Review by Eleanor Franzen
Imagine: you’re a woman in England in 1255. With a little bit of flexibility, depending on your father’s annual income, you have two life choices. One is to marry and produce children, or die trying. You may achieve some level of financial and spiritual independence if your husband predeceases you, but this is by no means certain. The second is to enter holy orders: to become a nun, or, for the exceptionally devout (and usually well connected, since this option requires life-long patronage from a wealthy individual), an anchoress. In Robyn Cadwallader’s debut novel The Anchoress, seventeen-year-old Sarah chooses the latter option. As the book opens, she is being enclosed in a small rock-walled cell attached to the church of Hartham parish. She cannot leave the room, nor may she speak to any man other than her confessor or the bishop. Conversation with women is limited, and she is discouraged from looking into their faces; she may offer spiritual guidance to the villagers, but only through a curtain. She is to stay there until she dies.
Portraying such a choice in a contemporary novel is no easy task, and it’s to Cadwallader’s credit that the novel she has written is so moving, that we have such a clear appreciation of Sarah’s struggles as well as those of her (rather unwilling) confessor, the scribe Father Ranaulf. It quickly becomes clear that Sarah has entered her anchorhold under a good deal of strain: the childhood loss of her mother and the recent death of her beloved sister in childbirth, as well as some unfinished business with the son of the lord of the manor, Sir Thomas, haunts her memory. Slowly, as Sarah’s mind begins to unravel in isolation, her secrets become clearer. At the same time, she begins to uncover the strange and troubling history of the anchoress who lived there before her.
It’s also to Cadwallader’s credit that the story never becomes a soap opera. Given her material—the power imbalance between men and women, rich and poor, learned and illiterate—it could easily tend towards the melodramatic, but her light, declarative prose style keeps it all in check. Nor does she stray into anachronism: Father Ranaulf may, in the end, come to conclusions that satisfy our twenty-first century expectations, but he displays a meticulously historically accurate discomfort with Sarah’s questioning and with what he perceives as her pride. Oddly, though, the book doesn’t often give the reader a strong sense of why its characters feel as they do. This is not to say that their motivations are unclear to us, but rather that the pervading significance of religious faith in the thirteenth century is not as immediately present as it could be. All of the attitudes and mannerisms of the characters are accurate, but their souls—for lack of a better word—do not feel medieval. This is not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle; there is much to appreciate in the book’s story. But for readers who have enjoyed, for example, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, where we fully inhabit, and therefore understand, the mindset and values of a culture very alien to our modern one, The Anchoress may seem to skim the surface a bit.
That said, Cadwallader is very good indeed on the conventions of the enclosed religious woman. There are two particularly notorious medieval female mystics, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, and The Anchoress nods to both of them—it would be difficult not to. The church where Sarah is enclosed is even called St. Juliana’s; she counsels women as Julian did, and one of her flashbacks shows us a visit from the youthful Sarah to another enclosed woman, Sister Euphemia, who offers silent understanding in the midst of Sarah’s grief at the loss of her mother. The Rule, a series of instructions to which Sarah turns for guidance, is in fact the thirteenth-century text for nuns and female mystics, Ancrene Wisse, to which Julian would almost certainly have had access. Meanwhile, Sarah’s sexualized visions of Christ as lover and husband spring from the testimony of Margery Kempe, whose emotional accounts of Christ visiting her in her bed scandalized her community before being written down as part of her spiritual autobiography. These cross-references show that the author knows her material; it’s a way of reassuring us that she’s done her research without bludgeoning the reader over the head with statistics.
The Anchoress addresses issues of contemporary interest within a historical framework, and does so with more ease and accuracy than many a historical novel. If you’re looking for something meaty, you may not be satisfied; but it deals with its heavy themes gracefully, and I would heartily recommend it to someone looking for a quick but nevertheless thought-provoking read.
Eleanor Franzen is managing editor of Quadrapheme Magazine and writes her own books blog at Elle Thinks. She lives in Oxford and is contemplating, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, a move to London in the spring.
Robyn Cadwallader, The Anchoress (Faber and Faber: London, 2015). 978-0-571-31332-7, 314 pp., hardback.