The Anchoress by Robin Cadwallader gripped me, unexpectedly, from the first page.
I’d put off reading this book. The idea of a seventeen-year-old woman who vowed to live the rest of her life as an anchoress, walled-up alone in a dark cell, repulsed me. Yet I kept finding myself drawn to the story. I wanted to see how a writer would work with such extraordinary material.
Author Robyn Cadwallader is an academic medievalist. Her PhD thesis examined the story of Saint Margaret and attitudes to women in the Middle Ages.
She became interested in the lives of anchoresses during her research.
Why has the protagonist Sarah chosen the life of an anchoress? Perhaps through grief caused by the death of her mother, and later her sister in childbirth. Perhaps to escape the unwanted attentions of Thomas, the son of the Lord of the Manor. Maybe she has a genuine religious vocation.
At the beginning of Sarah’s incarceration there is a ceremony which resembles burial rites. She is led in the darkness of night from the church, through the graveyard to a cell on the shady side of the church. Death is all around her.
They laid me down on the floor, scatterings of dirt and words falling on me, into my mouth and eyes. Death desired me and I accepted: ‘Here I will stay for ever; this is the home I have chosen.’
Sarah presses her hands against the door of the cell. She feels the nails splintering the wood as the door is sealed. The cell is dark and dank and nine paces long. Stone walls are interrupted by a peep-hole, a ‘squint’, into the nave of the church, and two small, low windows.
Through her senses of smell and sound, Sarah begins to learn about life of the village outside her cell. She recognises the voices of people who go about daily lives from which she is excluded.
The Anchoress is filled with Robyn Cadwallader’s sensuous, richly poetic language.
I left my Rule open and walked around my four walls, touching their roughness, feeling shallow gouges where the masons had chipped them square and flat. When I held my candle to them, their dull colour transformed, glowing yellow even more strongly than it would in sunlight.
The author describes Sarah’s desire to please God by fasting, which leads to near starvation and hallucinations. Sarah also experiments with self-flagellation and wearing a hair shirt. The latter results in an erotic dream.
The Anchoress is peopled with Sarah’s two maids, her confessor and the village women who visit her for counsel. She catches glimpses of them through the curtained windows. She is privy to gossip. The maids, Louise and Anna, take care of her physical needs. Sarah remembers her mother and sister, Emma. She thinks about the anchoresses who lived in her cell before her. And there is Thomas, who casts a dark shadow.
Through visitors to Sarah’s cell, the reader is provided with information about the hard life in a medieval village. We learn of the rhythms of Church and agrarian life. The author also describes the harsh treatment of the villagers by the Lord of the Manor. In a subplot with Sarah’s confessor Ranaulf at its centre, we also learn about the making of books by scribes and illustrators.
I’m very glad I read this book, in spite of my previous reservations. This novel is a fine achievement.
The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader, HarperCollins, 2015
This review forms part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015.