squinting from the past

A squint seems like a funny name for a window. Apart from describing a medical condition, we use it now, mostly to suggest someone looking with their eyes partly shut, often against the sun; it’s a very common Australian characteristic. When I don’t have my glasses to read, I instinctively squint, and for some reason, the words come more clearly into focus. And that partial vision is exactly what a medieval squint was intended for, especially for those enclosed in an anchorhold. Cut into the church wall which adjoined the anchorhold, it gave the anchoress (or anchorite) a limited view of the altar and little more. It was considered important for the holy woman to be able to see the moment of consecration, the bread and wine lifted up, but there was to be nothing else that might distract her from God.

C-le-St SqunitAltarView2I imagine the anchoress kneeling at her squint and wondering about the people in church, hearing the whispers, the coughs, the shuffling feet, perhaps even the conversations. She would hear and smell — probably even more acutely because she could not see — so much that was happening. After a time, surely she would get to know the voices, imagine the faces that accompanied them, just as we think of the faces that accompany radio presenters.

That tantalising, partial view says so much: this far you may look and no more; this narrow view is all that is permitted. It is almost more powerful a signal of the dangers of sight than if the anchoress were given no view at all.

This is the view from the squint at Chester-le-Street, near Durham. The cell had two storeys, so the eye looks out high over the pews, but the view is severely limited. Because the stone wall is so thick, and the squint cut on about a 45 degree angle, it is impossible to see anything more than this. I tried when I took this photo!

Another squint, of the same design, at St James, Shere, shows the design more clearly. The quatrefoil on the left would allow enough space for the anchoress to receive the bread at Mass.

Quatrefoil and Squint Windows (The Anchoress of Shere) St. James Church, Shere

But even though squints were designed to limit sight for the recluse, they were usually close to the chancel at the front of the church, and some were designed to participate in the beauty of church decoration. St Nicholas at Compton predates the Norman Conquest in 1066, and later building shows distinctive Norman designs. A squint and cell are still in existenceStNichComptonSthWallCell. The tiny cell and its squint have remained, in part because the cell now houses a staircase to the chancel loft. The squint is austere but, in some ways, quite beautiful.

The photo on the left shows the squint from inside the cell, with part of the contemporary staircase. The wooden ledge, on which the recluse would have leaned to pray, is thought to be original. The photo on the right shows the squint from inside the church.

StNichComptCellSquintStNichComptNWallSquint_1066

Whatever we think of the extreme enclosure an anchoress accepted, it’s worth considering the ways that narrowing down a view can help us focus more clearly. As William Blake suggests, we can ‘see a world in a grain of sand’. And by seeing the small and perhaps uncomfortable aspects of the past, we might discover more about ourselves.

The Anchoress achieves what every historical novel attempts: reimagining the past while opening a new window – like a squint, perhaps – to our present lives.’ Eleanor Limprecht

Launching

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It has been a bit over five years since it all started in earnest: me sitting down each day to write, discovering characters, gradually shaping a story. I knew the thirteenth-century context, and I knew my starting point was an anchoress — a woman choosing to be enclosed in a stone cell, helped in her daily life by two maids, and visited each week by a confessor. That was all. How on earth was I going to develop a plot?

Slowly it happened. I asked why she was there and what had happened in her life to bring her to that point. In my mind I sat where she sat, wondered what would happen to her body, her mind, her heart, and imagined all that would go on outside her four stone walls that she must surely hear and smell and wonder about.

It was always risky, but by that point I was committed.

Adelaide launch B&W1That was five years ago, and only a few days ago, the book was officially launched in Adelaide. It was so exciting to have all those years, months, days and hours of work finally gathered together into one small package of words — so much neater and more organised than the dozens of Word files of drafts on my computer; the notebooks of ideas, questions, points to remember; the loose pages of plot diagrams, lists of daily prayer routines, church festivals, village rituals and the yearly agricultural cycle. My desk and my study have been covered with it all for so long and somehow, bit by bit, I have hewn it all back into a tidy book of words. But, even though the book is tidy, I hope the words fly out again when the pages are turned.

So, the launch. It was such a fabulous night. My family, and especially my youngest daughter, Demelza, helped to organise all the little necessary things like music, wine, invitations, and even decorations — lines of cream cloth swallows flying above us. The staff at Dymocks were so friendly and keen to help, and finally sent me off to have a G-and-T to calm my nerves. People arrived: lots of friends and friends of friends who were genuinely excited for me and smiled almost as much as me. My editor, Catherine Milne, flew down from Sydney especially for the night, and spoke briefly, telling everyone that after she had read the first paragraph, she had emailed my agent to say how excited she was. Then my good friend Lorna Hallahan gave an intense and moving account of the novel. For me, it was wonderful to hear my novel given back to me through someone else’s eyes.

I spoke — mostly about bungee jumping — as you do… Each stage of the novel its own staring void into which I had to jump, trusting to just a harness and a bit of stretchy rope — words, my own commitment, my story, and the faith of those around me. And each time, they held true.

Adelaide launch Catherine 21 Adelaide launch RobynLorna15

It’s wonderful to have my novel received so warmly, and it’s more than I could have dreamed up. But it’s not all about the book itself. The excitement and warm wishes for me —from family, friends and people I don’t even know — have been enormously affirming, so that I see my place in the world differently now. And that’s how your life changes — because of people.

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