they can fly at all. The ‘bites’ out of the wing edge can be the work of birds and are evidence – believe it or not – of a canny defence mechanism. At the moment the bird attacks, it is drawn by a sequence of dark spots on the meadow brown’s underside and is tricked into pecking at these rather than some vital organ on the abdomen. Thus the butterfly escapes with no greater loss than a little wing power. (117)

26th November 2012 on the avian disturbances caused by a peregrine falcon:

Peregrine Falcon by Juan Lacruz, (August 2012) via WikiCommons

Peregrine Falcon by Juan Lacruz, (August 2012) via WikiCommons

A criss-cross pattern of several thousand pink-footed geese was spread skywards for more than a kilometre. Amid their glorious barking chorus were the more musical anxiety calls of Canada geese and the nails-on-blackboard braying of greylags. They descended then rose several times and on each occasion the waves of wildfowl refuelled a general panic. A tight thousand-strong press of golden plover roved through the others like a mobile storm, while above were thinly spread flights of lapwings, starlings, ruff and black-tailed godwits. (167)

See what I mean? These three examples demonstrate Mark Cocker’s love of language and of the common or English names of natural phenomena. To promote English terms the book includes a glossary of species with both English and Latin names. And the whole is enlivened by Jonathan Gibbs’s illustration that are placed at the start of each month’s entries.

Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet by Mark Cocker. Published by Penguin 2014. 238pp

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, words