Look around you for a moment. How big is the room you are in? Imagine it smaller. Men come to wall up the door, while you stand, quiescent, inside. They leave only a tiny window through which all communication will take place and through which your food will be passed.
You will now stay in this room until the day you die, and they will bury you beneath its floor and then topple the walls over you.
The term mystic conjures up mediaeval portraits of female saints and others (generally painted by a bloke, and often a priestly bloke at that). These unfortunate women are generally depicted wearing flimsy, floaty garments, with arms extended upwards, eyes rolling heavenwards in the throes of orgiastic torment.
This very different portrait of two real mystics has been created by a woman, the Fife-based author Victoria MacKenzie. Her book has made two real mediaeval women of whose existence I had been aware, but whose own writings I had not read (beyond the famous …and all manner of things shall be well quotation from Julian of Norwich) relatable and human. All female human life is here: love, marriage, childbirth, loss, grief and Divine solace sought in different ways by very different women.
I enjoyed MacKenzie’s light touch in this work. No eye-rolling here. She allows the original texts to speak within her fiction, holds back from over-explanatory descriptions of the women’s lives, and therefore the reader’s imagination is permitted to follow its own meandering path to a personal conclusion.
I particularly loved the way in which the author describes Julian’s attitude towards entrusting her precious, forbidden book to her maid and gatekeeper Sara simply as a thought which frightens her. I am left to deduce for myself that Sara could easily be in the pay of the bishop for information on any transgression Julian might risk. Illiterate, Sara might also risk ripping up the manuscript and selling fragments as relics for personal gain (she would almost certainly have creamed a tip of some kind off travellers who came for an audience with the anchoress, for that was how the Middle Ages worked).
Julian may be an anchoress confined to a cell for two long decades, but she is no fool.
Likewise, Victoria holds back from telling us why strange, stubborn Margery chooses (or is chosen for?) her own harsh path. Various possibilities – trauma from childbirth, revulsion at sex, a desire to show what she can do as a woman in a male-dominated world – are set out on the table before us, but we are not forced to dine from any particular dish. Such restrained writing is very rare these days.
I had not realised that becoming an anchoress meant being walled up in a cell for life. The unfathomable horror of this voluntary emprisonment, the trials of adjusting to the confinement, and also the eventual advantages of contemplative isolation, are clearly and honestly presented here.
In the end Julian comes to understand her own smallness in the face of God through her confinement and takes comfort from it. Her remarkable journey of faith made me reflect on the way in which many of us are withdrawing from the world through sheer disillusionment: I no longer attend church regularly, no longer buy a paper, no longer listen to the news; I try to live a small life and focus on my family, my writing, my home and garden. The world out there is too flawed and frightening a place for me and for many others at present. And yet as Julian and Margery’s lives show, we cannot escape the place and time in which we dwell altogether, wherever we may hide.
Margery also appears to have died a natural death around 1438. Quite how she avoided being burned for heresy I do not know, but this remarkable read makes me want to find out more about both Margery and Julian.
For Thy Great Pain will be one of the most discussed literary fiction releases of 2023 and is an ideal book group read. Highly recommended. Preorder your copy via this link 👇
Vee Walker is an award-winning author and editor based in the Scottish Highlands. She has no affiliation with Bloomsbury publishing and this is an entirely independent review.