2015, 320 p
If writing were diving, then this book would be a reverse 4.5 somersault tuck (degree of difficulty 4.5). After all, the main character is a seventeen year old anchoress nun, walled up in a small cell beside a church in 1255 England. Where on earth does a writer go with that? And just to escalate the degree of difficulty to a reverse 4.5 somersault pike (degree of difficulty 4.8), the author of this book has a PhD in medieval studies, focussing on St Margaret and attitudes towards women. Where another author might be tempted to spice it up with an illicit affair and a daring escape, we would rightly expect that Robyn Cadwallader would be sensitive to the spirituality that would draw a young woman to such a drastic, and to us unfathomable, spiritual choice.
I first came across the concept of immurement in the book The Nun of Monza where ‘walling up’ was used as a form of punishment. Sister Sarah’s election to become an anchoress is, however, an act of relative free choice. Nor is she completely isolated. As Mary Laven showed in her book The Virgins of Venice, set four centuries later, when women were financially supported by wealthy men to devote their lives to prayer for the souls of their sponsors, this transaction often ensured that bonds of obligation survived. Sister Sarah’s cell was attached to the shaded side of the village church, nine paces by seven, within earshot of the life continuing outside, with curtained windows through which she could receive food, talk to her two servants and give counsel to women who came to her for spiritual encouragement. She was visited regularly by Ranaulf, a young monk usually employed in the scriptorium of the local monastery, who reluctantly took the place of an older spiritual guide charged with the care of the anchoress women.
The story is told from alternating viewpoints: the first person voice of Sister Sarah interwoven with the third-person perspective of Ranaulf.
The real strength of this book takes place within the four walls of Sister Sarah’s cell. The door is nailed shut; the bones of an earlier anchoress lie in the dirt at her feet. In the flickering candlelight, she refuses food and in the lightheaded melting of reality, self-flagellation and erotic fantasies about the physicality of love for Christ unhinge her. We learn of her grief for the death of her sister in childbirth, and gradually piece together her reasons for making the choice to become an anchoress. Ironically, although seclusion was supposed to quash the senses, it instead heightened them.
I was less convinced by the outside world, though. Sir Thomas, the landlord’s son, is a two-dimensional villain, and I found the conversation with Eleanor, a small child who attaches herself to any passerby for companionship, unconvincing. Perhaps it was the abbreviation of the name (‘Ellie’), but the Eleanor character seemed far too much a twenty-first century invention.
Those qualms aside, Cadwallader remains faithful to the religious impulse that drove Sister Sarah to make the choice she did, and to the power and authority relationships that supported the whole conceit of an anchoress. It is a strange book to us, because it is a strange situation, and Cadwallader’s quiet, dignified tone – in itself somewhat strange to us- carries it well.
I have read this as part of the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge