Reading From Other People’s “Best of” Lists, #1 : Robin Cadwallader’s The Anchoress

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I jotted down an embarrassing number of titles from the “Best Books of 2015” lists.

I know, I know.  It’s already 2016.  But these recommendations are a sensible way to get back into contemporary literature, if , like me, you read mainly books by the dead.   Robyn Cadwallader’s The Anchoress  cropped up on a few lists. In an article in the Guardian about publishers’ favorite books of the year, Hannah Griffiths, publishing director of Faber, said she wished more people had read and reviewed The Anchoress.

Although I am not religious, and the extent of my spiritual reading in the Middle Ages is limited to excerpts from Julian of Norwich (thank God for The Norton Anthology!), I became interested when I learned  Cadwallader is a poet. The beauty of the language makes all the difference in a book like this. This brilliant short novel not only sketches the religious life of Sarah, an anchoress in the thirteenth century, but also explores her fears, the elation of prayer, her hallucinations,  her anorexia and ill health, and her changed view of prayer as she becomes involved with the lives of her two maids, Louise and Anna, and  female visitors from the village.

Sarah  is traumatized by the senseless suffering of her beloved sister Emma, who dies in childbirth.  Sarah chooses a religious life, though Sir Thomas, a wealthy landowner, wants to marry her.  She is attracted but has a sixth sense about the kind of man he is:  he is violent.  And she knows that his father would disapprove of a match with a merchant’s daughter.

And so where does a woman go for sanctuary?  The church.

The smaller the space, the greater the suffering, the more she is the bride of Christ, or so she reasons at first. While the priests and monks have liberty to wander at large, she retires to the tiny space.  In this short, tightly-woven novel, chapters alternate between Sarah’s first-person account and a third-person account from the point of view of her confessor, Ranaulf, a scribe.

She loves the idea of giving herself to Christ, but it is much more difficult than it was in imagination.  She is terrified by the ceremony.  After the bishop says the mass, she lies on the floor of her cell listening to the men nail the door shut.  She loses consciousness for a while.  When she comes to,

I startled, fright hot and sharp in my chest.  Blows shuddered the door. I stood and pressed my hands against it, felt nails splintering wood the sound sharp in my ears, then echoing inside my head.  These hammer blows that sealed my door were the nailing of my hands and feet to the cross with Christ, the tearing of his skin and sinew.  The jolt of each blow pushed me away but I strained to feel it, the shiver of resistance humming in my body.

Sarah is not completely alone.  She communicates with her two maids, her confessor, and visitors through a small window. She is responsible for her young maid Anna’s spiritual life.  But so much about her prayer is denial of her own bodily needs, and hallucinations brought on by starvation and deprivation. She hears Agnes,  the anchorite who died in the cell, speaking to her about Christ. She makes herself bleed and, on one occasion, wears a hair shirt.  But her convictions change when she learns that her predecessor, Isabella, did not die but left the cell. And after her young maid Anna gets pregnant, she realizes she has some responsibility for what had happened. When Sarah, Louise, and the women of the village try to shield Anna from a punitive exile demanded by the church, even Ranaulf  takes the women’s side.

The Anchoress is a gorgeous novel.  Every sentence is perfectly chiseled and formed. I grew to love and respect Sarah. My only criticism?  I am not quite sure Ranaulf would have changed his mind so readily about women.  Still, it is a great book.  Had I read it a day earlier, it would have made my Best of 1015.