Eileen Power, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Virginia Woolf
When the visiting bishop arrives to inspect the ramshackle convent in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1948 novel The Corner That Held Them, he is distressed to find unmistakable evidence of unchaste activities. Instead of being greeted by peals of holy music, “his hearing had been tormented by the yelpings of little dogs and the clatterings of egg-whisks.” He finds the nuns devouring sweets in the dormitories, keeping pets, lounging on soft cushions; they wear perfumed mantles “better befitting harlots than the brides of Christ”; and this devout sisterhood appears to be “bristling with quarrels and slanders.” He considers that a household of nuns might be forgiven for careless stewardship of their financial assets, “since women are ordained the weaker vessel and have no business sense.” But when these natural infirmities are not compensated for by piety and devotion, this, concludes the disappointed bishop, is true depravity.
“A good convent,” writes Warner with knowing irony, “should have no history. Its life is hid with Christ who is above. History is of the world, costly and deadly.” The novel—which covers three centuries in the life of Oby, a small Norfolk parish—presents the humdrum minutiae of daily happenings, too insignificant (and worldly) to be recorded on the expensive vellum of medieval chronicles but making up the lives of the generations of unsung women who pass through these cloisters: the shard of eggshell found in a pancake, ants marching through the larder, intrigue over priory elections, and long nights spent in the treasury poring over accounts. The convent was founded in commemoration of a twelfth-century adulteress by a stern husband, eager that history should forget her ancient passion (now masked effectively by an ugly stone effigy), and dedicated to the patron saint of prisoners. As the nuns, bored at prayer, count up the women who have died in the convent before them, they know that their duty is to act as a group (“a flock soberly ascending to a heavenly pasture”) and retain a decorous anonymity. In any case, they see few opportunities to leave a mark on history. With the convent in the grip of poverty and all energies expended on attempts to balance revenues with expenditures, “there was no place for aberrations of individuality.” “In songs and romances,” writes Warner, “an apostate nun may be a romantic figure. God’s Mother becomes her proxy in the convent and pins up the curtain before her frailties; but in real life she is a drab like any other drab, nursing her baby and eyeing her lover and the tankards from the tavern doorway.”
“I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman,” wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (1929). In that essay, commenting on the fact that women’s lives are “all but absent from history,” she argues that this is not only a consequence of the ways women have been deprived of the material conditions under which their talents can prosper but also reveals the sort of events and lives historians have traditionally considered worth remembering—primarily, the public activities of “great men.” Perusing the index of G. M. Trevelyan’s History of England, Woolf looks up “position of women” and is dismayed to find only a smattering of references, mostly to customs of arranged marriage, wife-beating, and the fictional heroines of Shakespeare. Flicking through chapters on wars and kings, she wonders why so little room is left for women’s activities in the events that “constitute this historian’s view of the past.” It was clear to Woolf that new histories were needed, which would examine the reality of women’s lives, their relationships and activities, and the forces that thwarted their ambitions. In the last year of her life, Woolf began work on a history of English literature that would uncover a range of “anonymous” voices from the past. As bombers zipped low over her Sussex home, Woolf immersed herself in reading about witches, nuns, poets, actresses, servants, and governesses, eager to draw these “lives of the obscure” together in an alternative portrait of English society, which would expose the way history was constructed and the voices it excluded. Looking for erudite, imaginative history writing that performed a similar excavation, she reread the very book to which Warner would turn a few years later when composing The Corner That Held Them: an imposing seven-hundred-page tome titled Medieval English Nunneries, by a young economic historian named Eileen Power.