This very short, unusual and rather special book describes the fictitious meeting of two extraordinary medieval women, Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich. The Book of Margery Kempe is the first autobiography in English, a fifteenth-century manuscript found in a country house in 1934 after being lost for centuries, although its existence was known from extracts printed in 1501. Born in 1373, Margery had visions of Christ and was declared a heretic, spending time in prison and risking her life to speak of the spiritual encounters she has daily. It is only when she consults with the anchoress that she gains peace of mind. A married woman with 14 children, Margery is frequently agitated, restless, persistent, misunderstood but, emboldened by Julian who is deeply affected by her visitor’s courage, she resolves to dictate her religious experiences and tell her story.
Dame Julian is better known to the modern reader, if only for her immortal words: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ She too is from a wealthy and well-connected family. Unusually for a woman of her time, she is educated and literate. She loses both father and siblings through plague and later the husband she adores and her only child. After supporting her mother until her death, she feels called to become an ‘anchoress’, or hermit, anchored to Christ by willingly, and after much preparation, undergoing what are essentially her funeral rites, entering a cell, and being walled in. Her insight into the world is through a partial window to the church and through a curtained-off window to the world, where people consult her wisdom but with whom she has no physical contact. An unseen maid provides her with food through a third window. Like Margery, she has experienced 16 ‘shewings’ throughout her life but unlike Margery has never voiced them, instead describing them in her famous writings Revelations of Divine Love, the earliest surviving book written in English by a woman, dating from the turn of the fourteenth century. Very possibly she did smuggle them out to Margery when the latter visited her in 1413, and certainly they were preserved by nuns, and copies of them remain. During her 23 years of voluntary imprisonment, Julian’s physical vision may be restricted but she sees widely, and the writer really captures the power of her senses in her beautiful use of language.
This is a bold book. The writer switches continually and simply from the voice of one woman to the other and you feel you enter into their thinking. Although much of their spiritual wrestling might be lost on a reader who shares no interest in essentially Roman Catholic theology, one has a very strong sense of their personalities and their fervour, and I defy anyone to remain unmoved. It is a book to be long remembered.
I greatly enjoyed the author’s sensitive handling of these women’s lives and recalled a visit I made to an anchoress’s cell in Chester-le-Street and Dame Julian’s shrine in Norwich. Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour on the Bank Holiday devoted almost a whole programme to the power of inspirational words in tough times and Julian’s life featured strongly: her words to live by in the face of terrible suffering, when she challenged the ideas of the time about sin and suffering with a radical vision of love and hope. And anyone who watched the Coronation Service may recall the screen drawn around the King at his anointing which had Julian of Norwich’s words embroidered on it. She remains a remarkable woman, and this is a remarkable debut novel.
[We have a copy of For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain in the library]