This is a very beautiful book, rather different from Summer Will Show or Lolly Willowes. After reading those two novels, I began to think of Sylvia Townsend Warner as a writer whose novels set up a very believable, realistic world and then, very slowly, take you into an entirely different, somewhat less realistic world, so that by the end of the novel, you’re in a completely different place than you were before. This aspect of her plotting was what began to convince me that she actually was a modernist writer, even though she seems in many ways to be quite different from other modernists; her sentence-level style, for instance, is gorgeous (I was compelled to read aloud more than once) but not particularly experimental, and she tends to write historical fiction, not especially popular among modernists.
The Corner That Held Them , she does not have the subtle plot shift that the other two novels have. In fact, in a sense, there is no plot — or at least, no overall plot. The individual characters do have story arcs, and things DO happen (a lot of things, actually). But generally, this is really a study in the passage of time. Many of the characters are almost interchangeable, or at least, take a very long time for the reader to distinguish; they often emerge slowly, almost imperceptibly, as characters. And then, sometimes the reader will be told of gossip from the villagers in which certain nuns or priests have taken on a mythical meaning, different from the more mundane existence they actually led. It’s hard to explain — almost like a piece of music, how maybe there is a kind of background of strings from which a theme will emerge and recede, replaced by another, and then be reprised in a slightly different way.
The world Townsend Warner creates here is somehow both brutal and banal. The pervasive tone, in my opinion, was a sense of impending doom, mainly due to the way the convent was founded, which is followed by the mortal sin of Sir Ralph, which affects all of the nuns. Even so, my favorite parts of the novel — aside from hints of witchcraft and odd little rebellions from the nuns — were the elections of new prioresses, during which things never go as planned, the right person is rarely chosen, and even when she is, somehow she is not quite the leader everyone had wished for — so like politics. As with Lolly Willowes,, Townsend Warner draws a particularly vivid picture of remote English locales; as with both of the other novels of hers I have read, the world she creates is utterly immersive, convincing, and troubling. This was a strange and beautiful reading experience.
Addendum: I spoke briefly with Sarah Waters about this novel when I attended her book signing for The Paying Guests. She was so gracious. I credit her with my interest in Townsend Warner, as well as with helping keep her in print.