I liked the sound of this very much; a novel about a 17-year-old English girl in 1255 who chooses (as real medieval women did sometimes choose) to be walled up in a church, to live a life of solitary prayer and fasting and contemplation, supported by the local community and devoted to praying for that community’s spiritual welfare. It is fascinating that so many women chose to do this — 123 of them in England alone during the 13th century — and I was eager to read Cadwallder’s imaginative evocation of one such woman. Unfortunately, instead of a book which explores the relentless strangeness of the past, Cadwallader wrote a novel that uses its historical setting as a stage set for modern young people coming of age. Both Sarah, the teenage girl who becomes an anchoress, and Ranaulf, the priest who eventually becomes her confessor, could be transplanted to a (not very good) contemporary YA novel without missing a beat. Sarah’s reasons for becoming an anchoress have little to do with relationship to a personal deity, or a desire to enter into a larger spiritual reality by giving up the outside world; she is instead fleeing her own sexual desire, which she is terrified will lead to death in childbirth just as it did for her sister Emma. Ranaulf is a sulky teenage boy (however old he is actually supposed to be) who wants everyone to just leave him alone with his manuscripts, rather than having to go engage in the duties of pastoral care that his priesthood entails. They go through the motions of relationship, and eventually come to the end of the book larger, wiser, more mature people, all against a picturesque backdrop of stone walls and willow trees and self-starvation that leads to symptoms easily mistaken by those foolish medieval people for mystical experiences.
I am sure my mild contempt comes through; it is born of disappointment and frustration with the limits of Cadwallader’s vision. I have read numerous reviews of this novel, all of which enthuse over its psychological realism, its attention to details, its beautiful language. Yes, they admit, it is slow-moving, there is not much plot, but oh, how very relevant it is to our modern day! Even Cadwallader uses the term — in this interview with an Australian newspaper she discusses how her editors felt that the novel was “remarkably relevant” in talking about “issues we can all think about today.” All right, but when I read a novel set in 1255, I want to experience the interiority and perspective of people living in 1255, a time so distant and different from our own that it might as well be an alien world. Cadwallader seems to think 1255 was remarkably like 2015, except perhaps more thatched huts and less rights for women; an utter failure of imagination. This inability to respect the past comes, perhaps, from Cadwallader’s starting place; according to that same interview, when she first read about anchoresses she was “absolutely horrified, fascinated, really thought it was just a terrible, terrible thing.” She is, of course, welcome to feel as she feels, but to write a novel out of horror and fascination without questioning the assumptions which underlie those reactions destroys the respect an author must have for their material. Rather than exploring the beliefs, values and perspectives of people in 1255, Cadwallader writes like a bad anthropologist, coming up with modern explanations for everything she finds uncomfortable. The result is a very frustrating, unsatisfying novel, and I do not recommend it.