Issicratea's Reviews > The Anchoress

The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader
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bookshelves: 2010-onwards, reviewed

The subject matter of this book is distinctly intriguing. Anchorites and anchoresses were a subclass of religious hermits, who lived entirely enclosed lives, in locked cells adjoining churches. They were cut off from the physical world to an extent ominously symbolized in the rituals surrounding their enclosure, which incorporated a burial service, signalling the anchorite’s or anchoress’s living “death.”

It was this unusual subject matter that attracted me to Robyn Cadwallader’s novel, together with the fact that she has a PhD in medieval literature, so I knew the history would be sound. I was intrigued, also, by the technical challenges presented by a novel set in a cell with barely room to swing a cat in and with a protagonist whose scope for agency is virtually nil.

In fact, one of the things I liked best about the novel was Cadwallader’s minute rendering of the mechanics of an anchoress’s enclosure: the cell; the spyhole or “squint” (excellent term!) that allows her to look into the adjoining church during mass; the parlor window through which she communicates with her confessor and with the serving women who cater to her material needs. Quite a lot of the novel is occupied by scenes of the young anchoress, Sarah, alone in her cell: thinking, praying, meditating on Christ’s passion with the aid of a cruxifix that is the room’s only “décor”; mortifying the flesh in various unedifying ways; and generally quietly crawling up the walls.

I liked almost all of these passages. There are some good Gothic details, like Agnes, the dead former anchoress buried beneath the cell floor, who acts as a kind of ghostly superego for Sarah, urging her to more and more extreme forms of self-mortification. Yet Cadwallader is never tempted to play the scenario as a medieval horror-show. Although she is fairly forthright about the extent to which anchorites’ extreme practices of asceticism reflect morbid fears of sexuality and the body that we would tend to understand now in psychological, or psychiatric, terms, she treats Sarah’s spiritual impulses sympathetically and doesn’t deconstruct them entirely. Quotations from the Middle English Ancrene wisse (The Anchoress’s Rule) and some bit-part appearances from illuminated manuscripts recall the more attractive elements in medieval Christianity; and we are constantly reminded of the hardships of medieval life, in which the transcendent impulses of medieval mysticism are rooted.

What I liked less about the novel was, ironically enough, the elements I imagine Cadwallader introduced as relief from the claustrophobia of Sarah’s cell-bound life: the visits from women from the village; Sarah’s memories of her much-loved dead sister and of her fraught relationship with the rather stereotypical bullying lord of the manor, Sir Thomas; the secondary plotlet involving Sarah’s young confessor, the uptight Father Ranaulf and his gradual humanization through contact with her (don’t think that counts as a spoiler!) None of these narrative elements really came alive for me, and I could feel the dead hand of didacticism hanging over the novel at points, with characters and scenarios seemingly invented to illustrate points about medieval power structures and the predicament of women, rather than having any independent imaginative life. The writing is a little variable, as well. It’s generally good and sometimes striking, but it can get a little formulaic and overwritten at times, especially in its descriptions of bodily responses (‘my heart lurched hot and heavy”; “a sharp hum ran through my arms and legs”; “a millwheel turns inside my head, swishing water against my ears.”) Still, a good first novel, comparable in many ways with the far more lionized Burial Rites.

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Reading Progress

Started Reading
March 1, 2015 – Shelved (Kindle Edition)
March 1, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read (Kindle Edition)
March 1, 2015 – Finished Reading
March 29, 2015 – Shelved
March 29, 2015 – Shelved as: 2010-onwards
March 29, 2015 – Shelved as: reviewed

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala The premise of this novel sounds very promising, Issi---sorry to see it didn't fully deliver.


message 2: by Issicratea (new) - added it

Issicratea Fionnuala wrote: "The premise of this novel sounds very promising, Issi---sorry to see it didn't fully deliver."

Yes, that's right—I can imagine a novel on this theme being genuinely spectacular, though it would probably have to be a little more experimental than this one to exploit the strangeness of the narrative scenario to the full.


Jenna (Falling Letters) Hah, I was checking reviews to see if anyone mentioned Burial Rites...even though it doesn't sound like as strong as a novel, I think I'll check it out. Thanks for the review!


message 4: by Issicratea (new) - added it

Issicratea Reno wrote: "Hah, I was checking reviews to see if anyone mentioned Burial Rites...even though it doesn't sound like as strong as a novel, I think I'll check it out. Thanks for the review!"

Yes, I think this novel would be a good bet for anyone who enjoyed Burial Rites. They are weirdly twinned—apart from the similarity in subject-matter, there are formal similarities as well, like the switching between first and third person.


message 5: by Colleen (new)

Colleen Have you read Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen? I just enjoyed that read.


Korey Fantastic review! I made similar points far, far less articulately myself. I second the recommendation of Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen. That book was phenomenal.


message 7: by Issicratea (new) - added it

Issicratea Thanks for your kind words about my review, Korey. Interesting that you shared my reservations. The Hildegard novel does sound intriguing--thanks for the recommendation.


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