Room of her own?

A review of The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader

One autumn morning, a seventeen-year-old woman steps from her old life into her freedom—literally. For Sarah, life in thirteenth-century England offers few choices, even for an educated girl from a well-to-do family like her. So when she is faced with the prospect of marrying, Sarah chooses the one path that will give her some control over her fate. But, ironically, she will have to live for the rest of her life in a cell hardly larger than a few paces, and no window to the outside world. She is an anchoress, and that autumn day marks the end of worldly Sarah and birth of her spiritual self. 

Still, as Sarah’s new life unfolds in Robyn Cadwallader’s debut novel The Anchoress, retreating behind stone walls and a nailed-shut door hardly blocks out trouble. Tasked with near constant prayer and meditation, Sarah is also responsible to council the women of the village, whose church her anchorage cell adjoins. For a woman still haunted by the memory of a younger sister’s death in childbirth, and the complications of a local lord, a man whose advances she rebuffed but must now rely on as her patron, Sarah’s worldly dilemmas only seem to have followed her into her small world. 

Setting a story in an anchorage cell seems like a daunting task, but Cadwallader mostly gets it right. (Cadwallader is an historian whose research centers on women and virginity in medieval society, and the depth of her research is one of the strong points of The Anchoress.) As much as Sarah is bedeviled from the outside, it is her inner struggles that are key to any sense of resolution. Religious from a young age, her devotion is not in doubt but why she has chosen such a hard life for herself reveals the extent to which her self-loathing has been entrenched. There is something of a parallel here between her extreme penance and the anorexia and bulimia that are seen today. 

Still, the plot in the outside world does continue, albeit slowly, and to help that along Cadwallader intermittently inserts the third-person point of view of Father Ranaulf, a local monk who serves as Sarah’s confessor and spiritual advisor. The temptation to give both Ranaulf and Sarah an anachronistic twenty-first century feminism is strong, but Cadwallader manages to create characters that are true to their time while nurturing a thirteenth-century feminism. Here, women might find a small space to flourish in spite of an oppressive society. Heavy on plot and action The Anchoress is not, but Cadwallader manages to prove that even in the small confines of a stone cell, a woman can be free if she sets her mind to it.