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BOOK REVIEW: The Anchoress

The Anchoress is a fascinating glimpse into another world and another time – when women were so powerless that being locked away in a tiny cell until you died was preferable to being a plaything of men.
The Anchoress

Imagine choosing to enter a dark cell, and being enclosed within it. You would never feel the sun or the rain on your skin. Human contact would be limited to your maid and conversations would be conducted with people through a curtain. Your meals would be tasteless and bland. You would spend your time reading the Bible or in prayer. And there you would stay for the rest of your life.

It’s incredible to think that anyone would ever want to spend their life like this, but in the 13th century, that’s exactly what a small number of people chose to do. The men were known as anchorites, and the women were anchoresses. Robyn Cadwallader first learned of their existence while studying her PhD. She became fascinated with the reasons why a woman would choose to live such a life. From her research and imagination came Sarah, the heroine of Cadwallader’s novel.

Sarah is just 17 when she decides she wants no part of her father’s plans to marry her off to a wealthy man. She has seen both her mother and sister die as a result of childbirth and she is fearful of the intentions of the local lord’s son.

She wishes nothing more than to spend her life serving God and so, with the patronage of the lord, who has his own reasons for wanting her locked away, she enters a cell attached to the village church and the door is nailed shut. But while she is removed from the village, Sarah is still very much part of it.

The local women come to her, asking her to pray for them. One wants her husband to stop beating her; another needs the crops to flourish; some simply come to gossip. And when Sarah’s unmarried maid becomes pregnant and faces being driven out of the village, Sarah realises locking herself away from the world won’t stop her becoming involved in the lives of those on the outside.

The Anchoress is a fascinating glimpse into another world and another time – when women were so powerless that being locked away in a tiny cell until you died was preferable to being a plaything of men.

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