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Posts Tagged ‘Sylvia Townsend Warner’

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Recently – last month in fact I read The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner which I loved, it reminded me how much I enjoy her writing. I already knew that her short stories are highly thought of but it was this collection of all of them that I particularly liked the sound of.

“It is nothing to children to lose their illusions, tadpoles are much more put about when they lose their tails.”

Scenes of Childhood and other stories – as the title suggests draws heavily upon STW’s own life, especially that of her childhood. Throughout this wonderful collection – Sylvia Townsend Warner appears as herself, as do other members of her family. It is hard to remember sometimes that this a collection of stories – however autobiographical, it often feels more like a collection of memoirs. Therefore, I suppose we must assume that STW been a little creative here and there, bringing her own great gift of storytelling to the entertaining stories within her own family. Although STW never wrote an autobiography, these pieces which were written at periods throughout her life – compiled into this volume after her death – make for a fabulous alternative.

Scenes of Childhood contain a large number of pieces and it would be impossible I think to talk about each of them, many are very short. In its entirety, the collection leaves the reader with a wonderful sense of the woman behind the stories and the family she came from. Her father was a housemaster at Harrow (where she was born) her mother an artist. In this collection, they are re-created with huge affection and humour. The woman who emerges from this collection is one who grew up deeply loved, within a family which gave her the room to develop into the woman who wrote the glorious Lolly Willowes.

We accompany the Warners on holiday to Wild Wales, where Sylvia was reunited with Johnnie and Nanny Blount – “a monolith devoted to duty” as STW describes her. Taking very seriously the moral welfare of her young charges Nanny Blount is especially fond of morning and evening worship. Sylvia’s most joyous remembrance of her is seeing her chased by cows after an altercation in a country lane. This opening story gets us off to a fine start, introducing us to a family it becomes a pleasure to spend time with. Sylvia remembers her mother’s artistic preparations before they set off.

“Before our summer holiday in Wales, with mountains and hydrangeas in mind, she laid in so many tubes of cobalt, ultramarine, and cerulean that I too young to have any geographical notions as to where we were going, knew for a certainty that Wales would be blue.”

Other stories, bearing such titles as: My Father, My Mother, the Bentleys, the poodle, Lord Kitchener and the mouse – relate small eccentric goings on in the Warner household. Lord Kitchener is a cat, the poodle was always just called the poodle. When Mrs Warner is disturbed on several nights by a mouse ‘gnawing’ and shaking the foot of the bed, her husband, the poodle and the cat are each called in to lend a hand, much to the bewilderment of their house-guests who are woken by the ensuing chaos.

As an older child, Sylvia recalls in a story called How I left the Navy – that one day arriving home in her lovely dapper little sailor suit she wore while enjoying winter activities with the British Navy – her mother suddenly ripped the little hat off her head and banned all further association. It was years before she knew why – that Mrs Warner had learned from a local gossip that the ship depicted on her daughter’s little hat, had been turned into a hospital ship for sailors with venereal disease. Mrs Warner is wonderfully reproduced here –in Fried Eggs are Mediterranean we see her and the family holidaying in the Devon countryside – experimenting with self-sufficiency (no servant), she spends each day trying to perfect boiled eggs – eventually hitting on the idea of reciting the fifty-first psalm in Latin as a means to time the perfect boiled egg.

Then there’s Stanley Sherwood; the story of a dreadful butler, who having loomed over the family with his ghastly smile for years, too good to be sacked but universally loathed, he returns as a fireman and takes his own peculiar revenge.

“My mother’s butler was named Stanley Sherwood. He was a slender, sallow man. His expression was at once ravenous and demure; he had a profile as accurate as though it had been snipped out of a piece of paper; his tread was noiseless; he had a tendency to fold his hands. His memory was as accurate as his profile, he was punctual to the minute, he never forgot a duty or a commission; his clothes were always brushed, his demeanour was always correct. he was like some baleful drug, which, once you have imbibed it, you cannot do without. My father referred to him as Ignatius Loyola.”

How much of these stories are strictly true, I suppose we can’t really know – but I sort of hope (and now firmly believe) that they are absolutely all true; Nanny chasing cows, bedstead gnawing mice – I believe. Happily, these stories don’t just stop at childhood, we see Sylvia Townsend Warner as a young woman, organising a home for Belgian refugees, exploring churches and their bell towers while her dog barks furiously at the vicar. She recalls with gentle humour, arguments which ensue as members of a Dorset village organise celebrations for a coronation, which in the wake of the abdication must be changed to celebrate a George instead of an Edward.

This is a glorious collection; one I am certain I will revisit. I really don’t think Sylvia Townsend Warner is capable of writing anything that is not brilliant, though I still have two novels and several collections of stories to read.

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thetrueheart

How could I not love the author who created Laura (Lolly) Willowes and Mr Fortune? – who enthralled me with Summer Will Show and captured my imagination with The Corner that Held them (not a book I expected to love at all). My devotion, however is now fully assured after reading The True Heart – which I believe is every bit as good as Sylvia Townsend Warner’s famous novel Lolly Willowes.

My knowledge of old myths is pretty sketchy – I know the basic outline of some but I have never had much interest in them if I’m honest. The True Heart is apparently a (very loose) re-telling of the story of Cupid and Psyche – though don’t let that put you off. If you weren’t aware of that then it wouldn’t matter – and it wouldn’t alter the delightfulness of this imaginative love story.

The story is set in Victorian Essex, the Essex marshes, Southend and London in 1873. Sukey Bond is just sixteen when she leaves the Warburton Memorial Female Orphanage. A positon has been found for her as a farm maid in the Essex Marshes. Sukey is taken part of the way with Mrs Seaborn, the wife of the rector of Southend. Sukey – whose record of behaviour at the orphanage was so exemplary she won prizes, is immediately impressed with Mrs Seaborn.

“…raising her eyes to Mrs Seaborn’s face she knew that this lady could only take her where it would be good for her to go. Mrs Seaborn’s grey silk dress, as it swept over the lawn, seemed to sing a low tune. Her shoulders were rounded and drooping, her voice stroked the ear. She was like a dove, and the small onyx buttons on her dress were like doves’ eyes.”

New Easter is the farm where Sukey is sent, the landscape charms her, and though young, she is quite capable of the work. Prudence is the young woman who greets her, she used to have Sukey’s job but now she is about to become engaged to one of the sons. Sukey mistakenly believes there to be three sons in the family, though one, Eric is treated with derision by the other two and their father. In time, we learn that Eric is not a member of that family, he is in fact the son of Mrs Seaborn, sent to live at the farm, out of the way, as gentle, country loving Eric is deemed ‘an idiot’ and subject to seizures. Mrs Seaborn is ashamed of her son, and Sukey soon must revise her previous opinion of the woman who had so charmed her previously.

Sukey is drawn to Eric, he leads her to an abandoned orchard and gives her sour apples as a gift. Their love is innocent, but real, and Eric wants them to climb through the church window to be married. Sukey must explain about vicars and banns. When their relationship is revealed Mrs Seaborn arrives and takes Eric away, back to Southend where he was never happy.

“So this was love: – she wished that she were not so ignorant about it. This love was so sweet a thing that it seemed almost an ingratitude never to have thought about it, never to have looked forward to its coming. If she had known, she would have prepared herself, she would have made her heart into a nest for it, but here she was, a girl who scarcely knew how to kiss, unpractised in endearments save those which she had given to Tansy the heifer or to the funny little pigs, accepting love without any of the repaying graces which are love’s due.”

Sukey is determined to find him, she knows that only she can love him, and care for him the way he needs to be cared for. Sukey leaves the farm, walking to Southend, sleeping in barns, befriended by an old tramp, the first of a host of characters who Sukey meets in her quest to get Eric back. She gets another job in Southend, a servant in the home of a family with seven children, it is here that Sukey hears more news of the Seaborn family, and realises the only person who can help her is Queen Victoria herself. Holding the memory of Eric in her mind, Sukey sets out for London, for an audience with her Queen.

“In the moment between getting out of the carriage and entering the Palace, Sukey received a violent disjointed impression of what a fine day it was. The warmth of the air seemed in an instant to have clothed her with a new body; she saw tree tops above a wall, stirring under their May-time plumage with a wanton grace and laziness, and it was as if she had never seen such things before; she glanced up, and instead of looking at the blue sky, she thought she was looking into it.”

The novel is deceptively simple, but it is a glorious non-sentimental celebration of love, and the wonderful capacity of the human heart. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing is superb – as always, I actually find her very readable, and I defy anyone not to absolutely love Sukey and her Eric. There is a wonderful fairy-tale quality to this novel – there’s a feeling that all is possible. Despite Sukey being young, orphaned, friendless and a servant she is determined to marry outside her class. She knows that only she can love Eric, and so in the way of fairy-tales, so much that should be impossible, becomes possible.

It won’t be long before I read more Sylvia Townsend Warner, I think she is a really superb writer.

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lolly willowes

 

“One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to by others.”

I have wanted to read Lolly Willowes for ages, and yet for some unknown reason I read three other Sylvia Townsend Warner novels before tackling the one I have always assumed is her best known. It’s not an especially long book, but it wasn’t just the length which made me gobble it up in great gulps. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing is wonderful; she was a gifted, imaginative storyteller whose use of language is really quite lovely. Having read The Corner that Held Them, Mr Fortune’s Maggot and Summer will Show, I was already a fan of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing, so I had big expectations of Lolly Willowes which I know a lot of people love. Thankfully I wasn’t disappointed, hence the gobbling up of it. Even in the midst of the gobbling up however I was often stopped in my tracks by the most glorious prose, descriptions of utter perfection.

“…she looked with the yearning of an outcast at the dwelling so long ago discarded. The house was like an old blind nurse sitting in the sun and ruminating past events. It seemed an act of the most horrible ingratitude to leave it all and go away without one word of love. But the gates were shut, the time of welcome was gone by.”

The story itself is tender and a little magical, and I simply adored the character of Lolly Willowes herself. Laura Willowes (to allow her, her given name) is a dutiful unmarried daughter of twenty eight when her beloved father dies. Laura had always enjoyed her quiet life in the country, sometimes gathering herbs and making distillations with them. Laura is at one with the countryside, and its yearly round of traditions. Born some years after her two elder brothers; Henry and James, Laura grew up almost as an only child, the apple of her father’s eye. Laura has run her father’s home with ease, helped by the servants, people of good old country stock, who make beeswax furniture polish and pigeon pie. Upon her father’s death Laura is devastated; everything she knows and feels secure in is lost. Her elder brothers and their wives take control, it is quickly decided – that despite Laura having a good income of her own left to her by her father – she should go away from the country to London and live with Henry and Caroline and their two young daughters. Between them; Henry, James and their wives make all the decisions, what furniture Laura will take with her, and how useful she will be. London life will be very different, but Laura submits to the decisions made for her.

Of course Laura is useful, for that is how she is made, she proves herself invaluable. It is one of Henry’s young daughters who bestow the name Aunt Lolly on Laura – and the name sticks and Laura is Laura no longer, her life no longer her own. Laura settles her things into the small spare room in the London House that she will now call her own, while her brother and sister-in-law set about introducing her to potential, suitable husbands.

For twenty years Aunt Lolly makes herself indispensable to family life in London. Holidays are taken at Lady Place, her former home where her brother James his wife and son Titus live. Aunt Lolly is taken for granted, she is so very reliable. The years slip by quickly – the girls grow up and begin to make lives for themselves. A war is fought; the world is a different place. In the 1920’s Laura finds, at forty-seven, that she wants something different for herself. She has the feeling that something is pulling her towards the countryside again, feeling herself at one with the natural world, she longs for woods, and hillsides. Laura decides to break free of the life which has been organised for her realising suddenly that she can have a life of her own. Laura’s realisation coming in a greengrocer’s shop of a quite old fashioned kind;

“Laura looked at the bottled fruits, the sliced pears in syrup, the glistening red plums, the greengages. She thought of the woman who had filled those jars and fastened on the bladders. Perhaps the greengrocer’s mother lived in the country. A solitary old woman picking fruit in a darkening orchard, rubbing her rough fingertips over the smooth-skinned plums, a lean wiry old woman, standing with upstretched arms among her fruit trees as though she were a tree herself, growing out of the long grass, with arms stretched up like branches. It grew darker and darker; still she worked on, methodically stripping the quivering taut boughs one after the other.”

Laura finds herself drawn to the countryside of Buckinghamshire, and the tiny village of Great Mop. Her family are both horrified and astonished at Laura’s announcement, and at first they don’t take her quite seriously. On finding her brother has mismanaged her money; Laura can only afford to rent a couple of rooms in the cottage of Mrs Leek. Here in two small rooms and roaming free in the countryside that surrounds the cottage, Aunt Lolly becomes Laura again, her happiness is complete, and she finds within herself the woman she should always have been. There appear to be unusual forces around the village of Great Mop and the nearby countryside, forces with which Laura is at one. Here the story does get a little odd – but I knew that before I started – the reader has to suspend belief a bit, that’s all. When Titus turns up to stay with his good old Aunt Lolly; his presence upsets the delicately balanced atmosphere of the area, and unleashes forces, that finally bring Laura to an understanding of who she really is.

Published three years before Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Lolly Willowes is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s assertion that all single women should have their own liberty and lives of their own not dictated for them by others.

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summer will show

Winter will shake. Spring will try,
Summer will show if you live or die.

With Sylvia Townsend Warner reading week being extended to a month long celebration, it gave me chance to get stuck into one of the two books I have had tbr for quite some time. I could have chosen Lolly Willowes to read – a much smaller book, but I decided to challenge myself with Summer will Show, Warner’s fourth novel. Summer will Show is not an especially easy read, but I found the beginning particularly readable, almost unputdownable and although the novel eventually spirals off into a far more complex narrative – it is really very good and very beautifully written. This is a book that I think I will remember – which is always a very good sign. While several of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novels revisit similar themes, the novels themselves do appear on the surface at least to be very different. Summer will Show is the third of them that I have read. The Corner that Held Them is set among a community of nuns in a fourteenth century abbey, Mr Fortune’s Maggot concerns a missionary on a tiny South-Sea island. First published in 1936, Summer will Show; the story of Sophia Willoughby takes us to the mid nineteenth century, specifically the streets of revolutionary Paris in 1848.

“It was boring to be a woman, nothing that one did had any meat in it. And her peculiar freedom, well-incomed, dis-husbanded, seemed now only to increase the impotence of her life. Free as she might be to do as she pleased, all her doings were barrened.”

Sophia Willoughby enjoys an unconventional independent existence on her inherited family estate, estranged from her husband, who is enjoying himself in Europe with his mistress – she spends her time fretting over the health of her two children. As mistress of Blandamer House, Sophia is unused to criticism, her world, and everyone in it dances to her tune. With her children suffering bad coughs, Sophia takes them up the hill to visit the slightly malevolent lime kiln keeper, breathing in the fumes of the lime kiln an old, traditional cure for coughs. The lime kiln man is a dirty, drunk, with sores on his arms that he uses to lift up Sophia’s precious, cosseted children. Soon after this, while Sophia is delivering her uncle’s illegitimate son to a school in Cornwall, the children fall ill from a fever. The doctor tells a distraught Sophia that it is Smallpox, and Sophia instantly knows that they will die. At first, with the children lying upstairs dangerously ill, nursed faithfully by a woman brought in by the local doctor who visits daily, Sophia delays in contacting her husband Frederick whose adultery has so humiliated her. Following surprising intervention by the doctor’s mouse like wife, Sophia contacts Frederick who arrives just as their son dies. Following the death of both her children, and Frederick’s return to France, Sophia no longer knows where she wants to be. Devastated and still reeling from her appalling loss she hits upon the idea of having another child, and in February 1848 travels to Paris to find Frederick.

“God, an enormous darkness, hung looped over half her sky, an ever-present menace, a cloud waiting to break.”

1848revgFrederick’s mistress in Paris is Minna Lemeul, a Lithuanian storyteller; her salon is a popular place for the bohemian of Paris. It is here that upon her arrival in Paris Sophia tracks down Frederick, while Minna holds the room in the palm of her hand, captivating them with her tales of her childhood in Lithuania. As Minna talks; people are beginning to build barricades on the streets nearby. As the revolution begins to take hold, Sophia is thrown together with Minna – and is surprised by her reactions to the woman she had previously viewed as a home wrecking harlot. Sophia has a much loved great-aunt living in Paris and enduring her third revolution, so Sophia descends on her aunt’s home while the revolution rumbles on. Great-Aunt Léocadie sets herself to reuniting Sophia and Frederick, little suspecting what will happen next.

“Sitting here, and thus, she had attained to a state which she could never have desired, not even conceived. And being so unforeseen, so alien to her character and upbringing, her felicity had an absolute perfection; no comparison between the desired and the actual could tear holes in it, no ambition whisper, But this is not quite what you wanted, is it?”

Sophia sets up home with the ageing, non-too beautiful Minna, fascinated by her revolutionary sympathies, her bohemian friends and her beguiling stories – Sophia has fallen in love with her husband’s mistress. Like other characters in Townsend Warner’s fiction, Sophia has become an outsider within the world she inhabits for a time. Cut off from her fortunes by an enraged Frederick, Sophia’s world is turned upside down; her polite, ordered world seems a long way away in a world of little money, revolutionary plots and communists. As Sophia and Minna collect scrap metal for the revolutionary ammunition makers, intellectuals romanticize the revolution before a final dramatic show down on the barricades.

I am so glad that I read summer will show; it’s a biggish complex novel, colourful, noisy and brilliantly vibrant. I am now looking forward to Lolly Willowes at some point in the future which I know many people have really enjoyed, and I really must read some of Warner’s short stories – I have a feeling they will be particularly good.

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Sylvia Townsend Warner reading week which I think began life on a Facebook group for readers of STW – was originally supposed to take part between the 24th and 31st May (or something) but joy oh joys it was extended to a month long celebration last weekend. This has allowed me to get started on my lovely green Virago edition of Summer will show – a review in a day or two all being well. I could have chosen to read the much slighter Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner’s first novel – and possibly one many people have heard of – but I flicked idly through Summer will Show – which I have had for ages, and was instantly intrigued. I can report that at the time of writing I am very much enjoying it. Perhaps I can get to Lolly Willowes soon too – it’s a book I know a lot of people really love.

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Last weekend I had managed to read a couple of short stories from Sylvia Townsend Warner in a collection of war time stories and non-fiction pieces. That really whetted my appetite for more, although it isn’t really all that long since I read Mr Fortune’s Maggot. That was the second Sylvia Townsend Warner novel that I had read, I first encountered her beautiful writing in the stunning The Corner that Held Them in 2012, a very unusual novel in many ways, but strangely beguiling, beautifully written and very memorable.
Sylvia Townsend Warner is a writer who really should probably be talked about as much and in equally hushed tones as the likes of Virginia Woolf – but she doesn’t seem to have quite that kind of profile. She was a novelist, short story writer and poet, some of her themes include, the rejection of Christianity, ambiguous sexuality and the position of women within society.

I am now very keen to get my hands on After the Death of Don Juan, The Flint Anchor and The True Heart – and more of the huge number of short stories that STW wrote, I do enjoy short stories particularly of this period – and the two I read last weekend were excellent.

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Acquisitions
I really shouldn’t be buying more books but I couldn’t help myself. Following Jacqui’s review of Young Man with a Horn, reminding me how I had been meaning to read Dorothy Baker for years, I bought that book and Cassandra at the Wedding. Two gorgeous NYRB editions, which I hope won’t stay on the shelf for too long.
It seems I really can’t stop winning all the books on Twitter (ok small exaggeration) as last week I won a signed copy of Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín. I have heard such good things about this book, that I shall probably read it soon too.
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I began May a little way into a lovely Persephone book, The Young Pretenders by Edith Henrietta Fowler which I absolutely loved – originally a book for children at the end of the nineteenth century, it had me shedding a tear or two. That was followed up with The Story of a new name by Elena Ferrante, an absolutely brilliant follow up to My Brilliant Friend. I chose to read The Custom of the Country for #Whartonreview which has been hosted by Brona’s books this month, it was a wonderful read, and I loved every word. Death at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes was a complex academic mystery, the first novel in Michael Innes Inspector Appleby series. The White Monkey, book four of the nine books of The Forsyte Saga Chronicles, was fabulously readable and I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with Soames and Fleur in 1922 a time of social and political change. It was fitting I should have been reading it around the time of our General Election. A Sea-Grape Tree (accidently left out of the pictures) was Rosamond Lehmann’s final published novel, coming after quite a lengthy literary silence, it is also the sequel to her masterly 1944 novel The Ballad and The Source, it is a slightly odd little novel, but overall I liked it.

2015-05-30_20.57.06Next came a re-read – a book I really don’t know why I haven’t re-read before – the utterly perfect To Kill a Mockingbird, I loved it so much I didn’t want the book to end. Next I caught up with two book group reads with a wonderful collection of poetry The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy and Margaret Atwood’s re-telling of the story of Odysseus; The Penelopiad. I finished the month with a wonderful early Mary Hocking novel A Time of War – preparing as I was for Mary Hocking week, and some lovely short stories (see below) and continued my reading of All Day Long by Joanna Biggs – which I haven’t managed to finish yet – I’m about half way through – it is brilliant actually but I keep being distracted by other things.
20150417_212144watershipdownSo on to June, next week is all about Mary Hocking reading week for me, and I hope some of you will be joining me. I will be reading the sequel to A Time of War, The Hopeful Traveller. As for the rest of the month, I don’t have many definite plans although I am supposed to be re-reading Watership Down toward the end of the month for a book group.

sylvia Townsend warnerSylvia Townsend Warner reading week:

Some of you may have been aware of a Sylvia Townsend Warner reading week that has been happening in some corners of the internet this last week– mainly on Facebook I think, which I had wanted very much to join in. I realised last weekend though that I wouldn’t be able to fit an STW novel in to a week which saw me catching up with book group reads and preparing for Mary Hocking reading week. However yesterday afternoon I did manage to read two lovely Sylvia Townsend Warner short stories from a wonderful collection called Wave me Goodbye, which is published in an omnibus edition with Hearts Undefeated – this is a book absolutely crammed with the voices of the women writers I love. I will be dipping into this collection more and more I think now that I have whetted my appetite. 2015-05-30_20.43.42

Sweathearts and Wives – tells the story of the inhabitants of Badger Cottage. Married young in 1940, Justina and Midge, decided to throw their lot in together while their husbands are away fighting. Midge has a baby Lettice which absolves her from conscription, while Justina has taken over the work of an auctioneer’s clerk. Into this house come the Sheridans, bombed out of Mitcham, Mr Sheridan away at the war (except when on leave) three children, an Alsation dog and a horse called Shirley.

“Sometimes Justina and Midge discussed what would happen if all their husbands came on leave together.”

Poor Mary – is a more sombre story. Mary is the wife of Nicholas, a conscientious Objector who has spent the years since his exemption working on a farm. Mary had joined the ATS – their views on war differed rather. Their differences had led to their separation. Now, having not seen one another for four years, Mary has come to spend her leave visiting him at the tiny farm cottage where he lives. Both of them feel awkward, they have both changed; the war is nearly over, they each to re-adjust their view of the other.

“In the other room the clock was ticking, the kettle was boiling. Three hours earlier the bed had not seemed his own, now his living-room was not his either, but some sort of institutional waiting-room where two people had made an inordinate mess of a meal.”

In the second section of this omnibus made up of non-fiction pieces, extracts from essays diary entries etc. were three extracts from Sylvia Townsend Warner’s letters here entitled; Bombs in the Country, The New Austerity and The Censor . These I read in just fifteen minutes, and they are wonderfully engaging and humorous. Some pieces in this collection are tiny just a paragraph or two – while others run to a few pages, part of me wants to gobble up the whole volume – which is quite chunky – now that I have dipped into it, don’t be surprised if this volume is referred to again and again as time goes on.

All in all it’s been a pretty excellent month, so what have you been reading?

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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.

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