Incorrigibly plural in its attentions, inherently secular in its scepticism, the novel is a form unamenable to exploring the closed systems of religious belief. As Milan Kundera once put it, religion “can cope with the novel only by translating its language of relativity and ambiguity into [its] own … dogmatic discourse”. And vice versa. Which may explain the tension at work in any fiction that invigilates the monotheistic mind.
Even harder are investigations of minds such as these when they are removed in time and space. Just as most science fiction is a projection of current concerns into the future, contemporary imaginings of the premodern world can carry the taint of the present. The mimetic CGI employed in fictions such as these is often tremendous; the texture of life in, say, mediaeval England is replicated with a commanding sense of the sights, sounds, smells of the era. Yet the imagination that records in sensuous detail often measures the psychic inscape of that world’s inhabitants using the psychological equivalent of the metric system.
The besetting sin of books in this vein is a tendency to sneer at the chronological natives. Peasant ignorance, outmoded attitudes, superstitious dread are paraded before us smugly impeccable Moderns. The past is a different country, picturesque but dull-witted, juicily incorrect in its politics. And we are its armchair tourists, carried on the litter of the authorial imagination.
Which brings us to Robyn Cadwallader’s novel, The Anchoress, a work that exhibits many more of the virtues than the vices of the kind of historical novel I mention, yet cannot shake its coat of them entirely. It is simply that kind of hound.
The time and place is rural England in the mid-13th century during the early days of the large-scale enclosure of common agricultural lands – a time when books are still copied by hand, Catholicism remains the national religion, and women are considered little more than vessels for breeding more men. In the opening pages we witness Sarah, the daughter of a Midlands cloth merchant, undertake the necessary vows to become an anchoress. Through her first person account we learn that while her natural bent has always been towards religious devotion, the death of her mother and then her sister in childbirth has provided the impetus for this irrevocable decision.
And it is an extreme step she has taken. An anchoress physically removes herself from the world and spends the rest of her days in solitary prayer. Sarah is literally boarded up in a small stone cell attached to the local church. Her basic needs are met by two maids and she communicates via a small curtained opening. The bones of Sarah’s predecessor are buried beneath her feet.
It is a tricky set-up for any writer to sketch drama from such minimal materials, and part of the advance excitement surrounding the novel doubtless emerges from the difficulty level Cadwallader has set for herself. What we learn alongside Sarah in those early weeks and months, however, is that the wider world has a way of getting through even the sturdiest walls.
Despite the strictures laid down for the anchoress in a document known as a Rule, written by “a godly man” nearby, there is some small margin for freedom in her days. The two maids gradually resolve themselves into distinct presences in Sarah’s life, bringing her news of the village, while a wry old priest from the local priory visits her for confession. A cat adopts Sarah’s cell as her own, while a little local girl similarly overcomes the anchoress’s reluctance to be distracted from her spiritual labours.
But only the reader is privy to Sarah’s intimate thoughts. Her dead sister, Emma, is constantly and lovingly revisited, though as we piece together the anchoress’s earlier life it becomes clear that it was not grief alone that brought her to the cell. There was also a fear of worldly contamination: a mortifying sense that her sexuality was the Devil’s work. It didn’t help that the one man who came anywhere near her was the lecherous son of the local grandee, Sir Geoffrey. It is the central irony of the novel, as well as the main engine of the plot, that Geoffrey becomes Sarah’s patron, providing for her in return for her spiritual intercession on his behalf – call it afterlife insurance – and then promptly dies.
There are many things to admire about The Anchoress. Cadwallader writes in a neat and tidy prose, and if she lapses into cliché on occasion, there are few purple patches. Her characters are believable to the extent that you come to care for their fates, and her depiction of the era is rendered in fine-grained detail. The ludicrously skewed gender attitudes of the time are met with irony rather than agitprop. If it does not achieve the success of its close literary neighbour, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, it will not be because the author has failed to pull the correct fictional levers.
And yet. Like Burial Rites, it is a fiction that feels a little too reverse engineered – as though the author had been sent a bestseller algorithm in the mail and then gone in search of characters and a subject appropriate to most interestingly solving the narrative problem. Despite the agonies and ecstasies undergone by our cloistered heroine, there is scant sense of the truly alien mindset that would enter into the contract of the kind that Sarah does. Hers is a contemporary sensibility robed in a historical hairshirt. Hers is a secular religiosity.
Here’s an experiment you can try at home. Go to Google Books and pull up a page of Jim Crace’s 2013 novel Harvest. It too tells the story of mediaeval village life in England during the early years of enclosure. See how that novel’s language has been bent and bowed to the task of describing a distant world and a distinct mentality – see how the author strips away the patina of centuries. Then have a gander at The Anchoress. My guess is that you’ll suddenly find yourself back in Kansas. AF
HarperCollins, 320pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 28, 2015 as "Robyn Cadwallader, The Anchoress". Subscribe here.