The Anchoress: A Novel
Sarah Crichton Books, 2015
320 pp., 27.24
"A Body Is a Body, Created by God"
A 17-year-old girl is locked away from the world, enclosed in a stone room attached to the local chapel. The door is nailed shut. Sister Sarah has chosen not only to take the veil but to vow to the life of a recluse—specifically, an anchoress. Here she will spend the remainder of her life in prayer for the soul of her patron and the village of Hartham. Her connection to the outside world is limited to the holes strategically placed in her cell: one to the room where her two maids live and provide for her needs; another covered by a black cloth that opens to her parlor, to which the village women may come to receive her counsel and where she interacts with her confessor; and finally a smaller slit in the shared wall of the church, called a squint, where she can receive communion.
This strange story, striking both in its premise and its captivating prose, is the debut novel of Australian writer Robyn Cadwallader, who first came across the term "anchoress" doing research for her doctoral thesis concerning women and virginity in the Middle Ages. In The Anchoress, set in England in 1255, Cadwallader showcases her extensive knowledge by building an intricate and detailed world that she keeps accessible through her unobtrusive use of contemporary language. The majority of the book takes place in a stone room nine paces by seven; the only outside perspective comes from the secondary narrator, Sister Sarah's second confessor, Father Ranaulf. Emotionally reeling from the loss of her sister, young Sarah has chosen this life with hope: "Here inside these walls, Christ would heal me of my grief, help me let go of my woman's body, its frailty and desire. I would learn to love him above all others, to share his suffering." It quickly becomes clear, though, that there are no walls that can completely block out the world or keep the past at bay.
The story progresses in fits and spurts; at times dragging, then unexpectedly suspenseful. The slower pace, which could be tedious, plays its own role, bringing the reader into Sarah's revelation early on in her enclosement: "I hadn't thought suffering would be like this, so ordinary, so dull, and so endless." While the storyline may be found lacking in places, especially in some of Father Ranaulf's narrative, the character development and themes explored more than compensate.
It should be no surprise, given the author's background, that medieval thinking on women and embodiment is a major theme. Sarah struggles to face the reality that in her desire to leave her sinful body behind and take flight into the spiritual realm, she has actually put herself in a situation to become more aware of her flesh. Each texture, scent, hunger pang, and desire captures her undivided attention. As her confinement radically limits the sweep of her vision, other senses are heightened. She finds that scents are more easily distinguished, and slight shifts in sound register sharply; she revels in inadvertent human touch with almost sensual intensity.
Toward the beginning of the novel, these sensations provoke guilt, pushing Sarah to sometimes violent acts of penance as she attempts to subdue her flesh. Cadwallader makes good use of vivid imagery in these scenes, deftly examining universal human desire but keeping her characters rooted in their time and place. Father Ranaulf provides a window into the prevalent teaching, reflecting upon his first visit to receive confession from the anchoress,
Women were strange creatures, a breed apart … . At school [I] had been taught to see through the Devil's enticement, the beauty of the female form, to the true nature of a woman as lustful and tempting; [I] had been told that if [I] touched a woman, [I] would feel [my] flesh burn like the fires of hell … [I] had fought temptation by reciting to [my]self the words of the Fathers: daughters of Eve, gateway of sin, foul flesh, deformed male.
While the characters accept this teaching, it is obvious that they struggle with it. The harder Sarah tries to rip her soul from her foul female flesh, the deeper her realization of its inescapability.
If Sarah at 17 seems exceptionally mature to a modern reader, she would not have seemed so to her contemporaries. Even so, in the course of the novel there remains a sense of her coming of age. Believers will recognize the poignant spiritual journey she makes within the moldering stone walls of her cell.
Sarah begins her enclosure quick to embrace suffering wherever it can be found. As the weather becomes colder, instead of adding wood to fireplace in her anchorhold or asking for additional blankets, she attempts to force her way through her daily prayers, striving for holiness through stringent adherence to her Rule. She is dismayed when this trial earns her a grace-filled rebuke from the wise and gentle Father Peter, her first confessor, who later becomes too frail for the walk to Hartham. He offers her the sage advice to embrace her youth and allow herself space to grow into her calling as they lean on God together. Sarah's petulant monologue in response feels familiar to this millennial, even in its obvious need for correction: "A child? Me? I was no novice nun; I'd chosen this hardest life of all, and he called me a child! He was kind, but he was old, and perhaps he'd forgotten the strength of being young."
Sarah indeed has a long road ahead of her, full of unexpected twists. To be free of her past as a burden, she must learn to walk through her memories rather than hide from them. As she attempts to hold on to her pious view of her body as irredeemably sinful, Sarah is confronted by other viewpoints; in a humorous and profound scene, Sarah attempts to defend her self-imposed suffering to the local healer, who responds, "Whether it be sin or no, Sister, a body is a body, created by God."
Though Cadwallader refers to herself as spiritual but not religious, she anchors this story in a transcending journey of Christian spiritual maturity. She teases out the threads of tension between denying the flesh and embracing embodiment. Life is not well-lived at either extreme; flourishing is found somewhere in the middle. After her dedicated attempt to subdue her body, even if indulging it masochistically, Sarah begins to grasp that "holiness [is] a risk. Blood and pain and bodies. I looked at the crucifix above my altar as if for the first time, at the almond-shaped wound, the drops of blood. Where else was I so like Christ, but in his body?"
The Anchoress is delightful and dark, earthy and accessible, sure to spark conversation as a welcome addition to any book club gathering.
Aleah Marsden is a stay-at-home mom of four who wakes up at 5am to study the Bible and write because she has discovered that physical exhaustion is more manageable than emotional exhaustion (i.e., she consumes copious amounts of coffee). She blogs about life, faith, and Bible study at DepthoftheRiches.com. Member of Redbud Writers Guild.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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