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The Anchoress - Robyn Cadwallader


Published: 1st February 2015
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RRP $32.99

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Published: 27th January 2015
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From a remarkable new Australian author comes The Anchoress, a story set in the thirteenth century within the confines of a stone cell measuring seven paces by nine.

Tiny in scope but universal in themes, it is a wonderful, wholly compelling fictional achievement. It's not often that a stunning new Australian novel comes to an agent via a Twitter call out. It's not often that a novel comes along that makes everyone in the publishing house stop, read and fall in love with it. It's not often that we get to publish a novel which has been the subject of a major bidding war and will be published simultaneously by Faber in the UK and Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US. It's not often that we get a novel like The Anchoress.

Set in the thirteenth century, The Anchoress tells the story of Sarah, only seventeen when she chooses to become an anchoress, a holy woman shut away in a small cell, measuring seven paces by nine, at the side of the village church. Fleeing the grief of losing a much-loved sister in childbirth and the pressure to marry, she decides to renounce the world, with all its dangers, desires and temptations, and to commit herself to a life of prayer and service to God.

But as she slowly begins to understand, even the thick, unforgiving walls of her cell cannot keep the outside world away, and it is soon clear that Sarah's body and soul are still in great danger...

Robyn Cadwallader writes: 'Who was she? Why did she choose enclosure? Was she afraid, excited, certain, doubtful? What about her family? And what would this small dark place be like as a home? In my mind, I went inside the cell. What was her experience: bodily, emotionally, spiritually, mentally? She was no longer just a weird idea; she was a woman. Sarah. My anchoress.'

Sometimes freedom means locking yourself away...

Read Caroline Baum's Review

Like Hannah Kent’s award-winning international bestseller Burial Rites, this is one of those out of the box debuts that always sends the publishing world into a frenzy: a startlingly original piece of storytelling from a unknown who demonstrates an ability to create a total, immersive, believable world that is rewarding as much for what it allows the reader to learn as for sheer escapist enjoyment.

Like Hannah Kent, Cadwallader has chosen to write about a singular isolated figure in an unfamiliar past. Unlike Kent, her outsider is not accused of any crime.

I’m going to stick my neck out and predict this book will be one of the year’s highlights and success stories. It has bold reach and ambition, tangling with questions of morality and scripture, but despite its rarefied theme, this is an essentially human story, rich in period detail and atmospherics.

Sarah is a religious recluse - a young woman in 13th century Britain who chooses the life of an anchoress - which means being literally walled up in a cell, with limited contact to the outside world through her maid and her confessor. Following the death of her sister, Sarah forsakes the world to retreat. It soon becomes apparent that she is also, perhaps seeking sanctuary from danger: the threat posed by the sexually predatory local lord, who has made unwelcome advances. All too soon it becomes obvious that Sarah is battling inner demons - she is aware of the response of the flesh, and seeks to mortify herself to subdue her own desires.

While she faces the unexpected challenges of her cell, and of her limited interaction with the outside world, her vivid imagination tangles with her faith and conjures up the spirit of the previous anchoress- Isabella- a mysterious ghostly presence. As Sarah discovers more about Isabella she learns to face up to her own weakness, pride and examine her capacity for compassion.

Meanwhile Ranaulf, her confessor, is finding his responsibilities more demanding than he could ever have anticipated. He is not used to women who counter his interpretations of the gospels.

The scene is set for conflict as Lord Thomas imposes his will and attempts to intrude on the sanctity of Sarah’s enclosure. The plot is interwoven like a fine tapestry with references to the oppression of the peasantry by their feudal masters and the complex inter relationship between the Church and the landed gentry. Class, illiteracy, superstition, shame, all make pertinent appearances as Sarah is faced with dilemmas that test her faith to the limits of her conviction. An erotic undercurrent gives Sarah’s worship of Christ a powerfully passionate charge while every teaching of the church reinforces the notion of woman as the vessel of sin. Is Sarah safe from temptation? Is she pure in thought and deed? Would she be able to endure the suffering of Saint Margaret, the martyr whose life she studies, who died a graphically horrible death for her beliefs?

A film adaptation can surely not be far behind. Benedict Cumberbatch as Father Ranaulf perhaps? Upcoming Australian star Sarah Snook (to be seen this year alongside Kate Winslet in the eagerly awaited adaption of one of my most favourite Australian novels, The Dressmaker in October) would do the role of Sarah justice. If period fiction with big themes is your thing, this novel could be the answer to your prayers.

About the Author

Robyn Cadwallader has published numerous, prize-winning short stories and reviews, as well as a poetry and non-fiction. She lives among vineyards outside Canberra when not traveling to England for research, visiting ancient archaeological sites along the way


Recommended reading!


This is a fantastic read which explores some thought provoking historical themes particularly around women, sexuality and religion.

Sydney Australia



Not just for history buffs, really went on a journey with the characters.



A Beautiful Book


Excellent development of the two main characters, and how their view of life changes.



Enjoyable and engaging.


An interesting insight into the life of an Anchoress in the middle ages and why some women would choose this incarceration as a way of life. Horrifying really.



Engaging insight into little known aspect of Mediaeval life.


Life in the Middle Ages was tough, but this insight into the practice of immuring individuals as an extreme act of religious piety reveals how some made life even harder for themselves. Told through two voices - that of the holy woman and also that of a narrator for experiences outside the central character's cell - this is a lovingly written book, rich in imagery. It conveys both an admiration for the anchorite, and a critique of the ancient practice. Set within both the mediaeval culture of the village dominated by its lord, and the attitudes of the Church, this is a book rich in historic understanding and compassion for humanity.

Riddells Creek, AU


original idea


This interesting historical tale of a religious recluse is surprisingly sensuous and thrilling. The anchoress is a religious recluse in medieval England, a 17 year old woman who willingly allows herself to be locked inside the church anchorhold. This is a stone cell attached to the church that has a squint for her to see out of, a small opening for food to come through, and a door that has been nailed shut. She will stay there in the dark until she dies, at which time she will be buried beneath the stone floor. There are rules she must live by - she must not see any man except her confessor, she cannot touch anyone, she must not store documents, or have a maid who sins - but rules are usually only dictated when there is a need for them, and this idea of transgression provided early inspiration for the author. Much careful research has been subtly written into the story. Happily, the language retains a contemporary feel, unlike some historical fiction which can be melodramatic and over written.



The Anchoress

4.3 6


'Robyn Cadwallader does the real work of historical fiction, creating a detailed, sensuous and richly imagined shard of the past. She has successfully placed her narrator, the anchoress, in that tantalizing, precarious, delicate realm: convincingly of her own distant era, yet emotionally engaging and vividly present to us in our own.' Geraldine Brooks

ISBN: 9780732299217
ISBN-10: 0732299217
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 320
Published: 1st February 2015
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd
Country of Publication: AU
Dimensions (cm): 23.4 x 15.3  x 2.3
Weight (kg): 0.43