“The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes,” – Kierkegaard
ISBN 0732299217 (ISBN13: 9780732299217)
When I was a kid I used to wonder what it might be like if life was other than it was – say, what it might be like to be blind (I practiced being blind by doing things with my eyes closed), or what it might have been like to be a nun. I used to think I could handle being a nun if I was an olden times girl, not because I was particularly devout, but because it would be better than being married off to some gross old man with no teeth and cankers (not that I knew what a canker was). Besides, all that peace and quiet and solitude seemed pretty attractive as the only girl heading up four boys. I had plenty of non-negotiable ‘helping’ to do and I’d be free of it; it couldn’t be that hard, could it?
This childish imagining doesn’t seem a mile away from the reasoning of Sarah, our Anchoress in Cadwallader’s fine novel, set in a small village in medieval England. She’s only seventeen when she chooses a life of enclosure, a living death in a tiny stone cell that has been nailed shut on the outside, separating her forever from everyone else. She is between worlds, and her task is to intercede for this world and the nobleman (the vile Thomas) who pays for keep. Her days are forever devoted to prayer and her status as a ‘lover’ of Christ to whom she has pledged her virginity – if Cadwallader’s research is right, and I’m sure it is, the whole notion of ‘bride of Christ’ is oddly eroticised. She is to “keep the flesh in need” as a way to stay holy and resist temptations, and we see her struggle as she tries to ‘tame’ the forces of need; hunger, sensuality, craving touch, craving sunlight. She has the recommended two maids to support her enclosure – Louise, an older one, chosen for her sobriety and wisdom, and Anna, a younger sturdy one to fetch and carry. Much of the story revolves around these three women. Anna is only a little younger than Sarah, and subject to the very forces of emerging womanhood both internal and external, that Sarah is avoiding.
Initially, Sarah naively imagines the enclosure will be a kind of asylum from the concerns of the body and the emotions, a free pass from the daily stuff of the human condition. In reality, she sickens from brutal conditions, starvation (she calls it fasting) and lack of air and sunlight. I was struck by the almighty deprivation an anchoress, or anchorite, I suppose, must endure in this most extreme of devotions.
Cadwallader (what a fabulous name for a writer of historical fiction) gives us the lie on that notion. She shows us in the fine grain of Sarah’s story what life for an anchoress might have been like – the abnegation required, and to our modern eyes, the self delusion, not to mention communal delusion. An anchoress has a mighty weight of rules laid upon her, contained in a book called, appropriately, The Rule. It is a particularly sadistic and misogynistic little number, though in those days the assumption of woman’s nature as base and blameworthy was as ‘natural’ as the right of the village lord to reduce the circumstances of the people in his charge to something no better than slavery. No wonder the British had such a capacity for cruelty to other peoples – they’d had centuries of practice at home.
Sarah knows she will have to be exceedingly pious, more so than anyone else including the various brothers, priests and bishops in charge of her care. She can speak only to women and her confessor priest, and whilst required to give counsel, is not allowed to engage with village life, not even in conversation (deemed gossip). Nothing like an impossible task to keep you awake at night.
Of course, she does become involved with her maids and the village, however tangentially – she learns every sound, which voice belongs to which person, and so on. Several women come to her regularly, and through them we get an idea of what their lives are like (hard). At first Sarah rejects and resents these intrusions on her holy devotion, but as she comes to grips with life, she becomes less judgemental about the needs and wants of the body and the heart. The child, Eleanor, is a particularly appealing character – not yet tamed by the requirements of her time, she asks fresh and innocent questions that underscore the mindset of medieval life.
She has no counsel save her own mind, and there she is beset by doubt and the uniquely masochistic innerscape of a pious Christian woman in a patriarchal stronghold. We learn the story of St Margaret, revered for her refusal of worldly salvation in favour of eternal salvation – sounds noble, but the poor woman was most horribly tortured (by men, every one a god-fearing devotee of the church). Her salvation crosses into what looks like madness, but as was the nature of the times, people believed in magic or miracles.
This is what brings Sarah to her denouement – having stored all her faith and hope and fervent wish to help the stricken Anna in the myth/teaching of St Margaret, she is bitterly disappointed when it fails, experiencing a crisis of piety, or perhaps of mindless obedience:
“Don’t speak to me of pity or comfort, I’ve no use for that.” Her voice was deeper than usual. “Or prayer.”
“At a time like this, prayer is all we have, sister.”
‘Prayer? I prayed: for days, for weeks; I filled this cell with prayer. I prayed to St Margaret, I read her story to Anna, I gave her book to Louise to keep near Anna. I believed the promises, that she would help if we called on her, that God would listen to St Margaret’s prayers. All those promises in the book that you gave me, Father. All in your hand, letter after letter. I did everything I could and my prayers were as nothing.”
We, the modern reader, can see the superstition, the naivety, the ignorance suffered by Sarah. But in those times, the death of Anna and the failure of praying – all considered Sarah’s failures – might be akin to our discovering we aren’t the cleverest species after all.
Cadwallader has given us a wonderfully evocative portrait of life in 1255, of the intimate relationship between grief, madness, faith and in the end, the strength of the drive for freedom. A freedom represented by a young Sarah’s impression of a boy flying, a boy she names Swallow. Ultimately, she finds a freedom, comes to a kind of flying of her own, cell, or no cell.
Having felt impatient with Sarah here and there as I read from my twenty-first century point of view and privilege, wanting her to think with a mind more her own, to make a decisive break for freedom from under the heel of patriarchy, I found the ending entirely satisfactory and entirely credible. I am left contemplating how much any of us is a creature of our time, and how different life is, and yet how much the human condition is the human condition, whether we live in a dank little cell or a high-rise apartment. Sarah is full and rounded and complex, and in the end, I liked her a lot.
Robyn Cadwallader deserves all the acclaim she is garnering for this her first novel. It’s a good ‘un.