Published on 13 Feb 2023, written by Diana Myers.
A few days after the Enclosure met to discuss our January book club pick, The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1948), I came across the following image online:
“This Church Stabbed Itself”
Warner’s novel is a long meandering look at the rise and fall (mostly fall) of a fictional medieval English Benedictine nunnery. It is a vivid and conscientious imagining of the constrained world of medieval nuns. Like our Enclosure, Corner takes seriously the ways that all-female communities affect and are affected by their surroundings. Oby, the nunnery at the heart of the story, is located deep in the Norfolk Fens. It is poor. The numbers of lay workers on its manor have been greatly reduced by the Black Death. Their priest isn’t really a priest. The bishop can’t be bothered. There is a world out there, and the nuns know it, but instead, they have, willingly or unwillingly, banded together here at the end of the world to await the next. Why not build a spire?
Warner, though, is more interested in what happens after. Because the building took so long, everyone, even the prioress, is bored by the project once it’s finished. There is no triumphant dedication ceremony, no creation of a pilgrimage stop for the pious laity, no nuns holding hands and singing kumbaya (or perhaps Gloria in excelsis Deo). Then the spire collapses.
Neglect, poverty, a bad storm: these things can overcome the pure spiritual feeling that might motivate a woman to dedicate herself to a religious community. The novel only glancingly reminds us of the nuns’ religious obligations. If devotion and duty can’t be honored, if resentful women must spend their days in petty bickering, if the harvest doesn’t come in on time, then yes, Warner seems to say, the Church can stab itself.
Warner, who made her name as a novelist with the feminist fantasy Lolly Willowes (1926), was known to espouse radical politics of many kinds: she was, among other things, a Communist bisexual who worked for the Red Cross during the Spanish Civil War. She was well within her rights to critique the medieval Church for the way it had failed women, but also the way that women can fail each other.
In Corner, though, there is no resolution to such hurts, no recovery from the stab. The spire falls, seasons pass, nuns die, nuns leave, the world beyond Oby carries on. The novel ends with the last encounter between an Oby nun who has gone to the bishop to ask to become an anchoress and an Oby nun who has decided to run away on pilgrimage. The community of women that made them is left behind. Anything could happen to them, and we wouldn’t know.
Despite this dispiriting conclusion, members of the Enclosure all seemed to have enjoyed the novel very much. Discussion of Corner during our January meeting focused on the lesbian undertones of the novel, as well as on what influences from twentieth-century Britain Warner may have been responding to. We were all quite interested in the connections Warner had with the Bloomsbury Group, as well as her possible knowledge of Eileen Power’s extensive 1922 study Medieval English Nunneries.
One participant remarked on the “weird boredom” of the nunnery, and talk turned to the claustrophobia of the novel’s setting. Our group tends to see the idea of enclosure as exciting and generative, but Warner’s novel chafes at the restrictions imposed on the nuns. If you feel trapped, by vows, poverty, and/or inertia, what redemption is possible? Where can you find agency?
Maybe, I think, you’ll still decide to build a spire. And when it falls down, when it stabs you in the back, when there’s nothing left but the years and the sky, maybe you’ll just have to build it up again.