Robyn Cadwallader, author of The Anchoress, shares her story of the trip to an English chapel that planted the seed of her debut novel. With the spirit of empathy, she shows how these women that shut themselves away from the world might have reasons more complex than they seem.
The room was small, with smooth stone walls, two beautiful arched lattice windows, and furnished with a simple altar and candles. Behind me, the priest had closed the heavy wooden door, saying he would be back in about twenty minutes, after he had finished the church service. That’s fine, I thought, not long to sit, and wait.
I was at the Church of St Margaret, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, UK, on the search for anchorholds and the memories of anchoresses, the women who had chosen to be permanently sealed from the world. I had come across this unusual and disturbing religious practice while I was researching my doctoral thesis and, with the final draft almost complete, I was intrigued enough to travel half way around the world to see what I could find out about anchorholds. In the back of my mind was a thought that seemed ridiculous: perhaps I could write a novel about one of these women . . .
The priest at King’s Lynn was very happy for me to visit their chapel, the room once provided for an anchoress, though whether it was her cell or her oratory wasn’t clear. Now, the beautiful chapel is well maintained and used as a quiet space for prayer.
Few cells remain, so there is scant evidence of their size, but I had read they would most likely be smaller than this room; archaeologists say one was seven feet square, another just over six feet by four feet. I knew that anchorholds varied in design and comfort (and some were supplied for men, anchorites), but the basic principle was the same—to deny the world, to suffer with Christ, to be sealed away in a life of prayer, reading and counsel.
As I sat, I wondered again what would draw a woman to such a life. I knew that women in the Middle Ages were considered inferior to men; that their agency was limited; I knew, too, that the church described them as bodily and lustful. Their choices in life were narrow. All of this helped me to understand why some women might ask for enclosure, seeking time and space to read, contemplate, and serve God.
Retreat can have many aims: it can be an escape from people, events and situations, or it can be a moving toward, a seeking of focus through narrowing down. Emily Dickinson said that she knew more of life through her own seclusion, and William Blake urged us to see the world in a grain of sand. It’s impossible to know what for sure what might have been in the hearts and minds of women eight centuries ago.
Twenty minutes in a small, well-lit chapel wasn’t difficult; it was a pleasant retreat from the busy world outside. It gave me the opportunity to begin to imagine: here, I no longer struggled to comprehend ‘this strange decision’, and not even ‘these strange women’, but ‘this woman’. One woman, with her own loves, doubts, fears, hopes—so Sarah, who would become my protagonist, began to form in my mind, and I sat with her inside a cell much darker than the small chapel at King’s Lynn. I discovered that her motivations—as with all of us—weren’t at all simple, and her desire to serve God was like wool, or rope, made of many and varied strands. Her past began to take shape in the dark.
I had read the Rule of Life, Ancrene Wisse, written for some anchoresses, and in its details I began to see the cell: she has a desk with a few books, a chair, a bed, a simple altar and crucifix, two curtained windows, a ‘squint’ to see into the church and her Rule. At home in the room where I write, I paced out the length and width of her cell, nine paces by seven. Ironically, my study has floor-to-ceiling windows on two walls, looking out onto garden on both sides. The light flows in, and I love it, but it’s a long way from an anchorhold. I pasted paper onto one section of a window just to get a feel for the size of Sarah’s two small windows, and some days I sat by it, imagining a confessor or a village woman on the other side, in the dark of the parlour. But finally, I had to find it all in my head.
While the Rule was detailed in its urging for anchoresses to deny their bodies, I recognized that, paradoxically, that very focus and the seclusion of the cell would intensify Sarah’s awareness of her body. I sat, looked around and imagined, I tried to see the things she would see every day: the way the curtain at her window fell, the stones in
the wall, the wood on her desk and in her crucifix, the stone ledge beneath her squint.
With only the dim yellow glow from her horn window, candles and oil lamp, and no way of seeing outside, I realised that her sense of sound and smell would be so much more acute. The life of the village would come to the cell through her ears and her nose. I imagined that such extreme denial of the body would heighten longing for touch and taste, and memories would arise unbidden at the slightest prompting. And because so much of her life would be focused on her body, I tried to do the same, calling up what it’s really like to be hungry, almost starving, or what happens to my hands, my face, my belly, when I’m afraid or excited or bored.
So it began, living with Sarah. Getting to know one woman who, I imagine, lived over eight hundred years ago.
Robyn Cadwallader has published numerous prizewinning short stories and reviews, as well as a book of poetry and a nonfiction book based on her PhD thesis concerning attitudes toward virginity and women in the Middle Ages. She lives among vineyards outside Canberra, Australia, when not traveling to England for research and visiting ancient archaeological sites along the way. The Anchoress is her first novel.
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