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Interview: Robyn Cadwallader, novelist

27 February 2015

'Contemplatives are no longer sealed up permanently, as far as I know'

© CHE CHORLEY

I came across anchoresses when I was researching my Ph.D. on the life of St Margaret of Antioch. She was swallowed by a dragon and burst out of its back, proclaiming herself a hero. For this feat, she became the patron saint of women in childbirth, but copies of her life were given to anchoresses for their devotions. I'd never before heard of these women who chose to be sealed away in a cell for the rest of their lives.

I was intrigued and horrified. It seemed an extreme and life-denying kind of spirituality. As I read more, my thinking changed. An extreme life, yes, but options for these women were limited back then. Who was I, in my comfortable 20th-century life, to judge them? So, Sarah began to emerge. 

The Anchoress explores a woman's relationship to her body within a culture that demonises female sexuality and physicality. Sarah chooses enclosure in a cell, an anchorhold attached to a village church. But her attempts to deny her body and her senses only intensify her focus upon them, and the stone walls do not keep out the life that goes on outside. Sarah's search for holiness and purity leads her into strange psychological territory.

I'm interested in the ways that female sexuality has been culturally constructed and controlled - even in our contemporary world. The Ancrene Wisse offers a glimpse of that process in action in the 13th century, with its focus on denying the senses, maintaining custody of the body, and making women ultimately responsible for male desire and violence. Sarah's story is set in its time, but the issues are alive today.

Sex is one of the primary instincts; so it's one of the most powerful means of social control over both men and women. It's drawn into foundational social arrangements such as marriage, property, law, and individual behaviour. The body is often described as the microcosm of society or of the Church; so strictures about the individual body become structures for social order. 

This had a particular impact on women in the Middle Ages. The Early Christian writers described sex as a result of the Fall, and Eve's sin in eating from the forbidden tree. In a dualistic world-view, woman became identified with desire and sin and, because of woman's obvious role in procreation, with the body itself.

Virginity was taught as a way for women to counteract their natural state. When virgins took this teaching to its logical extreme, and demanded that they be given authority and position commensurate with men, because they'd defeated their nature, the ground of the argument shifted - virginity became a state of the heart, mind, and soul, as well as the body. 

The whole concept of virginity functioned to keep women in a subordinate position. Men were told to control their body and defeat their lower instincts, which were identified with the female, whereas, for women, the defeat of the body was a defeat of her fundamental nature. In the end, death was the only guarantee of a woman's possible purity. 

Seclusion and contemplation are still possible, but in different forms now. Religious communities offer the chance to withdraw and be alone, though not permanently sealed up, as far as I know. 

It's interesting that retreats, both short and longer ones, are popular among those who don't belong to a church or even have any interest in religion. Withdrawing from the world, even for a short time, offers clarity and perspective. 

My parents were "ten-pound Poms", who came to Australia in the 1940s, but, like many who travelled so far from home, they found it hard to settle. I spent a childhood moving from Victoria, Australia, to the Midlands in England, and back again: three times in total. 

I've a mixture of childhood memories. We celebrated a white Christmas one year, complete with red robins in the backyard. The next year, it was a baking hot Christmas Day, with a hailstone storm in the afternoon.

I'm now married with four adult children. My husband and I live on four acres among local vineyards in the country outside Canberra, with our two dogs, two alpacas, chooks, and an absolutely wonderful array of bird life.

Australia has always had a strong spirituality among its first peoples, who've been here for for more than 40,000 years. White settlement in Australia is very recent, and different forms of spirituality are emerging in Australia as we begin to shift away from our "mother England" mindset. 

With the growth of multiculturalism, and the presence of so many other religions in Australia, spirituality has been shaken and broadened, and there are some genuine moves to come together in a shared spirituality. 

I'm especially interested in the importance of land to spirituality. In some parts of the Australian Church there's a strong interest in Celtic spirituality. As climate change forces us to face our vulnerability to natural forces like fire, drought, heat, and flood, there's more conversation about our relationship to the land. Then there's the wisdom of the indigenous people, who speak of belonging to the land rather than owning it, and who have such a long and close relationship to it. 

I don't pray for things. I now believe that prayer is essentially a manner of attention rather than a listing of requests or needs. Aware of a sense of need, or wonder, I stop, become still, and become attentive to the "more". 

I write poetry as well as prose, and I've published a collection. I'm interested in taking familiar stories and myths, and giving voice to the marginal character as a way of discovering the cultural structures that create and inform the narratives that we've become so used to that they seem universal. 

I also write a blog about writing, happenings in my life, and my current research on illuminated manuscripts for my second novel.

I love to be outside in the veggie patch, walking with the dogs, exploring the countryside, being by the sea. Gaudí's cathedral in Barcelona, and Antarctica are high on my list of places to go. I'd love to win another writing residency. A Greek island would be lovely, but I'm not fussy. 

And I'd like to learn to paint well. I'll take some classes this year, in part as research for my next novel, but mostly because it's something I've always wanted to do. I'd also like to learn to swim well.

At the moment, my favourite sounds are the birds that live around our place. The cockatoos have a loud, raucous call, and they fly over in flocks or gather in a tree like a streetwise gang on motorbikes or in hotted-up cars. My favourite is the cheeping of the smaller birds: wrens, finches, sparrows. And, most recently, my new granddaughter, Juniper, beginning to laugh. A baby's belly-laugh must be one of the best sounds ever.

I was angry two nights ago, in a short-lived flash, when I let the chooks out to roam in the garden, and found them scratching up the flowers. I'm still angry at the Australian government's horrific treatment of asylum-seekers, who have come asking for shelter and support, but are offered appalling living conditions and no guarantee of being settled anywhere. I'm certainly not alone.

I'm happiest at my desk, when the writing is going well - and, sometimes, even when it's not, but I have a sense it will work eventually. And with my family, gathered around a table or sitting together by our large dam, drinking, eating, and chatting. 

The greatest influences? Two high-school teachers who took time out with me to encourage my writing. The wise woman who listened to me long enough, and with enough discernment, that I could discover a way to heal. The writers who use language with daring like e e cummings, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dylan Thomas. And the enthusiast: my husband, Alan, who loves life, thinks there's never enough time to do everything he wants to do, who loves me and my writing, even when I don't. 

I've always wanted to give St Jerome a piece of my mind about the judgemental and abusive things he wrote about and to women. But five minutes would be enough. I'd love to spend that time with the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, who'd have some wonderful stories to tell and an interesting view on purity and heroism.

Robyn Cadwallader was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. Dr Cadwallader will be writer in residence at Gladstone's Library in September, running a one-day workshop, "Writing the Body", on 27 September, and speaking at Gladfest (4-6 September). The Anchoress is published by Faber at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49).

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