In memory of the wife who had once dishonoured and always despised him, Brian de Retteville founded Oby – a twelfth-century convent in a hidden corner of Norfolk. Two centuries later the Benedictine community is well established there and, as befits a convent whose origin had such chequered motives, the inhabitants are prey to the ambitions, squabbles, jealousies and pleasures of less spiritual environments. An outbreak of the Black Death, the collapse of the convent spire, the Bishop’s visitation and a nun’s disappearance are interwoven with the everyday life of the nuns, novices, successive Prioresses and the nun’s priest, in this affectionate and ironic observation of the more wordly history of a religious order.
I bought this book in a charity shop last week. I had heard of this book and on flipping through it I was instantly intrigued by it. I decided to read it straight away while my interest was piqued.
‘The Corner That Held Them’ is an historical novel, set in a Benedictine convent in the 14th century. There is no plot as such; although there are many stories, the novel follows the fortunes of the convent over many years. Under each of the five different prioresses, the concerns of the nuns are mainly worldly and particularly economical, rather than spiritual. Many of the women find themselves leading a religious life due to family connections or business like transactions. Although for many women it was life that was to be preferred than the alternative, for some, it was, socially speaking a step up.
What this novel demonstrates beautifully is the passage of time, and how each of us is but a bat of an eye within it. Seasons come and go – people die and are born and time goes on, the life of the community carries on as it always did. The characters in this novel are subject to jealousies, deceits and ambitions, these emotions drive the stories of the convent. A priest who is not really a priest, the building and then collapse of a spire, a murder, a disappearing nun, elections of prioresses and visits by a bishop and his custos are among the stories that are told in this beautifully written novel.
The historical details are well done – yet are subtly drawn rather than rammed down the readers throat like in some more modern popular historical novels. I think the stories of these characters will stay with me for a while. I found this a delightful read, and rather different to many other virago books I have read.