I”m not sure where I read that most of the recent literary prize winners by women had historical settings. The writer made this point as a negative criticism, noting that as a society we can’t seem to engage with or acknowledge contemporary women’s lives and ongoing inequalities between men and women.
On the one hand, the writer has a point: doesn’t an historical setting ensure the ongoing injustices of gender discrimination are always elsewhere? Doesn’t awarding these stories our highest prizes serve as a kind of self-congratulatory pat on our collective backs that we’ve left the dark ages behind and are basking in the glow of our enlightened ways?
I remember listening to television scholar, Charlotte Brunsdon, defend historical drama on the BBC once. She argued that historical drama, whatever the setting, will always be an interpretation of a previous era through a contemporary lens. So, if an historical drama has scenes of rape within marriage (this was her example, I can’t remember the specific program), then, given every representation is a matter of deliberate choices made by writers and so forth, this is a way of addressing a form of violence still experienced by many women today.
I am sympathetic to this interpretation, not least because Brunsdon is an alumna of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, whose methods and legacy inform my own approach to texts and interpretation, but also because, well, no one seems to have any trouble with this very argument when discussing The Crucible: it was too dangerous to talk about the McCarthy trials when they were happening, so Miller turned to history, the Salem witch trials, to tell his allegorical tale.
Perhaps there’s still a criticism to be made about awarding prizes to predominantly historical novels. If we still need to hide behind allegory, then are we still stuck in the 1950s? We do seem to have finally gotten over the inevitable suicide of heroines that characterised the end of many a nineteenth century novel, so perhaps soon more awards will go to stories about contemporary women’s lives.
What does any of this rambling have to do with The Anchoress? Well, these were my thoughts as I finished listening to the last chapters of the Bolinda Audiobook edition, read by Madeleine Leslay. These thoughts were further prompted by my frequent scouring of available audiobooks to borrow from my local library. Sometimes I just want a novel set in contemporary Australia and I’m often surprised by how difficult they can be to find. I suppose I’m trying to find some way to think about the times I live in.
In the end, I did find a way to think through contemporary issues, although it did take a while. After reading about a third of The Anchoress, it put me very much in mind of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. For some this would be a very high recommendation, but that’s less the case for me.
Burial Rites and The Anchoress share an isolated central female character who has been ill-treated by a manipulative romantic interest and is subject to the whims and prejudices of authority: the law and the church. As much as Kent embellished on the life of her heroine, she was ultimately bound by Agnes’s fate; conversely, while Cadwallader draws on her research into Saint Margaret, Three Methods For Reading The Thirteenth Century Seinte Margerete: Archetypal, Semiotic, And Deconstructionist, her character, Sarah, is fictional and so she is afforded agency.
I don’t want to discount the interest of the historical specificities in The Anchoress. The entire concept of a woman living her life in a small room with locked doors praying to God on behalf of others is fascinating. There is so much to learn and be curious about. The physical effects on the body of forced sedentariness and a lack of exposure to sunlight are quite alarming. I also very much appreciated the insight into the work done to produce books in medieval time: a collaboration between a scribe and an ‘illuminator’ or illustrator.
Overall, what eventually captured my attention in this book was Sarah’s arc. In spite of her seclusion, she forms relationships with the community she serves, if somewhat reluctantly at first. Her arc is matched by that of Ranaulf, the young monk and scribe charged to be her confessor. He is as isolated as she, if not physically, then certainly emotionally. Both are gently prodded into friendships with villagers and colleagues. Here, special mention must be made of Eleanor or Ellie, a guileless village girl who alternately charms and annoys them both into submission.
The other main aspect of this novel that elevated it in my estimation was the way both Sarah and Ranaulf engaged with and questioned the teachings they inherited through the church, in the face of their own and other characters lived experience. There is a refreshing spirit at the core of The Anchoress that doesn’t eschew intellect or heart, but shows how each requires the other in order to live the very best of lives.