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Locked Away, 'Anchoress' Women Devote Their Lives To Church


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. We're going to take you way back in time for this next story - medieval times, actually. It is the year 1255 in England. And a 17-year-old girl named Sarah has just made an incredible decision. She has chosen to voluntarily lock herself away in a cell inside a cathedral for the rest of her life. Now why in the world would someone make such a choice, you might ask? Robyn Cadwallader is here to explain. She is the author of this tale. It is her debut novel. It is called "The Anchoress." She joins us from Canberra, Australia. Thanks so much for being with us.

ROBYN CADWALLADER: Thank you, Rachel, lovely to be here.

MARTIN: So when I first heard the premise of your novel, I thought, I mean, how does this come to a writer, this idea? But this is something that actually happened in history. Can you explain what an anchoress was in those times?

CADWALLADER: Yes. It did happen quite a bit, actually. Anchoresses chose, for religious reasons, to be locked away in a cell and to commit themselves to Christ and recognize...

MARTIN: And a convent was not sufficient, apparently?

CADWALLADER: No. This was really suffering with Christ. So hanging on the cross with Christ was the kind of language that they used. So it was very much about being sealed away from the world, denying their body, denying their pleasures and by limiting the kinds of community life that you would get in a convent.

MARTIN: So let's talk about this woman. Let's talk about this woman Sarah.


MARTIN: What drives her to make this choice? What life is she leaving behind?

CADWALLADER: Well, I think she - her motivations are sort of multilayered. She is actually a very devout woman. And she has always thought that she would become a nun. But her life gets more complicated when a local lord shows some interest in marrying her. And she has always been a little uneasy about her body and sexuality because she has really taken on board everything that the church has told her about the sinfulness of the female body and decides that she won't marry this man. But it's complicated by her sister, her younger sister, dying in childbirth. And all of those factors together really compound Sarah's sense of a need to retreat from the body. But as she discovers, it's actually not quite that simple.

MARTIN: So as I was reading this, I, myself, started to get a little bit claustrophobic.

CADWALLADER: Yes (laughter).

MARTIN: Because you are - you create this world through your writing. And it's a small world. It's just one cell. There she is...


MARTIN: ...Day in and day out. Can you describe this space, and how she spends her days?

CADWALLADER: She steps it out when she first enters the cell. It's seven paces by nine, so it's a very small space. It's stone. And it's attached to a village church. It has two small windows, one which gives her access to her maids - she has two maids - and another small window that gives her access to a parlor where people can come for counsel. And both those windows have curtains and shutters so that she can be - when they're shut, she's completely sealed off. There is a door by which she entered, but that is nailed shut at the enclosure ceremony.

MARTIN: Nailed shut.

CADWALLADER: Nailed shut, yes. That the - it was a kind of - I mean, it was to...

MARTIN: Not enough to just lock the door.

CADWALLADER: ...Oh, no (laughter). And it's quite symbolic. Sometimes they were actually breached up, you know, so they just got stones at the ceremony...


CADWALLADER: ...and bricked it up. But that's pretty extreme.

MARTIN: How did it make you feel, spending so much time in this world that you had created - this very small, small world?

CADWALLADER: In a way I was - I began by feeling claustrophobic. But I think that as the story started to take shape, and as Sarah discovers when she's there, that she's actually - her - for all that she wants to deny her body, her body becomes even more intensely present to her. As I wrote that, I actually began to feel that things opened out, and her sensuality sort of broke the claustrophobia for me as well as her contact with other people. But particularly, there was something quite liberating about her discovering her sensuality and being able to write about that. So I found the initial scenes quite difficult to write. But as the novel went along and Sarah discovered more, I actually felt freer myself and less burdened by the need to keep describing this intense enclosure.

MARTIN: The book is called "The Anchoress." It was written by Robyn Cadwallader. She joined us from Canberra, Australia. Thanks so much for talking with us, Robyn.

CADWALLADER: Thank you, Rachel. It was lovely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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