From its medieval cell this debut novel soars into the light.
In 1255 a young Englishwoman, Sarah, chooses to become an anchoress – that is, to be walled up in a cell adjoining the Church of St Juliana in the village of Hartham in the English Midlands. Immediately prior to her immuring, she undergoes a form of funeral service for her previous life: walled up, she is between life and death, her days to be given over to prayer and contemplation.
Her cell is nine paces by seven paces; its window is a ‘squint’, an aperture no thicker than a wrist that allows her to see the altar – and nothing else – of the church. The cell door is nailed shut, never to be opened. If she were to leave, the bishop counsels her, ‘it would be grievous sin against our Lord, and grievous sin against the Church’.
Her situation is not unique. This particular anchorhold, as such cells were known, has had two previous occupants, one of whom, Agnes, has been buried directly beneath it. The village reveres Agnes as a saint, and the arrival of a new anchoress is considered a blessing. The fate of Agnes’s successor, Isabella, is less clear, however.
Why would a young woman choose such a thing for herself? If she must pursue a religious vocation, why not join a convent, where at least there is the possibility of daylight and some kind of companionship?
Cadwallader never quite answers this question, but deftly captures the limitations of medieval women’s lives and attitudes to them. Ranaulf, Sarah’s confessor, has been taught to regard women as:
… lustful and tempting; [at school] he had been told that if he touched a woman, he would feel his flesh burn like the fires of hell. After that, Ranaulf had flinched whenever his mother hugged him. Later, he had fought temptation by reciting to himself the words of the Fathers: ‘daughters of Eve’, ‘gateway of sin’, ‘foul flesh’, ‘deformed male’.
Sarah’s situation is one of relative privilege. Her father is a cloth merchant, she has been taught to read and write and, thanks to her father’s business, has had no lack of beautiful clothes.
But she has seen her mother die after giving birth to her brother, and, more recently and piercingly, her sister has died in childbirth. When her father’s ship founders, its valuable cargo lost to the sea, Sarah’s nascent hopes of a religious life are confronted by reality. Her father tells her:
‘You owe it to me to help, girl. Be more friendly with men and we’ll make a marriage, get a loan. I’ve seen Sir Thomas look at you. Forget this foolishness of God and purity.’
Sarah immediately resolves to ‘resist this man and his demands’. And resisting the demands of men (not only those of her father, it must be said) is a significant part of her decision to become an anchoress. (It’s also fairly clear that she sees marriage as having only one outcome: death in childbed.) The catalyst is Sir Thomas’s father, the local lord, who has noticed his son’s interest in the merchant’s daughter and, determined to prevent his son making an ‘unsuitable’ match – and with an eye on his immortal soul – agrees to fund the anchorhold.
This is not an insignificant commitment. In addition to basic supplies, the anchoress requires the services of two maids, who pass food to her (and remove waste) through a special low-set serving hatch. The lord’s endowment includes a grant of lands to the abbey, which must in turn provide a confessor to visit the anchoress once a week. Cadwallader is good on the details of how such an enclosed life is possible, not only in terms of Sarah’s daily routines, but the support required by the community and the abbey.
For Sarah, there are the rounds of prayers for each part of the day. There are also her efforts to subdue the needs of the body in the service of the spirit.
Yet Sarah is not without company. In fact at times the anchorhold seems more convivial than contemplative. There are the daily interactions with her maids – the older, widowed Louise, and the younger Anna – and the weekly pastoral visits from her confessor, as well as visits from the village women, for whom the anchoress is a source of spiritual advice and comfort. The confessor and villagers speak to Sarah via a narrow curtained window in the cell that opens onto a parlour guarded by the maids. Inevitably, as Sarah gets to know the women, she also gets to know the doings of the village and the world outside.
The walls, she learns, are porous, and not simply in terms of the cold (why Sarah doesn’t die from pneumonia in her first year is a miracle in itself). At one point of crisis she finds:
The stones around me were no longer firm. When I touched them they shifted like water, gave way beneath my fingers. I’d been so sure they were solid, sealing me in, sealing out the world, but now I could see right through them. The world could thrust its way in.
For a vocation that values sexual abstinence (Sarah’s virginity is a ‘fragile treasure, your jewel, the blossom of your body offered to the Lord’ according to the bishop), there is a robust sensuality running through life in the anchorhold. Whether memories of Sarah’s own desire, or ecstatic visions of sensual union with Christ, or the activities of the villagers (one night two lovers use the anchorhold’s parlour for their tryst), there seems no escape from awareness of the body and its demands.
Village women come to her with stories of wife-bashing, the progress of the seasons, the difficulties of harvest, of the lord’s enclosure of common lands, of rape and possibly arson. All Sarah can do is pray for them. Is it enough? For the women, it seems so.
The contest between the physical and the spiritual is central to the novel and to the Rule governing anchorites, which acknowledges that the ‘outer rule’ of physical comfort may need to be varied to ensure the functioning of the ‘inner rule’ of spiritual practice.
This dualism of inner and outer, physical and spiritual, is echoed in the paradoxical image of the acrobat that recurs throughout the book. As a child Sarah saw an acrobat flying through the air, and longed to have his freedom:
But that was as a child, when my body was secure, like that of a boy, and I felt myself whole and able to try anything.
As a woman, her options are more limited. However, by choosing enclosure, Sarah believes she has achieved a superior kind of flight:
I’d thrown away everything in this world and leaped into the air, lighter than I’d ever been, flying to God, who would catch me in his arms. Here … I was a body without a body. Even inside the thick walls of my cell I felt I could see the sky all around me, blue and clear …
It is Sarah’s interior story that flies highest. Part of what the anchorhold teaches her is to face her own past. As Ranaulf tells her during a heated exchange after she has had a particularly disturbing visitor, ‘Don’t come to God and ask to be safe, Sister.’
The exterior story, of the abbey, the villagers, the local lord and Sarah’s relationship with her confessor, keeps things moving but can at times feel a little forced (there is a fire at one point that feels a bit like wishful thinking). Nevertheless, Robyn Cadwallader has avoided easy options with her plot.
This is a novel of visions, demons, and ghostly presences, balanced against the world of the flesh and its temptations. There is – literally – often an apple to hand. It is also a novel of page-turning grace. The language is frequently beautiful, and Sarah’s choices linger long in the mind.
Robyn Cadwallader The Anchoress Fourth Estate 2015 PB 320pp $32.99
This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books.