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For thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria Mackenzie; I, Julian: The fictional autobiography by Claire Gilbert

06 April 2023

Lavinia Byrne on ‘lives’ of Julian of Norwich

TWO books that constellate around the life and writings of Julian of Norwich. Both are written in the first person and offer an autobiographical account. Both have captured the voice of Julian in such an authentic way that their text could easily be transferred directly to the stage. Both demand performance.

So, what makes each distinctive? Victoria Mackenzie is a prizewinning writer and this is her first novel. She hails from Scotland and lives in Fife. Her novel takes as its basic story a supposed encounter between Julian and Margery Kempe. Two mystics are drawn together by their shared experience but, whereas Julian has written down an account of her “Shewings”, Kempe is illiterate. Cleverly, the plot line hinges on what happens to Julian’s manuscript. As a backdrop, the world of medieval Norwich is evoked with a sure touch, as is the little day-by-day world of life as an anchoress.

There is drama in Claire Gilbert’s account, too. She is Director of the Westminster Abbey Institute, and includes ethics and politics, ecology and medicine among her interests. Her novel’s appeal comes from the care with which she places her story in its historical context; for hers is an altogether more ambitious project. Along with the autobiographical voice that she has found for Julian, we have a timeline, with dated sections steering the reader through the dark historical backdrop to the narrative.

Dramatic interest comes from Julian’s interpretation of the scraps of information that come through the window to her anchorhold. She passes judgement and has opinions. How troubling, then, that the Church also must come under scrutiny. Holy Mother Church can be less than a mother in its dealings, especially with stray mystics. Gilbert’s Julian makes an intellectual leap. She interrogates the Church, too, from the comparative safety of her cell and sets up a dialogue between her mystical and her lived experience.

A caveat: engaging as both books are, I found the ease with which both recount the fact of the Shewings to be underwhelming. Where is the terror, the sense of awe, the sheer trepidation with which Julian was catapulted into the extraordinary realm of mysticism which she came to inhabit?

As a category, spiritual autobiography lends itself well to this kind of literary adventuring, and both these books make promising additions to an interesting genre. Lives of the saints come alive with a first-person narrative; roll on the stage performances.

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.


For thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain
Victoria Mackenzie
Bloomsbury £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.49

I, Julian: The fictional autobiography
Claire Gilbert
Hodder & Stoughton £18.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £15.99


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