April 2015

Noted
by Gretchen Shirm

‘The Anchoress’ by Robyn Cadwallader
HarperCollins; $29.99

Robyn Cadwallader has crafted The Anchoress with a scrupulous attention to historical detail and embroidered it with the minutiae of 13th-century life. The achievement is all the more impressive given that the ACT-based historian’s debut novel relies heavily on its protagonist’s interiority.

In the English Midlands in 1255, Sarah, a 17-year-old woman, is locked in a stone cell. This hermitage, “attached like a carbuncle to the side of the church”, is to be both her home for the rest of her life and her grave. Sarah is an anchoress, a woman who secludes herself to live a life of religious devotion. The novel’s central intrigue is that her imprisonment is voluntary, although her strained relationship with her father and the unwanted attention of Sir Thomas, the son of the local lord, considerably limited her options.

Two maids, the devout Louise and the more wilful Anna, attend to the anchoress daily via a small opening in her cell. Every fortnight she receives visits from the local priest, Father Ranaulf, although she is shielded from his gaze, as from all men, by a curtain. The church equates her virginity with holiness, and the cell is designed to preserve it.

Her role is to pray for and offer guidance to the village, but instead of reverence, her visitors express pity for her. Although she is removed from society, the outside world continues to affect her in a very material way; When Sarah’s patron, Sir Geoffrey, dies, she becomes dependent on Sir Thomas by default, since the church relies on his money. The anchoress’s life is bound by her gender; in the Middle Ages, a woman’s security depended entirely on the men to whom she was tied.

Initially there is something frustratingly pious and passive about the anchoress and her complicity with the church. But when Anna falls pregnant after an assault and the church’s instinct is to blame the victim, the anchoress finally asserts a degree of volition and questions the rigid dogma to which she has given her life. Here the novel raises questions about the exclusion of women from public life that have some contemporary resonance; Sarah can remain the anchoress only as long as she remains submissive and chaste.

There are moments when the anchoress seems capable of raging against the inequality of life – she channels the dragon-slayer St Margaret and verges on madness – but the novel never quite allows her to break free of her historical mould. The compromise she reaches at the novel’s conclusion may be historically accurate but falls slightly flat by today’s measure. Until that moment, a more subversive resolution seemed tantalisingly possible.

Gretchen Shirm

Gretchen Shirm is a Sydney writer and critic. Her first book was Having Cried Wolf.

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