Chapter nine is the best chapter I have read so far. It is like a bottled television episode back when you actually had to wait to watch those.
Because in this “episode,” titled “The Fish-Pond,” Bishop Walter comes to town…
Dame Alice at the beginning of the chapter approaches Prioress Matilda in a state of distress. It seems that Magdalen Figg, the widow of the late (and murdered) Jesse Figg, has taken to Oby’s priest a little too well.
Apparently they are fornicating.
Everybody knows it, and Dame Alice is worried that when Bishop Walter arrives, somebody is going to break character and tell the inspecting Bishop about just what sin the convent has been steeped in for months if not years.
Well, I have written about Prioress Matilda before, and her reaction is as utilitarian as ever. In fact, she gives the most explicit case for utilitarianism in an anecdote to Dame Alice that Matilda hopes will reach that dumb Dilworth nun’s ears:
‘I am like a man pursued by a bear,’ said the prioress, ‘and who carries twelve small children on his back, and a horsefly settles on his face. He might like to knock off the horsefly, but how can he? – for with both his hands he supports the children, and if he stops to put the children down the bear will catch up with him…so the horsefly sucks and I carry on.”
Prioress Matilda is astutely not so interested in Ralph’s sins but moreso in Alice’s warning, which she considers the “teeth” in this “blackmail from God.”
Strange what Matilda will compromise in order to keep the convent moving. One of the biggest charges in the Catholic religion among priests and nuns concerns celibacy, so it is any wonder if Oby is even a convent anymore or simply a community with fancy traditions?
Dame Alice, stupid as she is, did not internalize Matilda’s story. Instead of letting the hosefly suck, Alice thinks, then she must kill the horsefly herself.
They prepare for the Bishop’s arrival, planning the most elaborate of meals, while Dame Alice overcorrects and attempts to assassinate the widow Figg.
She tries three times to poison Figg, but to no avail, as it seems Figg’s talent for smelling the onset of rain is also somehow what allows her to smell a bad drink.
Dame Alice and Figg are both carrying buckets of water to the fish-pond, as they seek to make a meaty fish dinner for the Bishop and must thwart drought. The nuns are confused as to why Alice seems so concerned: in the history of the convent, no buckets of water to the pond were necessary when previous droughts had appeared. Rather than investigate, they shrug it off as that workaholic nun at it again.
“Dame Alice pants like a dog,” Prioress Matilda observes of the nuns breathing, “like a mad dog.”
Mere days before the Bishop’s arrival, a fierce storm rolls in, and, somehow in one of these trips with the water buckets, the widow Figg falls into the fish-pond.
Dame Alice ‘tries’ to pull the woman out of the pond, but she is a very very fat lady, and her weight keeps her face resolutely underwater.
“Not even a dog could drown in that foot high water,” Prioress Matilda jests mere hours after the death.
When the Bishop arrives, it is to no avail. He is one of those prissy types who sees the bad in everything. While he may be cordial and patient and meticulous during his time there, his conclusion after his visitation is a scathing one. He calls the nuns whores who like expensive trinkets. He calls it a godless place, and calls Prioress Matilda a nun who would be better served running a brothel than a convent.
On that account he may not be wrong. Matilda would likely have a lot more fun there, and many of her compromises are in service of efficiency rather than godliness.
The office was performed with worldly glibness, the song was too loud, the words were not fully pronounced. He had seen no traces of true piety, no fear, no trepidation. All was blighted by complacency, and an old incense boat had been sold without permission.
…this goes on for several pages.
His solutions are to appoint three more nuns to serve at the convent, as well as to appoint an overhead administrator to bring Oby back into the fold. The ladies are aghast, but they also feel like they were having more fun than ever. Leave it to an outside party to bring the women together against a common enemy. They laugh the situation off as beyond belief.
All of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s talents come together here. There’s the dark humor of sickness, malady, and errors. There’s the talent for conveying the discrepancy of building a local community among a larger entity, that callous distinction between the part and the whole that is the bane of any bureaucracy. There is the continued critique of where religion begins and economics ends that can never be fully resolved, as the metaphysics of religion must always play out in the donation bowl. And there is the exception rather than the rule in this chapter of, again, another bottled moment. Much of the historical soup of the other chapters seems to slide down our gullet, but in rare moments (such as the Lay of Mamillion earlier on) the history is allowed to have such powerful moments that we must press pause and admire the cacophony.
And it has immediate implications for every job or community…or even cult.
Here is this administrator who comes into your classroom, and they have not seen you teach all year. Yet in one forty-five minute session of observing, they are supposed to know what your value is, and the report that they file is a permanent record of what your teaching is, rather than the qualitative reports of the students.
As you can see I have a lot of bitterness about this in my life.
But who has not done knowledge work in the 21st century and not had this very problem? Someone comes in and mangles with the status quo, saying it is all wrong? Say something that is incisive, and we are prone to anger. But say many things, and do so with white cotton gloves on, and it enters the realm of absurdity.
The Bishop makes a statement about his frustration with their ledger. In the ledger, a rabbit was purchased in the month of October, where the nuns did not provide the context for why the rabbit was purchased. This was a major problem of the account keeping apparently.
Even the reactions ring true. “I remember when I bought that rabbit perfectly, if only he would have just asked.”
Go into any workplace where a supervisor has made a report and I dare you to not hear such a statement.
It remains to be see whether critiques from an outside source is a good idea for exactly this reason. With no previous relationship, there is at first glance, “no heavy bias,” but does that infer that there is no bias at all?
The assumption of objectivity is what is at fault here. I know that I am defensive to a fault about my own craft. Wouldn’t I much more likely have a chance at changing if I was given a critique by someone I knew and trusted, instead of an administrator who had seen my teaching for forty-five minutes?
It’s a masterclass that in the throes of World War II (the book was published in 1948 and written during the war) Sylvia Townsend Warner was able to bring clarity to this topic? People assume that the military, in times of war, would dismiss such interpersonal squabbling, but read any war story and you will see that it is often worse in times of conflict.
King David put Bathsheba’s husband on the front line of a conflict so he could have her all to himself in the Holy Bible.
And what is Catch-22 by Joseph Heller if not the layering on of human stupidity over the madness of war?
In HBO’s Band of Brothers, which takes the heroism of war as gospel, they have their own leadership problem in the form of Norman Dike, and at the worst moment possible, which is during the Battle of the Bulge.
In times of peace and war, there is no indication that human personality will be set aside to create a better team, a better workplace, a better community.
Human personality is and always will be the central conflict, and unless leaders take that into account, they won’t be able to lead themselves out of a paper bag.