666 ABC’s Genevieve Jacobs talks with author Robyn Cadwallader about her passion for the medieval era and her debut novel, The Anchoress.
Set in England in the year AD 1255, The Anchoress tells the story of 17-year-old Sarah, who chooses to become a holy woman shut away in a tiny cell at the side of the village church. So begins an absorbing story of faith, desire, shame, fear and the deep human need for connection and touch.
In association with HarperCollins
The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader
10 June 2015
National Library of Australia
Speaker/s: Kathryn Favelle, Director Community Outreach, National Library of Australia; Genevieve Jacobs, ABC and Robyn Cadwallader, author
Kathryn Favelle: Good evening. It’s lovely to see a room full of smiling faces and you’ve all come wearing coats and warm jumpers which is great too because it is a bit chilly up here, I'm thinking. My name is Kathryn Favelle, I look after the Community Outreach Branch of the National Library and hosting events like this is one of the perks of my job. As we begin this evening I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this wonderful land that we’re now privileged to call home and that we’re now privileged to work on.
I'm very delighted that you’ve joined us this evening to hear Robyn Cadwallader discuss her debut novel, The Anchoress, with a good friend of the Library’s, Genevieve Jacobs. Way back in January I received a phone call from Biff Ward who happens to be sitting in the front row tonight and Bif asked me two questions, she said, Kathryn, do you know Robyn Cadwallader and I replied no. She said have you heard about her new novel, The Anchoress? And I embarrassingly had to say no. I’m very glad, though, that Biff phoned me and told me that we needed to get in touch with Robyn and we needed to host an event tonight. Because I think The Anchoress is a marvellous book and if you haven’t read it I hope that by the end of this evening you’ll be racing downstairs to read it too and I hope you’ll all agree with me.
What Biff didn’t know, though, when she called was that I was at that time, just at that moment alert to all things medieval. We’d found out that we were going to be hosting the incredible Rothschild Prayer Book and that it was arriving in May and we had to have some wonderfully medieval events programs to go along with it and I really didn’t think we’d want to be dressing up and doing jousting on the lawns as just happened across the way on the weekend. So it was a very timely phone call and if you haven't seen the Prayer Book it’s on display in our Treasures Gallery with some of the Library’s medieval treasures including my favourite which is a tiny, tiny little piece of parchment from the 10th century that also happens to be the oldest item in the Library’s collections.
It’s great tonight to be celebrating a new Australian novel that’s already achieving international success, The Anchoress has just been published in the US and it’s had an extraordinary journey to publication which I hope we’ll hear more about tonight. It’s Robyn’s first novel but she’s published numerous poems, prizewinning short stories, reviews and a nonfiction book based on her PhD thesis concerning attitudes to virginity and female agency in the Middle Ages. You could see she was laying the groundwork for this novel. Robyn’s lectured in English literature at Flinders University, teaching a range of topics but specialising in medieval literature and creative writing and she now lives just across the border in Murrumbateman so we can claim her as one of our own. Robyn will be in conversation tonight with Genevieve Jacobs and I know you will all know Genevieve’s voice, she shares the stories of our region every morning on Triple 6 ABC and it’s always a pleasure to welcome her to the Library too. So please join me in welcoming Robyn and Genevieve.
Genevieve Jacobs: And ladies and gentlemen, hello and good evening. I’m very delighted to be here too, I was absolutely thrilled to receive the request from the National Library to host this discussion on The Anchoress. In some ways I suppose the action in this novel, if indeed we do call it action, takes place a long way from here but perhaps in another sense not so much. The novel features Sarah, a teenage girl, the daughter of a prosperous medieval cloth merchant who’s lost both her mother and her sister and decides with a genuine calling to become an enclosed religious, an anchoress, someone who is nailed into her cell, able to speak only to her confessor and with women from her village who seek her counsel and prayer. But you’ll note that on the front cover of the book there is a swallow and that has a number of echoes and illusions through the book because Sarah’s spirit can soar and plunge like the swallow’s does, it can fly into joy, into despair and among other things The Anchoress reminds us that medieval people sought the ecstasy as well as the purity of union with the divine, it was something that was fundamental to their lives, a search for those who devoted themselves to it, this unmediated union with the God head. Something that we find extraordinary difficult to grapple with today, something that’s very foreign to our 20th century ... 21st century western culture. As you’ll hear the novel’s also the result of many years of fascination and research but The Anchoress is far from a simple historical novel, it’s a novel of the heart as well as the mind. Robyn, welcome, lovely to have you with me.
Robyn Cadwallader: Thank you, good evening.
Genevieve Jacobs: Let’s talk about this idea of an anchoress which does seem as far removed from us as the moon. Tell me about how you came across this notion yourself and what it means.
Robyn Cadwallader: Well I ... I was actually researching my PhD which was the story of St Margaret of Antioch who gets a .. has a cameo in the novel and I was ... actually what I was doing was researching dragons and looking at the relationship between the dragon and the hero and when I came across this woman who burst out the back of a dragon ... she was swallowed by the dragon, burst out his back and proclaimed herself a hero, I thought yeah, this is what I want to talk about, this is what I want to read about so I read more about St Margaret and that was the focus of my PhD. But along the way I –discovered that the story of St Margaret was written down and bound in a book of stories and devotions for these women called anchoresses and I had never heard of an anchoress so I investigated and I found out that they were women who chose to be enclosed as Genevieve said, chose to be enclosed in a small cell, usually adjoining a village church and to stay there permanently so they would ... they would commit to stay there for the rest of their lives. And I ... my first reaction was oh this is ... this is really awful, this is a really unhealthy thing to do. Who would deny themselves so much? And I read more and read more, I was really fascinated with what would motivate these women?
And the more I read the more I recognised the cultural setting they were in, the kinds of beliefs they had and I began to realise that it’s actually a very ... actually an arrogant thing to just decide that from ... from my 21st century point of view that ... to decide that it was wrong for them to do that so I read some more, thought some more and that’s where I began to understand and to ... to try to get into the mind of one of these women and what she would be, what her aims would be, what her motivations would be and being there in the first place and what choices she had in her life. And from there I moved into ... I was interested in what would the experience be, four walls, tiny windows with curtains on, the door nailed shut, no real light apart from from a lamp and a very small window covered in horn, very limited sensory situation. What would that experience be for her? And that’s where it all came about, yeah.
Genevieve Jacobs: I mean it’s an interesting word, isn’t it? Because there’s the literal meaning of being an anchoress but I also thought about the idea of a life of contemplative prayer being an anchor, a still centre and that’s something that underlies millennia of practice in many religious traditions ...
Robyn Cadwallader: Yes.
Genevieve Jacobs: ... and you know in fact we were just saying a moment ago before we came on stage there are enclosed Carmelite nuns in Red Hill, this is a tradition that endures in a slightly different form but nonetheless it’s grounded in religious practice.
Robyn Cadwallader: Yes, oh yes and it’s you know it is a very clear commitment to ... to deny the world, to enable ... enable the anchoress or the anchorite ... there were men as well ... but to enable the anchoress to be focused on God alone and to you know let go of the distractions and the demands of the world outside, to be you know totally committed to God. So it’s a ... yeah, it’s ... and for Sarah in the novel that’s a very real ...
Genevieve Jacobs: It’s a real calling, it’s something that she quite genuinely wants to do although, Robyn, I was immediately struck reading the book by the fact that this is in fact really quite a sociable world. In fact there are a lot more people in the anchoress’ world than one might imagine so explain to me how her life worked and who saw her and dealt with her.
Robyn Cadwallader: Well she had two maids ... the ... I should say the situation that I describe in the novel is based on a document called the Anchronawisa??? which is the rule of life that was provided for anchoress and it is ... you can ac ... you can buy it in a translation and it is the size of a novel so it’s a substantial piece of writing and it ... it describes ... tells women how they should behave, guidelines for how they should live their lives but it also describes the anchor hold itself and so everything that’s in the novel is gleaned from there. And the anchoress has two maids who look after her ... her needs, her food and you know cooking, cleaning but the maids stay outside, they have a little cell next to the anchoress and she has a confessor who comes to visit her once a week hopefully and women in the village would come to visit and in the novel there’s a few other people who drop in as well without necessarily being invited. So she has ... but she does have ... because one of her duties is to counsel people she has quite a few women who come regularly to seek counsel or to just ask her to pray for them and ... and I think it’s interesting that the choices of these women, the kinds of ... the questions that they ask and the needs that they have are not necessarily a narrow view of what counsel would be. And Sarah has to discover a little bit about the kind of ... the realities of village life and how she can meet the needs of those women.
Genevieve Jacobs: In fact she’s called upon to give counsel in a number of situations which as a 17 year old who’s chosen to enclose herself, you find it really difficult to understand how she could possibly do that but that ... that’s the nature of the religious life.
Robyn Cadwallader: Yes.
Genevieve Jacobs: It was also interesting, Robyn, that the intention wasn’t for her to waste herself away, there are numbers of kind people who want to make sure that she has enough to eat and that she’s warm and that she’s dry and that she’s healthy enough for example to menstruate, that she’s not starving herself.
Robyn Cadwallader: Yes.
Genevieve Jacobs: It’s not about expecting her to be enclosed in a way that is absolutely grim by its very nature. People actually want her to be well and engaged.
Robyn Cadwallader: Yeah, that’s an interesting one, they do ...
Genevieve Jacobs: She doesn’t necessarily want herself to be well and engaged at all times.
Robyn Cadwallader: No and the rule doesn’t always want that, it’s ... this is ... I think this is where there’s quite a tension. To read the Anchoranawisa on one hand is very concerned about dear sister, this is ... dear sisters, this is you know how you should live and you must you know take care of yourself, don’t ... a couple of times it says you know you need to live according to the way that you can manage. So it is concerned for her ... for the health of the anchoress. At the same time it’s really very negative about the female body in particular, that ... bodies in general but the female body in particular and that was the theological thinking of the time, that women were very bodily and more inclined to sin so the way for the anchoress to be ... become pure and get closer to God was to deny their bodiliness and you know there are some very tough passages about how horrible the body is, about you know how the you know the ... that you shouldn’t eat too much or eat rich food because it’s close to the sexual organs which are the sinful organs you know things like that, things about the face and the nose described as a ... toilet holes, things like that so there ... it’s ... there’s a real tension going on in the Anchoranawisa about yes, wanting women to take care of themselves at the same time as saying you have to get that body under control and it’s you know you’re stuck with this body which is not a ... not ... it will prevent you going to God unless you ... getting to God unless you really subdue it so ...
Genevieve Jacobs: And it’s such an interesting process because Sarah at one stage is very tempted by the notion ... one of her predecessors lived on holy communion alone and the women who take care of her are quite worried about that. There’s a wise woman from the village, a healing woman from the village who says you know it’s ... it’s really important that you have your flower, sister, that you bleed, it’s important that your body works and there’s a great tension for Sarah who’s still very young between pursuing this holy ideal and the wise grounded women who are coming to her for counsel but yet in many ways counselling her herself.
Robyn Cadwallader: That’s right and I think for those women too, that it’s interesting because they’re you know one of her maids is very impressed with the anchoress who ... who didn’t bleed and who didn’t need to eat and who had subdued her body so much and so there is that idea of holiness but ... but because it’s such a time of physical ... it’s a very physical time, I think we don’t kind of recognise how close to bodies and you know sickness and death, lack of privacy, I think so much in the middle ages was .. was physically ... just physically present all the time. So that you know that tension goes along all the time for Sarah, about denying the body and yet there is the body. There you know she’s you know it’s very real for her.
Genevieve Jacobs: And as you thought about this and this notion of physical mortification too it must have occurred to you that a number of the so-called models of holiness actually represent mental imbalance at least in modern eyes and what we’re describing there effectively is anorexia, certainly we’re looking at obsessive and compulsive behaviour so the line between madness and holiness in that locked cell could be a very fine one.
Robyn Cadwallader: Oh yes, yes. Absolutely and for Sarah it’s the ... it’s the real longing to ... well for Sarah it’s a mixture actually, it’s a longing to be ... to deny her body that it will bring her closer to God but she’s also ... there’s a kind of ... she wants to be, she wants to prove herself as a holy woman as well and this is something that she has to come to terms with, that ... that it’s ... it’s not actually a marathon you know it’s not who can deny themselves the most and that’s a you know that’s a thing that she has to work through that she never entirely resolves and I suspect that that is ... I mean that’s the case for all of us in all sorts of ways, isn’t it? We ... we ... we commit ourselves to something but we have to learn our limits and our vulnerability and our humanity as well and that’s really very much at the heart of Sarah’s struggle.
Genevieve Jacobs: And of course in the midst of this struggle to understand her own identity and who she can be as a holy woman and anchoress, in the broader picture she’s a spiritual chattel effectively, she’s like a fine prayer book, she’s a prudent insurance policy for her patron. I mean that’s her role really in the larger society, isn’t it?
Robyn Cadwallader: Yes, yes. Oh yes, that ... because prayers were you know they had almost tradeable value in tho ... at just around this time people could buy pardons so you could pay money to a pardoner and he would you know absolve you of your sins so even though there was this ... a kind of ... a theology that you know Jesus died for everybody’s sins, it just gradually shifted into a ... much more of an economic transaction. And so for the lord who becomes her patron you know he wants to ensure that he can go to ... get to heaven and so if you can have someone praying for you every day that kind of builds up your you know builds up your stocks in heaven in a way so it does ... that kind of ... well it is an economy and ... in which he buys his health insurance or his life insurance, really.
Genevieve Jacobs: And it’s not giving anything away to say that really at the very beginning of the book, her patron, the man who is responsible for looking after her but for whom she is this chattel, this possession, he dies very early in the peace and that creates real tension for her because she has no control outwardly over any portion of her own life.
Robyn Cadwallader: No, that’s right. Yes, yes, once ... she becomes ... and she speaks in terms of realising that she is kind of a property of him and then of his son, that she ... the care for her is transferred from the father to the son and she says along with his sheep and his peasants and his ... his land, there’s me, it all gets transferred for her so she’s ... yeah, she ... she’s transferred from one to the other ...
Genevieve Jacobs: It’s just so extraordinary, isn’t it, Robyn because women outside of course are tradeable commodities, women inside are tradeable commodities so you know a woman, she’s either temptation embodied, she’s a possessions to beget heirs, she’s the custodian of her virgin sanctity, her body is just never her own ...
Robyn Cadwallader: That’s right.
Genevieve Jacobs: ... in that broader sense.
Robyn Cadwallader: Well yes and even at that ... when she’s enclosed ... before she is enclosed the bishop talks to her about the importance of remaining, that she must ... she commits herself and she must remain and that the reason that she is enclosed in this cell is because virginity is the highest order for women. Women were ... they had gradations of holiness and virgins were the highest then widows then married women and so that the best you could be was a virgin but it was emphasised that because women were lustful and naturally kind of drawn to men that was simply how they were, women were ... I mean the medical description was that women were cool and moist and men were hot and dry and women were drawn to the male heat and dryness, that was a sort of ... just the physical nature of women. So you know she’s ... she’s already you know inferior to men and when she’s ... then when she’s ... wants to remain a virgin, she’s always under threat, always, always under threat from herself and from men. And the way to be certain about maintaining her virginity ... there’s two ways, one is to go into an anchor hold and effectively the only certain virgin is a dead virgin because otherwise you are always in danger of losing your virginity. So the cell becomes her ... an enclosure for her body and that’s how the bishop speaks of her, as her enclosure you know it will protect her from the world and from men.
Genevieve Jacobs: That’s ... well the idea of both a tomb and a womb, isn’t it?
Robyn Cadwallader: Yes, that’s right.
Genevieve Jacobs: It’s all within that one tiny space and as she paces its limits and that leads me perhaps to ask you about this whole idea of the senses which are tremendously important in this novel because of course Sarah is living in a world in which the senses are at the finest possible pitch. The sounds that she hears outside create the image of the village for her, the ... every sense is attuned to gleaning what information she can because she is in that limited way. Tell me about writing that.
Robyn Cadwallader: Yes. Well I did spend just a lot of time thinking and imagining and I know every little space in that cell. It’s only seven paces by nine so there’s not a lot to have to know but I know ... I just know it so well and I know where she is at every ... every moment. And I spend a lot of time just imagining what it would be like to have no sight and it’s quite ironic ‘cause the room that I stu ... where I do my work has glass windows on two sides so it’s actually very open to the world so I really had no outward sense of that darkness, I had to ... I just imagined my way into it and ... and I spent a lot of time really sitting imagining if you can’t see what happens? You hear and you don’t simply hear the normal things, you he ... you gradually become attuned to the tiny things you know the ... and become attuned to recognising the difference between different sounds.
You know they say that often sight-impaired people tune pianos because their sense of sound is so much ... so much more heightened and so I went with that idea, that she would hear more but that she would also be very ... she’d be very conscious of smells and you know and a village is likely to be really full of smells and ... plus her own cell itself although I imagine she ... that becomes part of the furniture, you just you know you live in a smell and actually you know there are times when she does sort of begin to recognise that there is smell around in her cell. And ... and touch ... because she is there by herself and she’s ... that’s all she has, the stones you know the straw, the blankets, whatever curtain, whatever she has, there’s no way for that to be dispersed and you know and her to be unaware of it because it’s ... it’s all she has essentially so her senses are ... are heightened and I ... yeah, it was all ... it was all imagining and staying with ... whatever she did, staying with it ... with bodily experiences of heat and cold and fear, anger, whatever sh ... whatever emotions she felt. I imagine she would feel that more strongly because she was ... because there was nothing else to allow it to just be you know dispersed and lost so it would all be present to her.
Genevieve Jacobs: And that intensity of feeling in a sense becomes quite an important part of Sarah’s journey because she sees the world as Blake says in a grain of sand ...
Robyn Cadwallader: Of sand, yes.
Genevieve Jacobs: ... and she comes to realise that life is an embodiment of the love of God rather than a barrier to knowing the love of God, that is the nature of the journey through the book.
Robyn Cadwallader: Yes. Yes and there’s ... for women and particularly for medieval women who became mystics, I had read quite a bit about them in my ... for doing my thesis and I was really interested in their ... that because they were told they were bodily ... they were body, men were mind, women were kind of restricted by their bodies, those women rather than just saying oh well you know we have no access to God, said if God made us body then that is our way to God and they took on that ... that very bodiliness as their experience of God so a lot of mystics had very physical, often erotic experiences of ... in prayer wh ... you know and they ... they saw that as what was given to them in order to experience God so my sense for Sarah too is that while she ... she doesn’t come to ... she doesn’t theologise it that way what she in the cell is herself and her body and that’s .. that becomes her way of experiencing God and recognising upon ... on ... above her altar there’s a crucifix. Christ is a body, Christ is not you know some ... just some spirit, that .. that what she sees and what she has committed herself to is to hang on the cross with Christ and suffer and that’s a bodily experience.
Genevieve Jacobs: Storytelling’s also very important, it’s a very particular significance in this world. The written word is a very precious gift and there are a couple of documents which are extremely important to Sarah but also her capacity to tell stories to her maids, to little Eleanor in the village and perhaps you could talk about the significance of that.
Robyn Cadwallader: Yes. Sarah ... Sarah’s given ... when she goes in she has devotions and her rule of life but she’s given along the way a ... the story of St Margaret to read and she says something like I had devotions and I had teaching about God but I didn't have a story where people lost things and discovered things and found new things and I you know it’s a very ... it seems to me such a very human, very strong impetus towards hearing the stories of other people and ... and going with that story and that’s ... for her she has the book but then she has the story and she tells her maids and she reads the story but as she reads the story she tells it in her own words because it’s such a ... such a strong and real experience for her. And she ... the maids want to hear it and the ... there’s a little girl in the village who wants to hear it and those ... that idea of storytelling becomes crucial, that even her confessor has to learn that there’s more than theology, there’s more than laws, that stories matter and stories aren’t simply fantasy stories, give us life in you know in another way, in a much more embodied way and ... and people engage so much more directly you know and in many ways that’s perhaps what historical fiction does, is that there’s history and then there’s the fiction that tells the history but we go to it because we ... we love the story, yeah.
Genevieve Jacobs: There’s a gorgeous interaction with Eleanor who’s a little girl from the village and Sarah begins to teach her using her hand how to spell, what the letters are ...
Robyn Cadwallader: Letters, yes.
Genevieve Jacobs: ... and there’s a real sense of sort of secrecy and privacy around this, we better keep this quiet ...
Robyn Cadwallader: Eleanor, yes.
Genevieve Jacobs: ... don’t tell your mother that I’m teaching you how to spell ...
Robyn Cadwallader: Teaching you letters, yes.
Genevieve Jacobs: .. teaching you letters and again that just reflects, doesn’t it, on the role of women, that ... the privilege of the written word, the idea of class and hierarchy and gender, that it could be a secret, tempting, dangerous thing to do in some ways to share with the little girl the knowledge of how to spell her own name.
Robyn Cadwallader: Yes well she’s ... she’s told she’s not allowed to teach village children so that’s one of her thoughts but she ... she says how can I have words and not answer the questions of this little girl who says you know what ... are they words, you know? Is my name there? Is ... are my letters there? You know which is my letter? You know she ... she’s so excited about discovering the ... that the word she says for her name can be put down in these shapes and ... and Sarah knows she’s prob ... she’s disobeying what she should do and probably you know it would upset people in the village to know because it would disrupt ... disrupt things where village people don’t know how to read but ... but it’s such a ... such a strong you know Eleanor is so drawn to it and learns straight away, really, knows the letters, comes back, wants to learn more. And yeah and she says ... Sarah says why should I have words and not Eleanor? Even if she can’t do anything with them it makes more of her world to know.
Genevieve Jacobs: Robyn, in some senses this could quite easily have been a book about adventure in this unlikely setting, I mean it’s conceivable that you know someone who is trapped or could escape, you could have made this more melodramatic without giving away the ending than it is and I wondered whether there was a sort of a temptation to make it more thrilling in an adventure-driven sense because one ... well one ... that’s often the fate of historical fiction, isn’t it?
Robyn Cadwallader: Oh yeah, oh yes, yeah.
Genevieve Jacobs: And there is ... the possibility of that exists within the book, there are tensions outside the cell, there is lust, there is property, there is possession, there is drama that happens and you could have gone with that.
Robyn Cadwallader: I could have.
Genevieve Jacobs: Why didn’t you?
Robyn Cadwallader: Yes. I ...
Genevieve Jacobs: I'm very glad she didn’t, read her book without going in that direction.
Robyn Cadwallader: I was never ... I was never tempted ... I was ... I was a little concerned when I ... to be honest .. when I began that I really wanted to write this novel and I really wanted to explore the experience of this woman and ... but there was a question in my mind about what will happen, you can’t just have her praying and reading and thinking, things have to happen and I ... when I began I didn’t know what would happen so I had a couple of thoughts. I knew she had maids, I knew she had a confessor so I knew there would be interactions and something may come from that.
And then I ... I just read you know wrote on and gradually you know as a friend said to me well don’t they say all plots start with character? You know you’ve got the people so ... and I did allow the interactions from the characters to find their way and you know I’ve read ... I can’t ... I actually don’t know who the writer is but it’s a very familiar thing that writers say is that sometimes writing is like being you know driving an old VW down a country lane where there are no lights and your headlights you know VW headlights are notoriously bad, all you can see is kind of a few feet in front of you and you have to drive those few feet in order to find out what’s in the next few feet and that’s how it was. But I ... because I was so committed to Sarah’s ... Sarah’s ex ... authentic experience, I didn’t ever ... I was never tempted that the plot you know making a plot and making action would ... would take me away from her ... the authenticity of her experience so I suppose it was staying with Sarah and what it really would be like just took away the temptation to ... to have you know knights in shining armour or whatever.
Genevieve Jacobs: Well we won’t give anything away.
Robyn Cadwallader: No, no.
Genevieve Jacobs: But I think we can say that nobody gallops away on a white stallion under a storm tossed sky, that doesn’t happen at any point.
Robyn Cadwallader: That’s true. No, no, none of those.
Genevieve Jacobs: And you’ll probably be glad at the end that that doesn’t happen in fact. Robyn, I’ve seen from reading your Twitter stream that you describe yourself as an introvert so it’s probably a terrible thing for me to say that to you ...
Robyn Cadwallader: No, no, I am an introvert, yes.
Genevieve Jacobs: ... but like you in some senses I can see the appeal of this life of this sense of retreat and enclosure and you know I’m too a person who likes to sometimes draw the stone across and I just wonder what the parallels are with writing as a vocation for you with Sarah’s life.
Robyn Cadwallader: Well yes I do think that for me writing this novel particularly there was so much about the solitariness of it, the need to sit alone and still and simply be there with it. And a bit of that experience of not knowing what’s going on you know in the next few feet, that’s ... that’s very much a kind ... that force ... at least forces me ... I know different writers do it differently but it forces me to ... to stay focused and stay in the experience so yeah, every now and then I think for a bit of health it’s you know and a bit of mental health it’s important to get out of that space but I find I fall into that enclosed life of my desk quite happily.
Genevieve Jacobs: Quite ... I know ... I do know absolutely what you mean. Tell me about the process of bringing this book to this state, to publication because it’s been quite a long journey, hasn’t it?
Robyn Cadwallader: It has. Well ... well I began it ... because I ... I think I graduated with my PhD in 2002, something like that, 2002 s ... and I had already thought about you know been thinking about when I was doing all that research and actually finding this academic argument really difficult to ... because I felt it so constraining and I wanted to do something else and I realised that actually what I wanted to do was write a novel and I kept thinking about this story so ... and I wrote a few things and then thought oh look, this is impossible, you can’t do it, it’s just a woman in a cell, too hard. And I wrote bits, left it, came back to it and then it was only .. it was about what, six years ago that I ... we moved to Murrumbateman and I had the time and the space to start to write and so she’d been th ... Sarah had been in my head for a long time and I ... I spent about three years working on it and got it to a point where I thought this is about the best I can do now you know without any other help so I sent it off and .. to various publishers, didn’t get any response so I took a deep breath and tried for an agent, found an agent very quickly and then ... then the hard work started. She said right, revisions and so I did revisions and she said yeah, okay, more revisions so I did more revisions and that was about pace so ... all about pace, got to get it moving so I had set ...
Genevieve Jacobs: Get it moving? You’re writing about a woman nailed to a cell in medieval England, get it moving.
Robyn Cadwallader: That’s what I said, that’s what I said but I did have Sarah slowly getting used to it and not much happened, she just got used to a few people and mo ... but I ... and I felt it was galloping, I know some people ... some people say it’s slow at the beginning and I think oh you know well I felt a bit breathless you know when I changed the pace so ... and then ... yeah and then I ... my husband and I were in England, I had just sent off the final manuscript and ... to my agents and they said that ... that they would get it prepared and send off their blurbs to publishers and ... and then I got a phone call saying the editor at Faber would like you to drop in. And I ... honestly, honestly I can’t ...
Genevieve Jacobs: You thought I’m just a girl from Murrumbateman, this can’t be happening.
Robyn Cadwallader: That’s right, well that’s exactly right, I ... and I got there and you know the Faber offices and they’re actually ... they’re lovely but they’re really quite tiny and I was sitting in her office and she said oh her daughter had broken her arm, she had to go and take this phone call and I sat in this office and I looked at the shelves and there was you know Peter Carey and Barbara Kingsolver and Seamus Heaney and all these books there and I just thought I ... I’m not here, this is completely surreal. And then she came back and said well you know I really like this novel and she talked about it and I know she said very nice things. I know she’d said very nice things but I had no idea what they were. I just was sitting there thinking this is a Faber editor saying all these really nice things about my novel, it just felt very strange.
And then ... and then we ... there was an offer, it came from Australia and ... oh and a connection made with the US so then that all got signed up and then a little bidding war in Australia which was very stressful because we were in a ... we were actually staying on a barge and the internet connection was really bad and so I get up in the morning you know because we’re doing a 12 hour ... 12 hours’ difference or 10 hours ... get up in the morning, first thing was to check the email and there was ... I’d see you know new mail, Gabby, and then I’d see loading and ... and the title would be you know new offer or something so I’d get that much and then it would load and load and load and load and eventually we just sort of gave up and left on a train and got into the British Library and looked where we could actually see what was happening so ... and that was at ... it was ... it was quite stressful. I’d always thought oh a bidding war would be fantastic, it’d be such fun but it was really like oh you know and it happened sort of over the weekend and it was jus ... you know it was really quite ...
Genevieve Jacobs: It’s just so deliciously improbable, you’re desperate for a functioning internet connection ...
Robyn Cadwallader: I know, I know.
Genevieve Jacobs: ... all this, it’s wonderful.
Robyn Cadwallader: Yes, yes.
Genevieve Jacobs: I’m going to turn over to questions from you in a moment so think ... think of a something. If you’ve got something to ask put your hand up but I do just want to ask you one more question, Robyn, and that is what do people tell you about how they react to all of this?
Robyn Cadwallader: Well I’ve had ... I have had I must say that is has been lovely, I’ve had so many emails and messages and nearly all of them completely positive. I’ve had ... I’ve had lovely emails like one woman saying I’m ... I’m reading this propped up in the kitchen while I peel the potatoes, that’s what good novels do, they make dinner late. And I had an email from a friend of my children in Ireland saying you’re making me neglect my children you know they’re not getting a hot meal because I'm reading this novel. But I’ve also had ... the really lovely ones have been people saying it has helped them deal with grief in their own lives, that they have actually ... it’s really helped them work through some things and that you know you can’t ask for better than that, that ... if I can write something that helps someone else in a very different situation come to terms with something and you know heal something in their life well that’s ... that’s just a gift, that’s you know that’s wonderful.
Genevieve Jacobs: Well I think that’s actually one of the remarkable things that you’ve achieved with this book because that is absolutely what it does, the story of a 17 year old going into a nailed cell in a medieval church actually ends up being a story about grief and healing and love and human connection ...
Robyn Cadwallader: Yes.
Genevieve Jacobs: ... and emotion and understanding oneself in the context of those one loves ...
Robyn Cadwallader: Yes.
Genevieve Jacobs: ... that’s all possible within the walls of this tiny stone cell.
Robyn Cadwallader: Yes.
Genevieve Jacobs: And that’s a really beautiful and remarkable thing to have achieved but look, let me now turn this over to you and I'm sure there will be some questions so just pop your hand up and we’ll go to you yes, first. Oh we’ve got ... sorry, we’ve got a microphone so we’ll get that to you, yeah, go ahead.
Audience: Thank you so much, this has been fascinating. I was just thinking you kept emphasising the idea of distance and I was thinking of our world today and you know our Honourable Treasurer saying that if we want to get ahead we must get a job and I kept thinking and job and vocation, job and vocation. With all your research and your writing, Robyn, what kind of conclusions did you draw let’s say of vocation in that period for a man and a woman?
Robyn Cadwallader: The vocation of an anchoress and an anchorite? Well they both basically committed to the same thing, to be enclosed but the ... obviously the thinking around it was quite different. As I said earlier for a woman to be enclosed in a cell was about retaining and protecting her virginity so the cell became her outer skin, really. For a man it was different, men weren’t trying to defeat their bodies and overcome their sinfulness, men were building on a kind of base of you know at a level of connection with God already because men were ... men didn’t have all the impediments that women had. So while women overturned their nature, men improved it. So the whole attitude towards ... there would still be that making sure they denied the body and kept themselves in some you know that they didn’t live in luxury but they didn’t have the pressure on them that women had to simply deny their nature and men often ... they were often priests and they had a cell next to the church where they could come out and take mass and they sometimes travelled as well. And some women did travel I ... some anchoress did travel, I gather, though there’s not a lot of records so it’s hard to know but nonetheless what women were doing was ... was at its base different so if they travelled there was always issues of safety and always issues of the ... you know their nature so they were doing ... they were doing something quite ... quite different. I haven’t actually investigated a lot of anchorites.
Genevieve Jacobs: Men’s bodies are heroic while women’s bodies are things to be mastered ...
Robyn Cadwallader: Yes.
Genevieve Jacobs: ... to be you know overcome. Two quite different things, really fascinating. Do we have another question from the floor? Yeah? We’ll just get the microphone to you.
Audience: Robyn, I really love the character of Emma, the sister, Sarah’s sister even though she was dead. I just felt that there was so much influence from Emma on Sarah’s life so can you just tell us something about how you came to develop Emma and specifically I guess I’ve wondered from the beginning of the book, from the day I picked it up first time whether Emma was an idea that came to you afterwards, after you first had Sarah or whether Emma was absolutely critical to Sarah’s decisions in life so anyway must just tell us about Emma.
Robyn Cadwallader: Yeah. That’s a good question. It actually feels so long ago now it’s hard to remember quite what came when. I think that Emma was always important to ... to Sarah, was always integral to part of her ... integral to her thinking about entering the cell. Emma’s personality developed as I wrote and so Sarah’s memories of her sister who’s you know questions everything whereas Sarah’s much more inclined to do what she’s told. And Emma’s ... Emma’s just love of life, a kind of gusto and her you know excitement, that just developed as I wrote and I ... and in some ways it was a ... a counter to Sarah but she became ... she became much more than that so I was hoping she wasn’t simply oh Sarah’s like this and Emma’s really different but kind of a ... Sarah’s caught up with Emma and the fact that Sarah is so caught up with Emma says a lot about Sarah’s longings and her desires, actually, I think that’s why Emma was so important to her because she ... she envied her in many ways, wanted to be her in lots of ways so ... yeah.
Genevieve Jacobs: I was also very fascinated in that relationship between the sisters in that you know it’d be too easy to call this just the earthly and the spiritual but nonetheless Sarah’s vocations is, it’s important to emphasise, a willing one.
Robyn Cadwallader: Oh yes, yes.
Genevieve Jacobs: And ... and so this is ... this is not a case ... Emma’s ... Emma’s dead, we know that, Emma’s dead in the book but Sarah’s not necessarily running away from things, she’s not ... she’s not being led to something that she doesn’t want or fooled into something, this is a willing choice, it’s bound up in some ways with her grief and her sadness and her love for her mother and her sister but she does this as a choice.
Robyn Cadwallader: She does, oh yes and it really was very you know it was quite well guarded that women had to be making a choice for themselves and I just think that whatever choices we make they’re never entirely simple and that they’re not you know they don’t have a single strand to them so Sarah’s love for God, Sarah’s commitment to being in the cell are caught up with a whole lot of other things in her life and I think that that is ... that is simply how we are so I’d never deny for a second that she was absolutely committed to God but there were other things at play as well and they all come into that because her sense of God was complex as well and ... and so Emma very easily gets ... gets caught into Sarah’s decision to go into the cell, yeah.
Genevieve Jacobs: And one of the great evolutions too of the book is ... is Sarah’s understanding of the relationship with God in the sense that she is infatuated with God in a sense at the beginning but it’s also a love story that grows and matures.
Robyn Cadwallader: Yes.
Genevieve Jacobs: Let’s go to the ... yeah so we’ve got down here?
Audience: Hello. One of the things that fascinates me about writing the book is the cell that she went into. Now you’ve written the book over a number of years, did you actually draw the cell or build the cell to remind you of ... or was it always in your mind as words and build the picture from there?
Robyn Cadwallader: It was always in my mind but I ... I did have ... it got to a certain point where I started to wonder about whether I was not quite getting .. I was imagining the cell as being a little bit you know like I might think oh you could fit the bed and the desk and the chair and the whatever else in there and I might have misrepresented it and my son is an inferior architect and he has all these very clever computer programs and so I said to him okay, I’ve got a cell, can you just draw me a plan? And they can you know these days you can make like 3D mock-ups so this was a fair way into the ... to the novel but I got him just to give me the put ... write ... put down the dimensions and put in the windows and the door and everything and ... and it all fitted.
And there’s ... there’s one moment where the light comes in through the maid’s door, through the maid’s window and lands on the altar and I said to him do you reckon you could just check whether that would happen you know like I just wanted to know and so he said okay, I ... tell me where it is and so I said it’s in England in the Midlands and it’s facing ... well it’s facing ... I don’t know what you say it’s facing but it’s a line east-west. And so he put in ... he put in the dates and you know the time of year and these programs do that and he said there you go, now just click on the time of day and looking from above I could see the sun moving and the shadows moving across and right at the time it needed to be the sun came in the window and spooky, spooky so that was ... that added to it but I have to say that in terms of imagining it I really did won ... I paced it out in my room and I did a little window for the parlour window. I put that on my window so I could see the height and the size and then I imagined from there, yeah.
Genevieve Jacobs: I’d wondered myself actually whether it was tardis-like, whether the space inside the cell was expanding, yeah.
Robyn Cadwallader: Well my son can vouch for it.
Genevieve Jacobs: That’s fantastic. Probably just one last question, I think, yes, here.
Audience: Robyn, I couldn’t put the book down, I loved it.
Robyn Cadwallader: Oh thank you, thank you.
Audience: I wanted to ask you about the addition of the garden. I thought that was a very important development because for me it said a lot about the space that Sarah arrived in towards the very end of the novel.
Genevieve Jacobs: I think we don’t want to give away too much for the people who haven’t read the book.
Genevieve Jacobs: So we’ve tri ...
Robyn Cadwallader: Can I talk to you about that later?
Genevieve Jacobs: Yeah, yeah. So we might just have one last quick question just down the back there. Sorry about that. We’ve been dancing this minuet together.
Robyn Cadwallader: Yes, to not give away too much.
Genevieve Jacobs: Exactly.
Audience: Robyn, I was wondering whether you were inspired by the life of Hildegard Von Bingen when you wrote this novel, was that some part of your inspiration?
Robyn Cadwallader: No, not particularly. I you know Hildegard’s one of those like remarkable people and I didn’t want ... I wanted ... I think what I wanted was an ordinary person in a you know struggling through her life and what you know I mean Hildegard was not all purity by any means but I didn’t want to be too influenced by ... by others. There’s also Julian of Norwich and I stayed away from Julian for the same reason, I wanted Sarah to be you know an individual and to make her very clearly not a type but an individual so while I’m of course interested in you know and I had read around the lives of mystics and nuns so they all sit somewhere around but they’re not ... they’re not specific influences, they more kind of gave me the general scenery, I suppose, in which I ... which I ... in which I developed Sarah as a ... yeah.
Genevieve Jacobs: Robyn, it’s been wonderful to hear you talk about this, I was delighted to hear about the pace question with an enclosed medieval nun, that was the most wonderful insight into the world of publishing and editing. More pace, Robyn, more pace. But it’s a book that packs so much thought, so much contemplation but so much emotion at the same time, such a rich development and I loved the vision of the swallow on the cover, the idea of soaring and leaping and tumbling embodies so much of Sarah’s own journey. A beautiful book and thank you very much and thank all of you too, thank you very much for being here tonight.
Robyn Cadwallader: Thank you.