I first came across The Anchoress in my local Waterstones when my eyes were drawn to its striking cover featuring a swallow in flight and on reading the blurb I knew it was one for me. As a fan of historical fiction I was curious about this story set in 13th century England which featured subject matter I was previously unaware of – anchorholds and the women who lived in them.
‘I reached out, touched the cold stone wall, rough and gritty on my hand. The clotted smell of dampness, the earthy smell of moss. This was to be my home – no, my grave – for the rest of my life.’
Robyn Cadwallader was inspired to write this story having come across the subject of anchorholds during research. Through this novel she helps to answer some of the questions surrounding this unusual, somewhat frightening subject. An anchorhold was a cell found at the side of a village church in which a holy woman would reside, locked away from the world. They would be left to pray, free from temptation and with minimal contact with the world around them. In The Anchoress we meet Sarah who makes the decision to lock herself away aged just seventeen. But what made a girl of this age want to do such a thing? What did her life have in store for her, was she afraid? Over the course of the novel we discover more about Sarah and the events in her life that led her to choose this kind of existence. I was immediately intrigued and eager to find out more.
‘I hadn’t thought suffering would be like this, so ordinary, so dull, and so endless.’
I found The Anchoress to be an insightful read with a lot to discover about the life of an anchoress and their role within their village. Bound by rules Sarah would spend her time reading from her rule and praying for those in the village. She also considered herself to be locked in her cell to suffer along with Christ, to feel some of that pain and sacrifice. This led to her depriving herself of the some of the food brought by her maids and resulted in her having surprising views on her own gender and her power. It was startling to see how a young girl had ended up this way, locking herself away in a safe place away from external risks. However, despite her enclosure, there is danger still lurking beyond the walls of the cell. Alternating between Sarah’s perspective and the story of Father Ranaulf who visits her, it builds up a fascinating picture of the life of an anchoress from their view and that of the people in the village. It effectively portrays medieval attitudes towards faith, gender and power.
‘The story had been mine alone, like a scroll rolled up and bound, hidden behind the hearth, but it refused to stay concealed, unwound itself, spilled its words.’
I enjoyed reading The Anchoress and found it really interesting to read about a subject that is new to me. It provides a fascinating look into the life of one young woman and the sacrifices she makes, and it left me pondering this unusual part of history.