Prior to publishing her debut novel, The Anchoress, Robyn Cadwallader had published a poetry collection, I Painted Unafraid, and a non-fiction book about virginity and female agency in the Middle Ages. Her second novel, Book of Colours, was published in 2018. Robyn is the reviews editor for the online literary journal, Verity La.
Robyn, thank you very much for being willing to answer my questions.
Thanks for your interest, Cathy.
What inspired you to write a book about an anchoress?
I first came across mention of anchoresses when I was working on my PhD. I was both fascinated and appalled at the idea of a woman choosing to lock herself away for life, there to ‘suffer with Christ’, praying, reading and counselling the village women. I was so intrigued: Why would a woman make such a choice? And what would it be like, day after day, in that small cell? They were the questions that wouldn’t leave me alone, and after living with them for some years, I put pen to paper
Did the villagers view an anchoress as someone they could go to with problems? Apart from her regular visit from a priest for confession? Or were only women allowed to visit an anchoress?
An anchoress was very important for a village or town, and the people considered themselves blessed to have such a holy women in their midst, praying for them each day. The anchoress was allowed only contact with women (and her confessor, as you mention) who came to her for counsel. Because the anchoress was ‘dead to the world’ she was forbidden to look out her window, which was covered with a curtain. However, the ‘Ancrene Wisse’ (Guide for Anchoresses) also warned that she was not to gossip, not to buy and sell, not to function as if her cell was the village post office — and the fact that those kinds of things were mentioned suggests that they did happen in some places. After all, her cell was attached to the church, which was the very centre of the village and its communal life, and the anchoress would always be there.
If she was allowed these visitors, how did she balance the concept of being shut off from the world against being allowed regular visitors and giving advice?
Well, I imagine it varied from woman to woman, and there is certainly a paradox in the rule that she shut off the world, but also engage with it by counselling the women who came to her. In my novel, Sarah initially doesn’t want visitors because she is determined to remain alone with Christ and her prayers. She also feels herself incapable of giving advice, because she is only seventeen. But as the women come with their daily concerns, their worries about crops and food, their exhaustion from working in the fields, as well as their joys and pleasures, Sarah is forced to rethink her role. And even more significantly, she discovers that the women have much to offer to her; she discovers that her prayers and her piety cannot be separated from the material world around her.
How did you prepare yourself for writing Sarah’s character? Did you do anything to experience her isolation?
When I was beginning to research the anchoritic life seriously, I travelled to England and visited some of the few cells that remain. It was very confronting to see how tiny some were — even smaller than seven paces by nine. At Kings Lynn I sat in a cell that has been renovated and is used as a chapel. There was a baptism service occurring at the time, and because the cell was so close to the front of the church, the priest told us (me, my partner and kids) we would have to stay in the cell for twenty minutes. He locked the door. The lights were on and I knew we would soon be leaving, but as I sat there, I wondered what it would be like never to leave, never to see another person. That was when Sarah began to come to life for me.
Ironically, my study has two walls of windows that look out onto the garden, so I went into the cell inside my mind. I imagined: every stone, the dirt floor, the thick curtains, every step and every touch. Writing each day, dwelling in Sarah’s head and heart, I felt the impact of claustrophobia and darkness. It was only when I had finished the novel that I realised how tough it had been to stay there in the narrow darkness. As for the scenes with the previous anchoress and Sarah’s experiences of the horror — I’ve discovered that I have a capacity for writing madness!
Many authors can pinpoint where a character took over the telling of the story. Did your characters take control at any time?
Yes, there was a surprising and wonderful moment with Sarah. I don’t plan my novels more than having a general sense of the shape of the story. So, about two-thirds of the way into the story, Sarah needed to confess a sin to her confessor; this was more significant than most of her other sins, so she would have to admit her failure and accept his censure. However, as I wrote, it all changed. Her confessor was angry and made that clear to her, telling Sarah how badly she had failed. But Sarah became defensive and angry at his words, and he in turn reacted; the argument escalated until Sarah, in her fury, broke one of her most serious rules, pulled aside the curtain and faced her confessor.
I sat back, amazed. That wasn’t what I had imagined but it was absolutely how the scene needed to be written. It was so exciting! I discovered more about Sarah, and in turn the rest of the story was changed.
You have since written Book of Colours, a story of the commissioning of a medieval manuscript, a Book of Hours and the struggles threatening its completion. Of your two novels, which was more fun to write?
Oh, that’s a difficult question. I don’t think The Anchoress was fun. It was hard work, frustrating, enormously challenging, and I was full of doubt every day. But it was a story I really wanted to explore, and writing was the way to do it. So I think I’d use words like ‘satisfying’ and ‘fulfilling’ — and enormously surprising when I found an agent and a publisher.
Book of Colours was more fun but just as much hard work because I knew very little about illuminated manuscripts or medieval London and its politics. But, after writing about the interior of a stone cell, I wanted to spread my arms out, move through the streets, explore different characters — I wanted colour and movement. That was fun. And I especially enjoyed writing the gargoyle, who just turned his head to look at me, climbed down from the cathedral and was determined to have a part in the story. I love those quirky things that happen with writing.
I hear a third novel is in the works. What plans do you have for researching this one? Would you care to give us a hint of its subject?
I’m working on a third novel set in the late thirteenth century. It’s loosely linked, via a psalter that has been burned, with my first two novels. It’s about belonging, loss, faith and prejudice — the little questions!
Robyn Cadwallader will appear on the panel ‘I am a camera – exploring the nuance of point of view’ at HNSA 2019
Catherine T Wilson co-writes with Catherine A Wilson (no relation). Their first book, The Lily and the Lion, was based upon their true-life accidental meeting and resulting friendship. All four book in their ‘Lions and Lilies’ series have won first place prizes in the Chatelaine/Chaucer Awards in the US and last year, The Traitor’s Noose won the Grand Prize Chaucer Award. She can be found online at: www.lionsandlilies.com
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