While in the bookstore shopping for a gift for a friend, I noticed a novel by Robyn Cadwallader titled The Anchoress. Drawn to the title by my love for Julian of Norwich, who was an anchoress, and feeling the need for a break from my work, I added it to my purchases.
Cadwallader’s novel (her first) was inspired by medieval women who lived their lives as anchoresses. The term “anchoress” comes from a Greek word that means “withdrawn from the world.” An anchoress was a person who, with the permission of the local bishop, completely withdrew from society and committed herself to Christ, living a life of prayer and contemplation. Often the anchoress’ living quarters (called an “anchorhold”) was a small room built right into a wall of a church. Although these anchoresses lived a generally removed and secluded life, it was not a life completely divorced from contact with others (who would come to seek advice from the anchoress, speaking to her through a small window).
The novel opens in the year 1255 in England (a century before the time of Julian), with the decision of a seventeen year-old girl named Sarah who has just chosen to become an anchoress. Her reasons are a mixture of her natural piety and religious devotion and uneasiness about her body. The interest of a local lord in marrying her, her sister’s dying in childbirth, church teaching about the sinfulness of the female body all play a role.
While the book is clearly a novel and makes no claim to historical accuracy in its description of the life of women like the protagonist, it does give a picture of what such a life much have been like. It conveys effectively that withdrawing from the world means more than building a physical wall around oneself. It addresses issues of isolation, the human need for connection and touch. It touches on difficult issues of attitudes toward the body and acceptance of the self. And it gives a real sense of the physical experience (I could feel the smallness of the space).
The author also paints a vivid picture of the time period in which the novel takes place takes place. I read an interview with the author in which she said that “the thirteenth-century was both deeply ordinary and, to us, profoundly strange. In writing, I was trying to keep this balance, mindful of giving the reader enough information to understand all that was needed for the narrative (though always without using clunky exposition of the term).”
While this is not a book I would imagine re-reading, I did find it an enjoyable (and quick) and worthwhile read.