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
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
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
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
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