Book review: The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader

The scenario is claustrophic: in medieval England, Sarah, a seventeen-year-old virgin, relinquishes worldly life—family, human touch, comfort, light, fresh air—and is locked into a tiny stone cell attached to the village church. It is voluntary. And it is permanent. The door to the cell, or anchorhold, is nailed shut. Sarah conceives of this as ‘the nailing of my hands and feet to the cross with Christ’ but an equally fitting comparison would be the nailing of a coffin, because the anchorhold is to be Sarah’s home and also her grave: lest there be any doubt, she is told that the bones of a previous anchoress, Sister Agnes, are interred beneath her. Her life’s work is to devote herself to prayer—for the edification of the village and the soul of the wealthy landowner who is her patron.

9781460702987I was sent a copy of Robyn Cadwallader’s debut novel in preparation for a session I was chairing at the Perth Writers Festival. As someone who has trouble with confined spaces, and has nightmares about being buried alive, I felt a little uneasy when I held the book in my hand, knowing the situation of its protagonist. The stunning cover illustration,  a swallow soaring upwards, should have been a clue, should have reassured me. Because this novel soars, too.

Sarah’s isolation from the world is not as complete as I had originally feared it would be. She has two female servants who attend to her (extremely meagre) needs of food and clothing and cleanliness (such as cleanliness was in medieval times) through one window. Another window allows her to receive female villagers seeking her counsel. A confessor from the nearby priory comes once a month to hear her sins, and to interpret her written Rule. Charmingly, a cat visits through the servants’ window whether Sarah likes it or not, occupying the best place by the fire. And she can partially see, through a narrow slit in the stone wall called a ‘squint’, into the church.

Cadwallader, also a medieval scholar, convincingly creates a world outside the anchorhold that is patriarchal, class-based, punitive, predatory (for women) and austere. Sarah escapes that physical world but not, of course, these defining elements; they continue to shape her existence in every way. While I found her occasional displays of self-loathing disturbing to read (particularly those involving physical mortification—self-flagellation and the wearing of a hairshirt), I could understand them in the context of her time and circumstance.

For a work whose central premise is the act of ‘enclosure’, a determined, purposeful isolation of the self from the world, The Anchoress is a remarkably sensual novel. But perhaps this is not so surprising, because the act of isolation requires a constant repudiation of bodily desires of all kinds. Sexual desire is the obvious one (Bishop Michael tells her, ‘Enclosure is the only means by which your virginity may be assured’ and warns her that ‘Lust prowls, it prowls’), but Sarah and her confessor also speak of ‘keeping the flesh in need’—meaning in need of food, warmth, soft bedding, external stimulation. The narrative dwells in the intimacies and minutiae of deprivation and what passes as compensation. For example, with limited visual stimulation, Sarah’s other senses are heightened.

 The stewed meat smelt rich; the fragrance wound around my head and sank into my clothes.


His voice made me think of the river where it runs deepest, the silken sound of its slow eddies…


The squeak of metal close by, the sound of wood on wood as the church door shut. The smell of dirt floated in to me as it always did when someone entered the church. Muffled footsteps, a few soft thumps and then quietness. The cough of a sick man, dry and rasping, the sound of breath dragged in and out.

I had been intrigued, at the outset, to see how Cadwallader would create drama and pace in the story of this voluntarily entombed character, but it soon became apparent that there was rich potential for both. First, Sarah has a history, a back story, a reason for the extreme choice she has made. In the interests of avoiding spoilers, I don’t intend to say more about that. Second, although much of the narrative takes place in a cell, that cell is attached to a church, and the church is located in a village, and the village is connected intimately with two sources of significant power—the Catholic Church, in the form of the priory, and the land-owning class, in the form of Sarah’s patron; they, in turn, are intimately connected with each other. There is a strong character arc in the novel in relation to Sarah that could be described as a unique coming-of-age story. And there is are narrative arcs involving the wider world—Sarah’s family, her servants, the villagers, her confessor, her patron, the prior and brothers, the previous anchoresses—to which Sarah is central. The Anchoress unspools its threads at a pace that feels entirely consonant with the world it inhabits, but it never falters, is never less than compelling.

Good historical fiction tells us something about our own world as it narrates a story of the past. While reading The Anchoress, I was struck time and again by the operation of power along gender and class lines. While these play out in the most extreme ways in the novel, I could not help but think of the residues of powerlessness that still exist today, and of the ways in which people resist, fight back, reclaim, endure, create. Or fail to. I think it is one of the greatest gifts of fiction that it increases our empathy for the other, our understanding that the other is ourselves.

The Anchoress is a novel that I know I will continue to think about for a long time—and that’s my kind of fiction.


The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader (Fourth Estate, 2015)

ISBN 978 0 7322 9221 7


aww-badge-2015-200x300This review counts towards my total for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.


Filed under Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015

37 responses to “Book review: The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader

  1. Ah, I had to stop reading your review as soon as I saw the bit about being locked in. I had heard about this novel before, and I know it’s getting good reviews but I know I would have endless nightmares if I read it, just thinking about the premise of this book makes me feel ill, and yet I’d love to be able to read something so original. I still get flashes of panic if I recall one of the books in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy where the wizard is trapped underground, and I must have read it 30 years ago or more. There’s also a tiny bit in John A Scott’s wonderful novel ‘N’ that I had to skip because a character was getting lost in a tunnel.
    It just shows you the power of good writing on the imagination if an author’s words can have the same effect as actually being underground and the fear of getting trapped under all that weight takes over. It’s odd, because although it takes great self-control and I almost have to hallucinate myself into a different space, I can actually control the panic if, for example, I have to have an MRI. But in a book, you’re in the author’s world and the only way to escape is to stop reading it.

    • Mirror neurons at work, perhaps, Lisa?
      I absolutely understand your fears, because for the same reason I thought I was going to have a lot of trouble reading this novel. But, as I mention in the review, it’s far less claustrophic than the premise suggests—or at least that was my experience in reading it. The first couple of chapters, when she enters the anchorhold, are a bit challenging in that regard, but then the character and the story take over.

      • LOL I have to ‘fess up that I was actually getting flashes of being stuck in a tunnel on my belly, unable to go forward or back, just from writing my comment. I think I’m a lost cause.

      • We could swap nightmares some time but we’d probably scare each other into the next world!

      • Ha, I’d be worse off because you’re such a good writer! What about that vivid scene in Elemental where the women are in that icy water gutting the fish! I get shivers all over when I remember that.
        No, you’ll have to make me a promise that you won’t include any claustrophobic scenes in your next novel, please.

      • Do you? Ah, well, I’m sorry!
        I don’t think there’s anything claustrophobic in the new one 🙂

      • It’s ok, we have warm jumpers here in Victoria!

  2. Thanks so much for the sensitive and generous review, Amanda. I especially appreciate your comments about the pace and the novel’s relevance for today. Just lovely!
    And Lisa, I’m sorry to read that you won’t be able to read it, but I understand. I hope, as Amanda says, that after the first chapter or so, the cell becomes its own world, so that it is small but not too confining. And the anchoress’s conversations with others open it out again. But … I wouldn’t want you to have nightmares!

  3. Thank you for the review, Amanda. I was not at all tempted to read’ The Anchoress’ before seeing your review, but now I can’t wait to read what sounds like a brilliant novel. Like most people, I find the thought of women, or men for that matter, voluntarily submitting to permanent incarceration in a confined place bizarre.

  4. Reblogged this on ANZ LitLovers LitBlog and commented:
    I’m not ready to read this book, not yet, but I’d like to promote it, so do visit this enticing review at Amanda Curtin’s blog, Looking Up Looking Down

  5. Really enjoyed this review. I keep encountering this book online and my curiosity is piqued! It seems like it would be such a hard book to write well and I’m really interested in seeing how Robyn’s done it. I suppose it is similar to the challenge of making people want to read a story with an unlikeable protagonist, only here it’s the setting and the idea of it being self-imposed that’s unlikeable. I love seeing authors tackle hard-to-handle ideas in their work and will have to check this one out!

  6. reidonwriting

    A beautifully written review, Amanda. No wonder the author is pleased!

  7. Oh, I’m with Lisa on this one … I was there when you spoke with Robyn at the Writers Festival and when she read from it. Entombed, incarcerated, cloistered … not words that make a claustrophobic happy! However I’m told the only cure for claustrophobia is to confront it, so maybe I will read this. I did venture into a cave a little while back. I survived … just.

    • I admire your courage, Rashida! I did manage to visit a few caves earlier in my life but I don’t think I could do it now. But hey, if you can do that… 🙂

      • LOL Rashida, confronting it doesn’t always work. Some years ago I attended a conference at the Old Castlemaine Gaol which has been turned into a motel. I was one of the ‘lucky ones’ assigned a converted cell with a very solid steel door and bars on the window, and you know, I could not shut the door. I couldn’t even push it to, to stand behind it to change into my pyjamas. When I finally had to go to bed I spent the entire sleepless night with the door wide open, fortunately not too worried about anybody coming in to molest me because I knew everyone at the conference.
        Underground tourist mines are an occupational hazard for teachers when you take the kids on camp, but my colleagues were great: I used to stay on top “in case any of the kids felt sick’.
        But Amanda’s right: it’s something that’s developed later in my life, and I can’t think why that would be because there’s no traumatic even to have triggered it.
        The human brain is a very odd thing…

      • Oh, Lisa, you have to laugh, don’t you… 🙂

  8. Brilliant review Amanda, you captured it perfectly. Like you, I was surprised by how much drama there was in the story – I read it in a couple of sittings. I too was struck by the gender issues – how, though in many ways the role of women has improved immeasurably, on some levels, women are as much at risk now as they were several centuries ago.

  9. A compelling review. I look forward to reading the book. And on the subject of creating imaginary horrors, a couple of the short stories in your collection Inherited are among the most disturbing I’ve read. (This is a compliment!)

    • Well, thank you for the compliment, Liana, although I can only think of one disturbing story in Inherited. See how subjective ‘disturbing’ is?
      Thanks, and I hope you enjoy The Anchoress 🙂

  10. deborahburrows

    Thanks, Amanda. I was in two minds about reading ithe book but now will pop into Blackwells and pick up a copy. I have been interested to learn that we have the remains of an anchorite cell in our local church here in Iffley. Our girl was called Annora and here’s a link to a short summary of her life:

  11. Pingback: The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader | mantalini

  12. Pingback: March 2015 Roundup: Historical Fiction | New Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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