I walked the length of my cell from the wall with two windows to my altar, counting my steps – nine paces; then across the narrower side, from my fireplace to my squint – seven paces. This would be my world. I touched my squint, a thin window about the length of my two hands from fingertips to heel and as wide as my wrist. I knelt and looked through. It was so narrow…even if I moved closer to the slit or moved my head, I would see nothing more than the crucifix and candles.
For a while I didn’t buy this book as I was put off by the cover: it has a bird on the front, and I had assumed it was another novel using birds as a metaphor for life (‘learning to fly’, ‘leaving the nest’, ‘migrating’) which I am well and truly sick of. However, the blurb sucked me in. The Anchoress is about a woman in the 12th century who chooses to live in an enclosed stone cell for life. I was totally intrigued, partly because I’ve always been fascinated by the middle ages, and partly because I wondered whether a story set entirely in a tiny stone room could be sustained in an interesting way over a whole novel.
Turns out it totally could! It’s pretty full on. Sarah, the protagonist, is only seventeen when she becomes an anchoress and the opening scenes describe the door of her cell being nailed shut, the crushing darkness, the way it feels like death. Historically, anchoresses were real women who chose to cut themselves off from world and all the sensory temptations within it, in order to spend their lives in prayer and contemplation of God. They literally can’t leave: food is handed to them through a window and people chat with them through another window, usually curtained. Anchoresses would also speak regularly to village women, who would confide in the anchoress of their town, pray with them, and turn to them for spiritual guidance. This is Sarah’s life.
Though it sounds like an oppressive life (and was, in many ways, since the church at the time was intensely patriarchal – also, Sarah literally lived in stone prison) the story as a whole is one of quiet liberation. While Sarah’s faith in God remains constant, her motivations for remaining in the cell change from wanting to indulge in self-loathing and punishment (for her own purported sins, which she doesn’t quite believe God has forgiven, and grief at the death of a family member) to a desire to serve, care for and become friends with the people in the local village community. There are intense scenes of self-flagellation and other bodily punishment, but also wonderfully touching scenes of human connection.
But this isn’t a story of ‘angry’ woman becoming meek and caring and catering to traditional and restrictive gender stereotypes – rather, it’s the story of a woman who learns to find freedom in her own choices and in her ability to define her job on her own terms. Through her friendship with her male mentors (the local ministers) she challenges the medieval idea of the time that women were incapable of complex philosophical thought, and helps begin to shift the men’s views about women. She also empowers local women by giving them advice and someone to listen to, and somewhat changes the role of anchoress by redefining the parameters of her job so that she can do it more sustainably (I won’t go into detail as I don’t want to spoil the plot too much, but basically she takes charge of the job rather than being totally in control of the dudes).
Cadwallader does a great job of illustrating Sarah’s complex feelings about her role: I really felt Sarah’s self-induced suffocation in the cell, and I also felt her joy when she began to feel truly purposeful and free in her role. Cadwallader has a PhD in medieval studies, so the history feels real and convincing. The prose is simple and clear – it’s never mind-blowing – but Cadwallader certainly develops character really effectively and completely drew me into the story. I also really liked that even though the male-dominated church was critiqued, Christianity itself wasn’t: I loved that Sarah was strong enough to remain in her faith despite the flaws of the human-made institution that organised it. I really enjoyed this story. There was a little bit of a bird/flying metaphor that could have been completely cut, but otherwise, great book, especially for a debut novel – the story has really stayed with me.