England. 1255. Seventeen-year-old Sarah chooses to become an anchoress, rejecting both her comfortable life as the daughter of a cloth merchant and the advances of Sir Geoffrey’s son, who wants to marry her. She’s escaping the grief of a beloved sister lost in childbirth and a father now looking at her as a pawn to rescue a failed business venture, but she is firm in her conviction. She knows where she wants to go.
An anchorage is a small cell attached to a church. Its occupant, the anchoress, is a virginal woman who forgoes all the pleasures and contacts of the world to live in seclusion and focus on the teachings of the church. Sarah welcomes this life and paces its breadth. Seven by nine paces. She has the Bible and her Rule, the book of guidelines an anchoress lives by as she spends her life in spiritual contemplation. It’s all Sarah wants.
Two maids look after her basic needs and the priest comes regularly to hear her confession. The villagers visit to ask for her prayers. All this happens through a small whole in the wall, a squint, covered by a curtain. There is no physical human contact and no warmth from the sun. The door to the outside world is nailed shut.
It’s the smallest and sparest of settings but the story it contains is rich, expansive and thought provoking. It had me riveted to the pages, until it was told. In this room, not only is Sarah’s faith tested but her sanity too. Before Sarah, the anchor held two others. Pious Agnes whose bones are buried in the cell and Isabella, whose story is told in whispers. The lingering presence of these two women comforts and challenges Sarah.
A wooden door isn’t enough to keep the world away. The practical issues and problems of the villagers become her own. The new priest is prepared to risk all to protect her. A child infiltrates her isolation. And there’s a cat too. How much story can one small room hold?
This book is above all a wonderful historical telling, rich with details of the times. It is also an exploration of many issues, as relevant now as they were then. Sarah’s life is constrained not only by religion but also by the men who surround her. They influence her decisions before and after her enclosure in the anchorage. Faith continually tests her. Being a woman defines her in the eyes of the church and it’s men, as lustful and deceiving. Only her virginity makes her sinless. But Sarah is not a victim. She is a woman finding her way in the unique world she has chosen, learning her strengths and her weaknesses.
I love the cover and the inner story that inspired it. Sarah remembers a time when she watched a tumbler perform. She called boy Swallow and he made her wonder what it was like to fly through the air. Once she is enclosed, she often revisits this memory. I love the title. It rolls off the tongue. Anchoress. A wonderful exotic medieval word.
And I loved the ending. I didn’t see it coming.
Reviewed by Sandy Fussell
Title: The Anchoress
Author: Robyn Cadwallader
Publisher: Fourth Estate, Harper Collins
Publication Date: $32.99 RRP
Type: Historical Fiction