Whenever my own writing overwhelms me, I go book shopping. I call this my ‘desperation-inspiration trip’. On one such occasion I came across The Anchoress. It was nearing the closing down time when I burst into the little bookstore. The sales girl’s deep sighs and furtive glances at her watch told me that she wanted me out the door pronto. The Anchoress was close to the entrance. At the time I hadn’t heard of the author or the novel. It was the pretty bird ascending into the pearlescent blue sky, medieval setting, praise by Geraldine Brooks on the cover and a description of being ‘ [a] powerful debut novel’ on the back, that sold it to me. Dear reader, yes, on this occasion, I judged a book by its cover.
What hid behind the pretty cover was rather unexpected. There are no knights in shining armour, no epic battles, no kings, nor queens in this novel. Just ordinary people living in a medieval village and in its midst a 17-year old woman who decides to dedicate her life to God in a most peculiar way. Sarah is the anchoress, a holy woman who is shut away in a small cell for the rest of her life to pray and provide religious guidance to the village women.
This enclosure is, paradoxically, Sarah’s way to be free to choose her own life. Sarah rejoices: “I had escaped it, beaten death to the line.” In her cell, she wrestles with the past, with her woman’s body and the notion of piety and love for God. Her attempts to shut the world away are futile. Foul smells of a leper, a cat, birds nesting in the rafters, a curious young girl, village women. The darkness sharpens Sarah’s senses. Just like Proust’s madeleine, the sounds and smells awaken memories and stirrings of the body.
Sarah soon learns that with her isolation comes authority as a ‘holy woman’ and with it comes responsibility that she is not ready for. A series of tragic events unravels her story “like a scroll rolled up and bound, hidden behind the hearth, but it refused to stay concealed, unwound itself, spilled its words”.
Ultimately, the novel explores the life of medieval women. It highlights the reality in which they lived, their fates in someone else’s hands – fathers, husbands, priests and lords. In those days, women were believed to be ultimate sinners, “‘daughters of Eve’, ‘gateway of sin’, ‘foul flesh’, ‘deformed male'”, perpetually thought of either a saint or a whore. Cadwallader uses the story of Sarah’s predecessors, pious Agnes and more mysterious Isabelle, as well as the tale of her maid Anna and Saint Margaret of Antioch to highlight this dichotomy.
We learn that Sarah’s choice to become anchoress is never truly her choice. She needs the local lord, Sir Geoffrey and later his son Thomas, to approve and provide for her enclosure in exchange for her piety and prayers for his soul. Thomas accuses her of selling herself, calling her a whore.
Even the book that guides the anchoress in her daily life and prayer, the Rule, is written and copied by men. One such man is father Ranaulf, Sarah’s confessor and a scribe at a nearby scriptorium. Ranaulf is a reluctant confessor, more comfortable among ink and parchment of the scriptorium than counseling a woman. At first, their relationship is strained:
“He brought with him in his mouth only the letters he had been copying. I heard the scratch of his quill, one letter and then the next, each angled like stalks of wheat obedient to the sun. His words did what he told them. One after the other they walked through my curtain like spirits and stood by the wall. I glanced at them because they required it. I knew them and their stern ways. They moved around and tidied my room: rushes shaken and laid flat, books squarely on the shelf, blankets smooth and square, firewood neatly stacked. But they had nothing to say to me.”
The events that unfold reveal to both Sarah and Ranaulf the true meaning of God’s love. For Sarah it is through coming to terms with her past and carving her own path; for Ranaulf, through opening to the world and looking closer at the meaning of copied words.
Cadwallader skillfully creates a viscerally rich story on a small stage: a tiny, dim stone cell attached to the village church. There is beautiful rhythm and sensibility to her prose; even the parts that made me squirm read like poetry. Historical details are beautifully woven into the narrative and although the novel is ripe with symbolism, it manages to avoid slipping into cliché most of the time. It is only the portrait of Sir Thomas as a lustful and predatory lord and the villagers as ‘noble peasants’ that is a minor flaw in this lovely novel.
To paraphrase Hilary Mantel, The Anchoress is the novel that demands involvement: “you have to see, you have to hear, you have to taste the madeleine, and while you are seemingly passive in your chair, you have to travel” .