I had thought I was ready for the life of an anchoress. I had wanted to prolong each moment of my life, to get closer to experiencing time as God experiences it: not the instantly dissolving moment, but something larger and more encompassing. A stillness that doesn’t pass as soon as you think yourself into it.
Victoria MacKenzie’s new novella, For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain, is set in Norfolk in 1413 and imagines a meeting between two real-life women: Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. If these names are familiar to you, you’ll know that they were both English mystics of the medieval period and were also both authors. Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love is thought to be the first English work we can be sure was written by a woman, while Margery’s The Book of Margery Kempe is considered to be the first autobiography in the English language.
The stories of the two women only converge towards the end of the book in a meeting which did take place according to Margery herself in The Book of Margery Kempe, but maybe not exactly as it is described here. Victoria MacKenzie recreates the events leading up to their encounter and the sort of conversation they may have had, but before reaching that point she explores the backgrounds of both women, with the perspective alternating between Margery and Julian as they follow very different paths through life.
Little is known of the real Julian’s early life, but MacKenzie suggests here that she may have lost her family to an outbreak of plague and that this, along with an illness during which she experienced visions or ‘shewings’ of Christ, influenced her decision to become an anchoress, secluded in a cell for twenty-three years. Margery, in contrast, doesn’t lock herself away, but remains in the secular world, a wife and mother of fourteen. Like Julian, she begins to have religious visions, but while Julian’s faith is personal and private, Margery prays, weeps and preaches in public, drawing attention to herself and leading to accusations of heresy.
This is Victoria MacKenzie’s debut novel and I admire her for writing something so unusual and original, but although I did like it, I couldn’t quite manage to love it. I found the structure and pacing very unbalanced, with the first section, telling the two separate tales in parallel, being by far the longest and the actual meeting at Julian’s cell being dealt with in just a few pages near the end. Maybe if I was a more religious person myself I would have appreciated this book more, but I could still find a lot to interest me in this story of two medieval women whose different personalities and different journeys through life shape the nature of their relationships with God and each other.
Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 4/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.