The destitution of the convent at Oby by the end of the novel is worth some scrutiny.
Sir Ralph has died, but rather than take his body back to Oby where it belongs, he is buried pragmatically by William Holly in Lintoft due to lack of affordances. At the end, Ralph had something of grave importance to tell Dame Lilias, but the Prioress would not let her go, much to the nuns’ disapproval. They accost the Prioress and make her cry.
The rioting and pillaging due to peasant rebellions in the region find their way to Oby. Sexual assault and thievery push the convent further into despair. “Though my lot has improved” Henry Yellowlees observes, “it seems everyone else has been pushed downward.” Sickened and dying of old age or blindness or several other maladies, the ladies are taking to begging for alms. “Alms for the poor nuns at Oby,” Dame Lilias begs.
It’s been tough for Dame Lilias overall. Missing the opportunity to hear Ralph’s important message, Dame Dorothy calls for her and, in front of the Prioress and in possession of a crucifix, she confesses the truth: as Lilias was praying for guidance on what to do with her life, Dorothy was walking by and took the opportunity to strike her hard, hard enough for a bruise. Lilias interpreted the blow as Saint Leonard’s call for her to be an anchoress. So, the divine intervention was a lie…
Dame Lilias reveals this to Dame Sibilla, who cannot seem to let her calling go. She has taken it to be her charge. Sibilla, upon hearing of the mix up, is not as angry with Dame Dorothy doing the thing, but rather angry at the whole prospect of timing. If Dame Lilias had heard what Sir Ralph had had to say, maybe Dorothy would have kept her mouth shut.
Sibilla never thinks of the obvious, which is that she is providing justifications for a lie to become worse. What if Dame Lilias had become an anchoress based on a lie?
Reality wins in the final chapter of The Corner That Held Them. Warner’s reminder at the end is a stark one. No matter what abstractions we may create that solidify ourselves in history, or provide us a story now for how we should live, reality wins. No matter what ruse we give to ourselves, reality is always here, whether it is lurking beneath the lie or whether it surfaces and reminds us as monstrously as it can.
No matter what hopes there were in the Spire. Where before it was an elegant reminder of God’s majesty, it stands now as a bleak rejection of the poverty they all feel. The costly architecture was a pathetic Babel that Dame Cecily can no longer see.
Dame Sibilla’s brief pity for her uncle has opened up space for her to make the same mistakes. Her piety annoys the other nuns. She is too much Christian.
William Holly, who is killed after escalating an altercation that could have been avoided, now must make due with Adam Holly, a meek and naive replacement.
It is a painful truth to the convent that progress is not always a guarantee, and after finishing the book, we realize that some of the best years were at the onset of the convent. After the de Retteville’s painstaking attention to the construction of the thing, the poor placement of the convent in general, with lacking income-generating-amenities and the prospect of shivering winters without warm hearths means that there was some doom involved from the start.
What are we to make of a community that had its way with these poor nuns? Again an epithet is wrangled out of the young women. “If they had just left us alone, we would not have starved like this,” much like Sibilla complained about her Uncle Bishop Walter.
Community infects us all with promises it cannot keep. And when it comes time for the fruits of their labor to be distributed, the compromises guarantees that it will not be at all like anyone thought. The expectations of utopia ruin us, for our inability to see reality in the way it works with payoffs, rather than blanket rewards and punishments.
The Corner That Held Them is a masterpiece of a sort. It is resolutely against main characters. It is a novel where history is the protagonist, and with it you explore how events bunch up together and fly apart and nowhere along the timeline is there any sense of a story. Most of what occurs in the novel is happenstance, or accident, or random occurrence, or unspeakable violence. It is a painful reminder of what it is like to be alive.
Though Warner’s novel was published in 1948 and contains stories of a convent in the 14th century, there is a throughline of madness. While we have become technologically superior to the point of being perceived as magicians to these nuns, our human behavior has improved only slightly. Yes, Steven Pinker’s research can conclude that we are far less violent, and rumors abound if the Flynn Effect is a real phenomenon or if it is only improved skills at taking tests. But we still use abstractions to dictate our world more than paying attention to reality as it appears before us. It isn’t simply religion, though Warner’s use in The Corner That Held Them is particularly disturbing. It exists in terms like Profit, or Efficiency. Because of our inability to see clearly into reality and what makes it function, we create poverty again and again. Is poverty still necessary? I think the amount of wealth available suggests that answer would be a resounding “no.” Yet we press on, to the point of alienation from our work and without the savings in our account to make us sane.
Let us hope we prove Warner’s realist novel wrong. In the midst of our disease, let us see reality for what it is, and let us deal with our virus rationally and with good science.
Let us never allow abstractions like “education” be used to throw teachers into classrooms, to get people killed for the politics of saving face.
Let us condemn all those who hide reality behind big dreams, only to throw the poor into the machine to power the dream into being.
Let us remind ourselves that, as much as we try to create one, reality has no story.