For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria Mackenzie

804 1

Reviewed by Harriet

Back in 2015 I reviewed Anthony Bale’s translation of The Book of Margery Kempe. Said to be the first autobiography written in the English language (though it was dictated, as Margery was illiterate), this is the remarkable life story of a Christian mystic who lived in Norfolk between 1373 and 1438 or later. It tells the story of her visions, her conversations with Christ, her run-ins with the clergy, and her pilgrimages, but also gives a fascinating insight into her everyday life as the wife of a prosperous merchant and the mother of at least fourteen children. It also contains an account of her visit, in around 1413, to the anchoress and female mystic Julian of Norwich.

Little is known about the life of Julian (1343-after 1416) before she became an anchoress: that is, a nun who has chosen to spend her life in a small cell which is usually attached to the wall of a church, devoting her days to prayer and offering spiritual advice to anyone who comes to seek it, communicating through a small window in the wall. Julian did all these things, but in addition she wrote a book, Revelations of Divine Love, in which she describes the sixteen mystical visions (her ‘shewings’), which took place when she was believed to be on her deathbed, sometime in her thirties. She recovered and wrote them down at the time, but later extended her account in a longer text, written during her years in isolation. Several versions of the manuscript exist and have been modernised in numerous editions.

That these two women, almost contemporaries, lived in the same county is interesting in itself, but that Margery not only sought out the older woman and wrote an account of their conversations is extraordinarily valuable. Her purpose had been to seek Julian’s approval of her visions and her conversations with God, and she was reassured that these were genuine, as were the many times she burst into tears, which Julian affirmed to be physical evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain is a novel, but it draws very closely on the writings of Margery and Julian, and includes a section in dialogue which is an imaginative reconstruction of their conversation. Although I knew quite a lot about Margery and almost nothing about Julian, both women come equally vividly to life in Victoria Mackenzie’s writing. As so much of Margery’s life and thoughts are readily available, the sections of the book devoted to her have more basis in fact than the ones that deal with Julian’s early life and her experience of entering the cell and accustoming herself to the life there. Thus, this was where Mackenzie was obliged to imagine what her experiences must have been. In this invented autobiography she tells of her early marriage, the birth of a daughter, and the death of her husband and child during the plague. She gives an account of her illness and her shewings (verbatim of course), and of her decision to enter the cell and devote her life to God. 

I suppose anyone who knows about the anchorite life will wonder how on earth these people were able to bear their total isolation from the outside world, and from all human contact except with the person who brought their meals, and of course with the seekers of spiritual advice, who would speak to them through a curtain. Whether Julian went through the agonies that Mackenzie imagines for her is something we’ll never know, but the regrets, the painful memories, the sense of entrapment and the anger she experiences here are wholly believable. In time, of course, she becomes totally accepting and rejoices in her silence and her gift of helping sincere seekers. 

Margery’s life, meanwhile, could not be more different. She’s out there in the world, clinging steadfastly to her beliefs and visions despite the opposition she is constantly meeting: that of the clergy, who do not believe a woman to be capable of teaching, that of the many people she meets in her daily life who get annoyed by her frequent wailing and weeping and loud public speeches, and not least that of her husband, who is not impressed by her powerful wish for a chaste marriage. She is sometimes imprisoned for heresy, at least once threatened with rape by a member of the clergy, and constantly at odds with the representatives of the church, of whom she is not in least afraid, even telling the Archbishop of York to improve his behaviour of he wants to get to heaven. 

I fell in love completely with Margery when I read her book, and this novel has only consolidated my respect and admiration for her persistence and her strong beliefs. Now, in total contrast, Julian’s retired and ever-developing devotion has become equally admirable and a source of wonder. Whatever you may think or believe about the unswerving focus of both their lives – the same focus for both of them though expressed in totally opposing ways – they provide much food for thought as well as fascinating details about a mode of life in the far distant past. 

Shiny New Books Logo

Harriet is one of founders and a co-editor of Shiny New Books.

Victoria Mackenzie, For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2023). 978-1526647887, 176pp., hardback.

BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)

Next Post: Darkness Manifesto by Johan Eklöf

Previous Post: The Accidental Detectorist by Nigel Richardson

1 comment

  1. This sounds fantastic — I hope it will be published in the US. I really need to read Margery and Julian, too.

Comments are closed.