This was to be my home – no, my grave – for the rest of my life.
I had the good fortune to listen to Cadwallader speak at this year’s Sydney Writer’s Festival in a session moderated by Ashley Hay called The Body: Sin, Sex, Denial. I came away from it with a very strong desire to read all three author’s books, ASAP! (The other two authors being Caitlin Doughty and James Boyce).
Having just finished One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville, it seemed only natural to follow up with a story about the choices made by another strong, independent woman.
The Anchoress is set in the English Midlands in 1255. Sarah, our young protagonist, decides to become an anchoress – a virgin locked away by choice into a cell “that hugged the church” – for life. The only access to the outside world is via a squint that reveals nothing but the church altar and two windows – one so the anchoresses maid could attend to her needs and one ‘parlour’ window for women to visit asking for prayers and spiritual advice. The only other visitor allowed is the Father Confessor.
Cadwallader describes the anchoresses life as being one of “living death”. I was very curious to see how she could weave a whole novel out of this very confined and narrow world.
Here, inside these walls, Christ would heal me of my grief, help me let go of my woman’s body, it’s frailty and desire.
Sarah tells her own story for much of the book, but a few chapters are told from her Father Confessor, Ranaulf’s point of view. Both Ranaulf and Sarah are changed significantly by this confined relationship.
Cadwallader convincingly describes Sarah’s struggles to adjust to life in a cell even as she embraces with passion and fervour her new life devoted to prayer and faith. Sarah gradually reveals her backstory so that we can understand how she came to make the decision to become an anchoress.
I hadn’t thought suffering would be like this, so ordinary, so dull, and so endless.
I had had no idea about this medieval practice and found the story of The Anchoress compelling and repulsive at the same time. The harsh practices and teachings of the church at this time and the overt subjugation of women were distressing and infuriating to read about. Cadwallader also weaves in how superstition and ignorance impacted on the daily lives of medieval people.
Watching Sarah grow into her role as anchoress is at the heart of this story. Cadwallader painfully captures the various emotional states that Sarah goes through to achieve peace of mind.
Anger, while it lasts, so blinds the heart that it is unable to discern the truth. It is a kind of enchanter, which can transform human nature. Anger is a shape-shifter, as stories tell us, for it strips people of their reason and totally changes their appearance, and transforms them from a human into the likeness of a beast.
Fascinating and beautifully told, The Anchoress is herstory brought vividly to life.
Linked to Australian Women Writer’s Challenge and Saturday Review of Books.
Epigraph: Emily Dickinson | 335
’Tis not that Dying hurts us so — 'Tis Living — hurts us more — But Dying — is a different way — A Kind behind the Door — The Southern Custom — of the Bird — That ere the Frosts are due — Accepts a better Latitude — We — are the Birds — that stay.
2 thoughts on “The Anchoress | Robyn Cadwallader #AWWhistoricalfiction”
Robyn Cadwallader was at the Newcastle Writer's Festival too, but sadly I didn't get to her sessions. If only I had more time to read all the books that I'm even vaguely interested in reading….