Ebook Membership: The Nook That She Was Holding, by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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As early as the 1990s, the historian Eamon Duffy described the English Reformation as "removing the altars". Whether we agree or disagree with Duffy's assertion, one of the effects of this era included the dismantling of old religious houses, large and small, that marked the English countryside.

Of course, nuns and monks returned to England in the mid-19th century. The change in landscape and perspective, however, has been so great that perhaps the only nuns who register in most contemporary performances are either those of The Sound of Music or Black Narcissus. Or maybe Sister Wendy Beckett.

I couldn't express my joy when I discovered Sylvia Townsend Warner's story of a nunnery, mostly set in 14th century Norfolk, when they try (and mostly fail) to make the most of their humble lot. While I am not the kind of person who will readily refer to a work as a “masterpiece,” this deceptively sharp and mesmerizing novel, first published in 1948, is a work of wild, insightful, and determined genius. Seldom have I read a book in which so little seems to be happening – after all, it is a book about nuns who pray and live in isolation – and in which you can still find all the drama of life.

Apart from an opening chapter that traces the genesis of Oby Monastery, The Corner That Held Them unfolds in the aftermath of the decisive crisis of the European Middle Ages: the black death. This is a world of disorder and criminal gangs where disease is the only thing that spreads quickly. However, anyone who comes to this novel and expects a plot-related frenzy is faced with a shock.

Townsend Warner himself said the corner she was holding was devoid of action. This is far from true – the novel features characters who commit cheating, seduction, adultery, and even murder – but their point of view is true.

The truth lies in the way Townsend Warner is genuinely interested in how the Oby nuns get caught up in their own obsessions while the world goes on without them. The reader senses Prioress Alicia's longing for meaning as she deals with building a new church tower. one can empathize with the fear of the monastery priest Sir Ralph that his ugly secret will be revealed. You can feel that the nuns are irrelevant as time seems to flow almost tangibly, even though and around those trapped in this small property in the east of England.

This novel also doesn't treat the character in a familiar way. Townsend Warner wrote in a letter to a friend that the cast of the novel was "innumerable." . . and insignificant ”. In fact, it takes a few chapters for the reader to begin to distinguish between the likes of Dame Lovisa, Dame Blanch, Dame Lilias, and the others. They pop up like details in a great painting: once discovered, they become dynamic and begin to reshape what we knew about the larger work of art.

© Dorset History CenterThe author Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978): poet, writer, translator and musicologist specializing in early English church music

Townsend Warner's handling of perspective is also impressive: Prioress Alicia could dominate the narrative for a few chapters before another character reformulates the story. Much like life, time is allowed to redeem or judge those whom we may have judged too easily. Truths, falsehoods, promises, and doubts break out with a kind of gentleness that only makes them more shocking.

Part of The Corner That Held Them's delight lies in its aptitude for detailed details: we smile when a newbie, little more than a child, is spotted trying to put a bee on another nun's neck. We share the joy of Lady Lilias when she sees the sea for the first time in her life.

Townsend Warner's musicology education means her accounts of liturgy and chant are particularly strong. When the secular Sir Ralph first came across ars nova, the new technology for singing music, he said: “This is how the blessed could sing.” The reader believes him.

It is not surprising that a novel dealing with the inclusion of women covers topics such as power and jealousy. However, the narrow world of Oby, in which the individual personality is supposed to fall under the Benedictine discipline, is far more than a hotbed of the dispute over minor degrees of position and class. The corner she held is a work of humane, ironic feminism.

The nuns seek meaning in adoration, creativity (especially through their embroidery) and the simple rhythms of the changing seasons. If their struggle for position seems petty at first, it reflects their desire to find meaning in a world where their human worth has been reduced to the intellectual capital that their families can derive from them.

At the end of the novel, it's hard not to cheer when Dame Sibella Oby escapes in search of a bigger world, but nonetheless, you look back on the quiet drama of the monastery. Sarah Waters called The Corner That Held "One of the great British novels of the 20th century: a tale of extraordinary scope, power and beauty". I find it hard not to agree.

Canon Rachel Mann is Rector of St. Nicholas & # 39; s, Burnage, and Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.

The Corner That Held Them is published by Penguin Classics for £ 9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £ 9). 978-0-241-45481-7.


  1. "There was a priest in the house and a man." What is the role of men in Oby Monastery?
  2. The corner it held is often described as having no teleological action. Do you agree? How did this affect your reading of the novel?
  3. The nuns are limited to a small geographic area. How does this affect their lives and their relationship with the outside world?
  4. What are the finances like in life at Oby?
  5. "After all, she would be sorry to exchange the ambiguity of this world for the certainty of the next." How do the nuns see death?
  6. How does the medieval relationship with disease and medicine described in the novel differ from our own?
  7. The corner she held is unusual because it doesn't have any main protagonists. What effect does that have on you?
  8. How could Townsend Warner's policies (as an active member of the British Communist Party) have influenced your writing in this novel?
  9. How does deception play a role in the novel?
  10. "Before intimacy can be created, there has to be freedom, the opportunity to approach or move away." What does Townsend Warner mean by that? Do you agree?

We'll be printing additional information about our next book on our next reading group page on May 7th. Springiness by Charlie Gilmour. It is being released by Orion for £ 8.99 (£ 8.09). 978-1-4746-0948-7.


Featherhood is the story of the relationship between the author and Benzene, an abandoned magpie chick. After seeing the chick fall out of its nest in a neighboring junkyard, he and his partner hand-raise it in their London home, where it wreaks havoc: leaving bird droppings, stealing shiny trinkets and building a nest on the fridge . The memoir is also the story of Gilmour's relationship with his dying biological father, the poet Heathcote Williams, whose abandonment of Gilmour as a baby left a long and painful shadow on his life. Interwoven are Gilmour's concerns about his impending fatherhood.


Charlie Gilmour was born in 1989 to the writer Polly Samson. His birth father left the family in early childhood and was subsequently adopted by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. A history student at Cambridge University, Gilmour was jailed for four months in 2011 for violent disturbance after participating in student protests against the tuition increase. He commented that "People are often punished for needing some form of treatment." Today he lives in London with his wife and daughter.


June: The girls of slim means by Muriel Spark
July: Cuthbert of Farne by Katharine Tiernan

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