Tuesday 2 August 2016

Sylvia Townsend Warner in the Fourteenth Century

In a remote priory in the 1350s, a young nun, Dame Isabel, contemplates her approaching death:

'Throughout her short sickly life she had accepted the idea of an early death; but now she thought that, after all, she would be sorry to exchange the ambiguity of this world for the certitude of the next. There is pleasure in watching the sophistries of mankind, his decisions made and unmade like the swirl of a mill-race, causation sweeping him forward from act to act while his reason dances on the surface of action like a pattern of foam. Yes, and the accumulations of human reason, she thought, the proofs we all assent to, the truths established beyond shadow of doubt, these are like the stale crusts of foam that lie along the river-bank and look solid enough, till a cloudburst further up the valley sends down a force of water that breaks them up and sweeps them away.'

That remarkable passage is from Sylvia Townsend Warner's historical novel - which I'm reading now - The Corner that Held Them (the title from the Wisdom of Solomon: 'For neither might the corner that held them keep them from fear'). It's a novel that's full of deaths - the Black Death among them. Indeed it has a higher body count than many an action movie, beginning with a bloody and wholly unexpected murder on the second page. The death of Dame Isabel, when it comes, is protracted to the point where the attendant nuns' compassion gives way to mere endurance -

'The flies made everything worse. The smell of blood and sweat brought them in swarms, house-flies and blue-bottles and horse-flies. The lulling of prayers and the buzzing of insects was broken by shooings, scratchings and slaps at the flies which settled on cheeks and foreheads. There lay Dame Isabel, mute as a candle, visibly consuming away and still not extinguished. Every time she opened her eyes they were more appallingly brilliant...'

When she finally dies, sudden torrential downpours flood the land, spoiling crops, drowning cattle and filling Dame Isabel's ready-dug grave. Rapidly the local legend grows of a nun so wicked that death would not take her nor the earth receive her body. 'Her wickedness was an excessive learning: all day she sat reading forbidden books, and sometimes barking like a dog, for such was her knowledge of grammar that she could change herself into animal shape.'
 Happily death is not the only thing that happens in The Corner that Held Them, but it has an appropriately prominent place in the perilous, superstitious, Judgment-obsessed medieval world that is imagined by Sylvia Townsend Warner in all its terrible glory. The ease with which the author - always unsentimental and hard-headed - slips unfussily into an entirely convincing medieval way of thinking and seeing the world is quite extraordinary. There is no suggestion of the author standing outside this world, diligently notating it for us in terms we'll understand - still less of that tiresome figure, the off-page author with a long pointer directing our attention to the salient features and what we should be thinking about them (didn't someone once describe E.M. Forster in these terms?). Sylvia Townsend Warner has - like Penelope Fitzgerald in her later novels - the gift of total immersion in another time and place. She shows - they show - what historical fiction can be at its very best, and so seldom is.

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