The Anchoress: A Novel

The Anchoress: A Novel

by Robyn Cadwallader


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“The book that the whole literary world can’t stop talking about.” —Marie Claire (Australia)

“A considerable achievement.” —Sarah Dunant, The New York Times Book Review

England, 1255: Sarah is only seventeen when she chooses to become an anchoress, a holy woman shut away in a small cell, measuring seven by nine paces, at the side of the village church. Fleeing the grief of losing a much-loved sister as well as the pressure to marry, she decides to renounce the world—with all its dangers, desires, and temptations—and commit herself to a life of prayer. But when she starts hearing the voice of the previous anchoress whispering to her, seemingly from the stones themselves, it soon becomes clear that even the thick, unforgiving walls of Sarah’s cell cannot protect her as well as she had thought.

An absorbing story of faith, desire, shame, fear, and the human need for connection, The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader is a haunting and compelling novel: both quietly heartbreaking and thrillingly unpredictable.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250094674
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 06/14/2016
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 278,273
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Robyn Cadwallader has published numerous prizewinning short stories and reviews, as well as a book of poetry and a nonfiction book based on her PhD thesis concerning attitudes toward virginity and women in the Middle Ages. She lives among vineyards outside Canberra, Australia, when not traveling to England for research and visiting ancient archaeological sites along the way. The Anchoress is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

The Anchoress

A Novel

By Robyn Cadwallader

Sarah Crichton Books

Copyright © 2015 Robyn Cadwallader
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71261-7




I WAS NEAR THE DOOR, where women should stay. The floor was hard, refusing me, though I lay facedown, my arms outstretched, embracing it, wanting this life, this death. I knew there were people nearby, those from the village who had come to look or pray, but I saw none of them. Voices in the sanctuary that seemed so far away sang a dirge, a celebration of loss, prayers for me. I knew the words: I had read and reread them, memorized them, prayed on them, but now they were nothing but sound. The dank cold of stone crept into my bones; I did not feel the drops of water on my back, their chill blessing. I had become stone.

The bishop lifted me to my feet, my legs leaden, and guided me toward the altar. I took the candles they gave me; now a flame glowed in each hand and I could see nothing beyond them. From somewhere outside my ring of light, the bishop's words implored me: "Be fervent in love of God and your neighbor." I knelt and prayed.

Then words, paper, and more words: I signed to all I had asked for. The clinking of the thurible's chain and the bittersweet smell of incense drifted close, quietly wrapped around me like a shroud, like arms that loved me.

They led me through the front door, away from the gathered light of candles and people, and out into the night, black and chill. We walked through the graveyard, wet grass under my feet, the dead all around me. Singing came from the darkness—"May angels lead you to paradise"; this was the hymn we'd sung for Ma when she died, and later for Emma, too. At the cell we stopped and the warm hands that held my arms let go. I shivered. The bishop's voice commanded, "If she wants to go in, let her go in."

The dark mouth stood open. I took a breath and stepped inside. Blackness yawned around me, damp on my face. But voices were nearby, sweet ones, singing, "Be of good courage, thy desire from God is at hand." They laid me down on the floor, scatterings of dirt and words falling on me, into my mouth and eyes. Death desired me and I accepted: "Here I will stay forever; this is the home I have chosen." I could feel my bones, white and still in the black soil; worms wove among my ribs like wool on a loom. Deep in this darkness I am dead. My body dissolves, crumbles, turns to earth. They turned and walked away, left me alone.

* * *

I startled, fright hot and sharp in my chest. Blows shuddered the door. I stood and pressed my hands against it, felt nails splintering wood, the sound sharp in my ears, then echoing inside my head. These hammer blows that sealed my door were the nailing of my hands and feet to the cross with Christ, the tearing of his skin and sinew. The jolt of each blow pushed me away but I strained to feel it, the shiver of resistance humming in my body.

When she was dying, Emma had opened her hand for mine, held on to me, held on to life. Another nail, and another, the judder running through my arms and into my chest, through my jaw and into my teeth. The taste of blood sharp on my tongue. Christ made no noise, his face tight with pain; Emma didn't speak, just looked at me, her eyes fading. Blood dripped, then ran.

The hammering ceased but still my arms throbbed and silence rang in my ears. Then scuffling, tools clinking, the church door banging shut, the dull click of its latch, low and serious voices fading. I stepped away from the door, the smell of incense floating up from my robe to touch my cheek.

Two candles burned on my altar; they must be the ones I had carried in the church. I took two or three steps toward the bed and sat down delicately, as if not to disturb someone else's sleeping place; the straw rustled. I stood up again and peered into the gloom. Of a sudden my body came back to me: my heart was beating hard, my legs were shaking, and my belly ached. I needed to piss, now. I looked around for the bucket, found it at the end of the bed, pulled up my robe, and squatted. The ache in my belly lessened and I felt calmer. 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.

I knelt at my altar and began Compline—"The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end"—but my words ran out. I'd prayed these words each night since I was a child; they were part of me, like breathing, and now they had deserted me. But this was my life, to pray. I began again, my breath fast and shallow, hoping that the thread would catch and the words be pulled along. Nothing; they would not return however much I concentrated. It was as if I'd never learned them. My first night alone and I had no prayer. I snatched at some lines: Iesu Criste, Fili Dei uiui, miserere nobis ... Domine, labia mea aperies ... I sang Veni creator spiritus over and over until my heart settled and slowed. My head drooped. I blew out the candles and crawled over to my bed, crossed myself, and closed my eyes. It was done.

* * *

THE CLANG OF A BELL, loud and close by. I started awake, opened my eyes, but everything was black. Fright pounded in my head. The bed was hard, the blanket rough, and as I sat up, stone grazed across my hand. My cell. Letting out a long breath, I crossed myself and began my day as always: Veni creator spiritus, mentes tuorum visita ... To my relief the familiar rhythm of the prayer settled into me, and I let myself move beyond its forms and words to the memory of candles and darkness, to the vows I had made the night before, giving all to God.

This life meant that I was to pray all day, as I woke, as I dressed, as I ate, as I read. I wanted to light my oil lamp, but I had no idea where my maid had left my flint and tinderbox, so I pulled on my robe and buckled my belt, reciting my Pater Noster, then fumbled for my shoes, saying the Credo.

I stood in the darkness. The things of my old life made no sense now. I touched my lips; there they were, but when I moved my hand away, my mouth was gone. A flicker of light nearby. It must have come from my squint, my way of seeing into the church. I took a step or two toward it, felt along the stone until I found a ledge and the niche cut into the wall above it. Someone was moving around in the sanctuary on the other side of my wall, lighting candles, beginning prayers. It was Martin, the priest's assistant; I could tell his eager voice from the day before, when he had rushed in and out, carrying messages, straightening the altar cloth, lighting the thurible. Even though he was only an assistant, it was a relief to hear him, and I knelt once more and whispered my prayers in time with his. I was alone, as I wanted, but it was a comfort to know that my cell hugged the church.

The church door banged as Martin left, but I stayed on my knees, listening to my breath going in and out. The familiar ache was still there in my chest: Emma gone and in the ground, my little sister's life dragged from her body. Her wails of pain, then her whimpers that terrified me even more, the desperate grip of her hand that weakened and finally let go. I took a deep breath, let it out slowly. Here, inside these walls, Christ would heal me of my grief, help me let go of my woman's body, its frailty and desire. I would learn to love him above all others, to share his suffering.

Patches of dull light glimmered through gaps in the thatch and a soft golden glow came from somewhere above me. I looked up. Over my altar, and just below the roofline, was a window covered with strips of horn that kept out the wind but were thin enough to let through some light. I could see only dimly, but found my flint and lit the oil lamp on my desk.

Next to it was a book, simply bound and without a clasp, my Rule of Life. I picked it up and held it between my hands, felt the smooth leather of the cover. Inside were page after page, row after row of letters, here and there a simple red capital. Plain words, no illuminations such as I had seen in Books of Hours, not even a flourish around a capital, or a curl of leaves. I had thought there would be something. Even the bishop said that mine was a calling few could undertake. If I was to read this book each day, look to it for guidance about how to live this hardest of lives, surely I deserved better.

I moved nearer the lamp to read the first page.

You, my dear sisters, have begged me for a Rule for many a day and so I have written down these words for you, that you may be encouraged in your love for Christ as you hang with him.

My dear sisters. I was one of these dear sisters. The bishop told me the Rule had been written by a godly man for some anchoresses who had lived not far from here. God had blessed the diocese with more women like them, he said, and there were now many copies of the Rule. The one used by the women in this cell had been given elsewhere, so a scribe had made one more, just for me. I wondered about the man who had written out all these words, one by one, and drawn the plain red capitals. Just for me. Perhaps the other copies had been plain as well. This was my life now; I should not expect more.

The parchment whispered as I turned the pages, word after word.

* * *

A quiet knock, then a little louder, and a muffled voice.

"Sister Sarah? 'Scuse me, Sister, for disturbing you. It's Louise, your maid."

I looked toward the rattling shutters. Louise would be standing at the maids' window cut into the back wall of her room, the one adjoining my cell on its narrower side. I walked across to it, pulled back the bolt, and swung open the wooden shutters. They banged as they hit the stone wall and I winced. The window was low, just above waist height, and we both had to bend to speak.

"Pardon again, Sister, but I'm Louise, as you'd remember from yesterday. It's me as will be caring for all your needs till the second maid comes."

"Yes, Louise. I remember." I sat down on the end of my bed and looked through the window. In the light of her room, I could just see Louise's face when she straightened, the shadows emphasizing its cobweb of wrinkles. Her hands were folded across her belly in a stance that I would ever after connect with her voice, patient and long-suffering. "Your room is enough for your needs, I hope?"

"Yes, Sister. There be enough room to cook and for two women to sleep, though if I may say, it be—"

"Yes, Louise. I trust you understand your duties." I suddenly felt awkward; Louise was a maid, and I had dealt with servants, but most likely she knew more than me about this place, this cell, how I would survive. And now I was to teach and guide her path with God. "Can you read, Louise?"

"No, course not, Sister. Where would I have learned to read? Me as was born here, in that house just over—"

"Then I will read to you from my Rule and from my books. And you must pray and be quiet when you're indoors, and modest when you go out."

"Yes, I will, Sister." I heard her make a clucking sound with her tongue. "And if I do say, Sister, that's always been my way; that's why Father Simon, he's the priest here, he said to Bishop Michael as I would be most suitable to be maid to the new anchoress. 'A pious widow of good life,' they were the very words Father Simon said of me."

"He said that to me as well. But you're under my care and instruction now." I began to feel easier.

"Yes, ma'am ... Sister. I wonder, Sister, if you'll be wanting some food after your long fasting, and after walking here all that way."

Her words made my belly growl; I thought of roast venison and baked quince. "A little pottage and some water, I think."

As Louise opened her door, early morning light hazed through the maids' window and softened the darkness in my cell. I left open the shutters, stood and looked around.

You might think there would be nothing to tell about those four walls, two windows, a squint, and darkness, but the stones carried so many stories. And they would carry my story, every moment of my time here. My only witness.

A few steps to my left, in the same wall as the maids' window behind me, was the parlor window with shutters like those to the maids' room, though still closed. Two narrow eyes: one open, one shut. Nearby, along the outer wall, the few books I carried from home had been set neatly on my desk: my Breviary, my Psalter, and a collection of devotions, and now my Rule of Life as well. Tucked in close to the desk was a small chest where I could keep my clothing, and next to it was the fireplace with its rough chimney. In the far wall, opposite the two shuttered inner windows, was the door through which I had entered, the only way in or out, nailed shut. I shivered. It could be opened only by my confessor or by Father Simon, and only if I was in need. To its right was a simple altar with a wooden crucifix hanging above it, and a mere step or two past that, but in the church wall, were my squint and ledge. Farther along that wall was my bed, a pallet covered with coarse-weave blankets. I bent to touch them; my coverlet at home was fine linen damask worked with gold and blue flowers that shone in the sunlight. My father had bought the cloth from Italy especially for me. I was here to forget my old life and I had longed for this rough lodging, but all was so new, so different.

* * *

I walked the length of my cell from the wall with two windows to my altar, counting my steps—nine paces; then across the narrower side, from my fireplace to my squint—seven paces. This would be my world. I touched the squint, a thin window about the length of my two hands from fingertips to heel and as wide as my wrist. I knelt and looked through. It was so narrow and cut on such a sharp angle in the thick church wall that I could see only the church's altar, its two lighted candles, and the crucifix above. I remembered, from the day before, that there was an arch into the chancel with paintings of angels around its curve, and that I'd thought then how much smaller and plainer this church was than my old church in Leeton. But I realized now that it made no difference; even if I moved closer to the slit or tilted my head, I would see nothing more than the crucifix and the candles.

I crossed myself and rested my arms on the ledge below the squint, set deep enough into the wall to hold my prayer book. Lower again, a small square had been cut through the wall so I could receive the body of Christ at Mass. I rubbed my fingers across the stone ledge and thought of those who had knelt here before me.

"My grandfather William carved that squint, Sister."

I gasped with fright.

"Oh, 'scuse me, Sister, but I brought your food and saw you looking."

"Louise, what of the women enclosed in this cell before me? I know of Sister Agnes, of course; she was such a holy woman. And Sister Isabella was enclosed here more lately, I think. You were here, in the village with them. Were they—?"

"Oh, yes, Sister Agnes was a very holy woman. As you say, she was well known all hereabouts and stories are still told of all she did. I came to her for counsel when my little girl died, and then when my Rob died. She said as how we all suffer, just like our Lord did, and she said she'd pray for me. I could feel her holiness, I could."

Holiness. I hoped the village would speak of my holiness.

"It was sad when she died," Louise said, "but we were glad for her going to heaven. What she always longed for, to be with our Lord. She's buried here in this cell; her bones lie there, just where you're kneeling now. You're blessed, Sister, if I may say, to have the bones of such a holy woman to comfort you."

I stood up and stepped back. Buried deep down, I thought, now just part of the dirt and stones, nothing more. Still, the hairs on my head lifted, the skin on my knees prickled.

At the maids' window I took the water and pottage from Louise: a mush of cabbage and parsnip. The smell turned my stomach, so I put the food on my desk, thinking I might nibble at it later. I drank some water. "And the other woman? Isabella?"

"I don't know so much of Sister Isabella. She came from the convent at Challingford and she was here only about five years or so. She was a widow, young, and I never had cause to visit her. But I did talk to Sister Agnes; strange to think, but I sat in the parlor, the other side of this wall, and now it's my duty to watch for those as want to visit you, especially those as would annoy you and interrupt your prayers. That's what Bishop Michael said: 'It's your special duty, Louise.' And don't you worry, I can see out my door here to be sure of those as come."


Excerpted from The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader. Copyright © 2015 Robyn Cadwallader. Excerpted by permission of Sarah Crichton Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
A Note About the Author,

Reading Group Guide

1. Why did Sarah decide to be enclosed as an anchoress? Her reasons may be multiple.

2. What choices were available to Sarah?

3. As a child, Sarah longed to fly like Swallow, the jongleur. What use does the story make of the symbol of birds and flying?

4. What does Agnes's presence in the cell mean for Sarah?

5. Words and stories are important in this book, but each character has a slightly different relationship to them. How do Sarah, Ranaulf, Anna, Avice, and Eleanor relate to words and stories?

6. Avice says, "Afer all, a tree is always a tree, a pot is always a pot, however we say or think on it." What does she mean, do you think?

7. In the book of Genesis, Eve takes and eats the forbidden fruit, traditionally represented as an apple. There are two apples in The Anchoress. What is their significance?

8. Do you think Sarah should have told Anna that she knew Thomas raped her?

9. The word "holy" is from the Old English halig, meaning "that which must be preserved whole or intact," and is connected with the Old English word hal, meaning health and wholeness. In current usage it is a word layered with expectations: love of God, niceness, meekness, obedience, piety, and so on. Sarah hopes and prays that she will become holy. Does she? If she does, in what ways?

10. Isabella says very little, but Sarah says she has helped her decide to stay. What do you think Sarah means?

11. The Rule that Sarah follows emphasizes the dangers of the eyes above all of the senses. Think about the significance of sight in the novel. What role does it play? Keep in mind both Sarah and Ranaulf, but also the people in the village.

12. In what ways does Ranaulf change?

13. Sarah describes Father Peter's gentle care and contrasts it with Father Ranaulf's stern silences, yet she says she has learned from the spaces between Ranaulf's words. What does she mean? Does Peter's care limit her growth in any way? (He says, "You must learn humility, child. Think of it as submission to me, the man you are sworn to obey.")

14. How do you think the fire started? Why?

15. The novel is set more than seven hundred years ago; does it have any relevance to women today? How?

16. Geraldine Brooks once said of writing her own historical fiction that times and contexts may be different, but people are still people. Do you agree?

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