Sarah is just 17 when she chooses to become an anchoress, a holy woman shut away in a cell that measures only seven by nine paces, at the side of the village church. Fleeing the grief of losing a much-loved sister in childbirth as well as pressure to marry the local lord’s son, she decides to renounce the world – with all its dangers, desires, and temptations – and commit herself to a life of prayer.
The description above of The Anchoress sounds wildly interesting doesn’t it? I found it so very interesting to read of these women that have chosen to live out their lives in a tiny cell, giving their life to God, following a book of Rules and “anchoring” themselves to the Church. More about the Anchoresses can be found in this link here.
Then, I saw that Audiobook Jukebox was offering the audiobook from Blackstone Audio, and that Mary Jane Wells was narrating the part for Sarah. I’ve always tremendously enjoyed Mary Jane Wells’ narration, so it was a no-brainer to request this audiobook. It is also narrated by Steve West, he is narrating the parts of Father Renaulf.
The Anchoress does switch between telling the story from Sarah’s perspective and Father Renaulf’s. I enjoyed this dual perspective, perhaps enjoying Sarah’s more – either because of Mary Jane’s narration, or just the parts of the story she shares were more appealing or interesting to me?
Sarah has known that she wished to devote her life to God for many years, but when her beloved sister passes away due to childbirth, it only confirms her desire to shut herself away from the world. Sarah also wishes to lock herself away so that she can renounce the attentions of Sir Thomas, the lord’s son that has great designs on Sarah. In becoming an anchoress, Sarah is hoping to live her life in complete solitude, devoting herself only to God.
The description of how she is anchored to the church, or the ceremony surrounding how she is anchored, by the nailing of the doors to the anchor hold shut in the manner similar in how Jesus was nailed to the cross, and the description of the cell itself were incredibly interesting. Sarah is provided two maids to bring her food, take away her waste and in turn she is to read to them and help them lead a pious life along with her.
However, the life of an anchoress does not bring about the life of solitude in the way in which Sarah is genuinely seeking. There is great curiosity in the village about the anchoress and Sarah receives many (unwanted) visitors wishing to speak to her. She is after all the holy woman, the most devout, she is considered to be an angel and is there to pray for the people, the crops, the animals in the village. Over time she learns to become a pair of ears, or an advisor to the women in the village (men are not to be anywhere near the anchoress, outside of the religious men) and to one certain precocious child, Ellie (Eleanor) who comes often to sit and speak with Sarah. There is also part of a story of one woman that comes seeking council of Sarah of what to do about her excessively abusive husband. Unfortunately for this woman, it is a time period where no matter what, it will remain her fault and she must pray and confess her sins. (This was another very interesting aspect to this story.)
The Anchoress is a story about Sarah in particular. We listen to of her personal struggles first with why she chose to be an anchoress, and as to what her days are like fulfilling this duty, what the expectations are that she sets upon herself as anchoress and how the grind of daily life living in a tiny cell are taking on Sarah’s health, body and mind. It is a very engaging read. There are times when it veers towards the predictable, but the interesting details and the stories of others in the village help to round everything out to maintain your interest.
Father Renaulf is her confessor. He is the priest that must visit weekly to hear Sarah’s confession. He is not very pleased to have been given this task, as he would rather spend his days fulfilling his duties as a scribe in the scriptorium. Over time, they begin to develop somewhat of a relationship, (it is filled with unease in the beginning) and in the end, it is Father Renaulf that helps Sarah to continue to fulfill her life as an anchoress, but one that also allows her to sit in a walled garden so that she may enjoy the daylight, sunlight, gardening, etc. He always held great concern for her health and well-being should she continue to lead such a closed off life in such a small cell.
It is Sarah’s wish in the end to continue to live life as the anchoress, despite the numerous challenges she faced. With the help and growing respect of Father Renaulf, she gains some improved existence with a walled garden by her cell and she plans for this continued way of life she has chosen, a life serving God through prayer.
Steve Wells’ narration was also very good – he spoke with a deep, assured voice and hearing him voice the words and thoughts of Father Renaulf added to the enjoyment of this story. A very interesting one for certain. It is more of a “relationship” tale however than it is an historical narration of anchoresses and medieval times, but it was one I quite enjoyed. Cadwallader created more of a personal story with Sarah that touched upon or wove into the story, aspects of the lives of anchoresses.