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.


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


Adelaide launch 10

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.

Adelaide launch Robyn 39

the open heart

One of my favourite poems is ee cummings’ may my heart always be open to little

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile

I love it (though I change the masculine pronoun to be more inclusive). I recite the first few lines to myself almost every day when I see the tiny birds around our place: wrens, finches, sparrows, and others that I can’t identify. The superb blue wren is gorgeous, with its small round body, electric blue feathers, tiny legs, flirty tail. Superb_fairy_wrens_mark_2It hops around our veggie patch, and loves to perch on the top of the garden stakes we’ve hammered in to hold up tomatoes. I always draw in a breath and stop, when I see one. And wherever there’s a blue wren, there’s usually a brown one, the female partner. As I’ve watched, though, I’ve noticed how beautiful they all are, not just the bright ones — even sparrows that we tend to think of as ordinary and common. They gather on a stretch of unplanted veggie patch and have dirt baths, gradually burrowing out hollows in the ground. At times, when there’s a flock of them, their brown feathers blending with the dirt, it looks like the ground is moving.Sparrow

We have a large terracotta saucer that we fill with water for a birdbath, and the birds fly in from a nearby tree where I’m sure they check out the lie of the land, to see if it’s safe to come down. One by one, they gather around the rim of the saucer, dip in a beak to drink, and then dive in, shake, flutter their wings, spraying water around, and hop out again. It’s all very orderly and respectful, each one apparently waiting their turn. At least that’s how it looks from my human point of view.

I’ve read lots of great poems about birds, but cummings, for me, has caught something about the vulnerability of these little creatures, and the something more that goes along with that. Sometimes I think the birds look self-sufficient, but I’m not sure it’s possible to be vulnerable and self-sufficient at the same time. I’m still thinking about that one. It’s more that, as I watch them, these little birds seem to just be. They inhabit themselves, wherever they are: thoroughly bird, thoroughly there. And, as I read the poem, that ability to be at home with who we are is only possible if we learn to live happily with our frailty and our limits, and even to celebrate them. I love that idea! The ‘secret of living’.

The cell: real and imagined

He closed the heavy wooden door behind him. Five of us were now shut in this small room about ten paces from end to end, and even fewer across. It was late afternoon in early spring; some sun came through the leadlight windows and candles were burning, but we were glad to have the lights on.AllSaintsSthLynn Interior1

We were at All Saints’, Kings Lynn, in Norfolk, England, and I had come hunting anchorholds. This small room was the oratory for an anchoress — the place where she came to pray; her living space would have been attached to this room, but it wouldn’t have been any bigger.

The priest had said we were very welcome to visit the anchoress’s oratory, but because there was a baptism in the church, we would need to stay there for the next 20 minutes so we didn’t disturb the service. Fine, we said. Sitting in a small room isn’t difficult, is it? We do that often, for short periods of time: an office, a doctor’s waiting roomAllSaintsSthLynnInterior2, a train carriage.

But then we know the room isn’t designed to live in, and we’ll be leaving soon. As I sat with my husband and children in this enclosed space, we chatted about the woman who would have committed herself to stay here for the rest of her life. No ‘twenty minutes and then we can go’, as I told my kids. No leaving at all. With those thoughts and words, the room became a little darker, a little smaller. And we were relieved when the door was opened.

From the outside, we could see how small the oratory was against the size of the church, and on the outer wall were the marks that indicated where the anchoress’s dwelling would have been.

AllSaintsSthLynnExterior All Saints South Lynn

When I tell people the title of my novel, there’s often a pause to digest this strange word, and then the question. ‘So what’s an anchoress?’

Fair enough. It’s not a word you hear every day, and was a complete mystery to me when I first came across it while I was doing research for my thesis. I was reading about the Life of St Margaret of Antioch, a virgin martyr who was swallowed by a dragon and burst out its back, proclaiming herself a kempe, a hero. In thirteenth-century England, the story had been written down and bound into a collection of texts to be given to anchoresses.

An anchoress freely chose to withdraw from the world in order to commit herself entirely to Christ, denying the world and suffering with him. The anchorholds could vary in size and situation, but most were small, and attached to a church for the safety of the woman enclosed. The anchoresses that most interested me were the ones who were given the Life of St Margaret to read, along with the Lives of St Juliana and St Katherine, and the Ancrene Wisse, the Rule for Anchoresses.

In this Rule, the cell is described as having two windows: one through which the maids can provide the anchoress’s daily needs, and a second one, covered with a curtain, that looks out into a parlour where visitors can come for counsel. A third kind of window, usually tiny and often a long, thin slit, was called a squint; it was cut into the church wall and enabled the anchoress to see the altar; a small niche beneath it allowed her to receive the bread at Mass.

The language of enclosure was all about becoming dead to the world, and the enclosure ceremony often included reading the burial rites over the anchoress. In some cases, a grave was dug in the cell as a reminder that she must ‘daily dig the dirt of her own grave’. The door was closed on her, sometimes nailed up, and sometimes bricked up, the confronting physical affirmation of the permanence of her commitment. Evidence about anchoresses is very limited, but it is becoming clear that some women had larger cells, and that some could leave their cell to travel. Nonetheless, the intention was to withdraw as fully as possible from the world, and the women were honoured for their commitment.

It’s very extreme, I know, and at first I was horrified. But contexts of time, place and culture are so important. Women who became anchoresses chose this way of life: their intention was examined by a bishop to be sure they were serious about enclosure, and to be certain that they understood the gravity of their commitment. Some writers have commented that a life of prayer, reading and counselling may have been attractive to an intelligent woman who did not want marriage or the convent. It’s hard to imagine, I know, from our position now.

But that was exactly the challenge for me: not to dismiss these women as foolish, weird and deluded, but to respect the choice they made, and to try to understand it. And so began my imagining into the head and heart of Sarah, my anchoress.

sneak preview

The picture isn’t quite finished yet, and this is only the unedited review copy … but it’s so exciting to have it, finally, as something I can hold in my hand. I never thought the day would come!

IMG_0098This is the Fourth Estate, Australian edition. Waiting on a fast plane to bring me the UK edition.

There and back again

We share our four acres with a menagerie of creatures. There are the usual suspects: three dogs, three alpacas and four chooks, but a piece of land in the country means that we always have unexpected visitors, many of them just passing through, some that take up residence. Sometimes they interrupt a day.

The dogs usually let me know a long-necked turtle is on the move: it’s that particular high-pitched barking that is a cross between excitement and fear. Not quite sure of the creature, they make a lot of noise, just in case.

I was proof-reading the manuscript of my novel, and the interruption was welcome, releasing me from yet another debate over punctuation: a semi-colon or a fullstop; a comma or a colon? I taught this for years and it was all very clear to me then, but in my own writing, after the multiple revisions and then the copy-editing, every sentence, and then every word, has been considered and maybe changed. Now, the punctuation, hopefully invisible to the reader because it simply helps the words to work as they should … now the punctuation for me leaps out as if typed in red. On that proof-reading day, if the text had a voice, the sentences would have spoken in a normal voice, but each comma, colon and semi-colon would have been shouting at me. Shouting, and not offering a solution. You know how it is when you look at a word long enough, it seems to be a ridiculous combination of letters? Punctuation for me had become a set of strange, alien squiggles. What would the uni tutor-me say? I had no idea.

So, it was a relief to run outside to the dogs who were yelping, tails wagging, noses in the long grass by a fence. They were pleased, and a little ashamed, to see me, wanting to show me what they’d found, but knowing I would tell them to leave the poor thing alone. Fortunately, the turtle just tucks in its head and legs and becomes a rock-like shell. It’s safe, but it still smells strong enough for the dogs to track down. If it were a baby blue tongue, sadly, they would be tossing it around, puncturing its soft skin. That’s when I get cross and they get into real trouble, but by that time it’s too late for the lizard. I understand it’s a doggie thing to do, but it upsets me so much.

The long-necked turtle: this one was young and small, its shell a fawn colour and not easy to see in the long dry grass. I went to get a gardening glove and a bucket. I’d learnt the hard way, a few years ago, that their way of keeping away predators is to emit a black smelly liquid, a smell that seems to stick to human skin. By the time I came back the dogs had moved along the fence. A second turtle, this one a bit bigger. I settled them both carefully in the bottom of the bucket and set off for the dam, wondering again where they were heading. This is the time of year when they’re on the move. Last year we rescued one that was walking along the road; it might pull into its shell when a car comes, but that won’t save it from being flattened. Whenever the dogs find them, they’re moving slowly along a fenceline, trying to get through. To where? I’m not really sure.

I put each one in the reeds at the edge of the dam and thought, I hope this is where you want to be, fella. I hope you’re not looking out and saying, Bugger! It took me all this time to get away from here, and somehow I’m back again. All that slow hard walk for nothing!

long-necked turtle

But I figure it’s better than dehydrating out in a paddock somewhere.

An hour later and the barking began again. I’d moved on from the last punctuation debate to another one, but they seemed horribly similar. So again I ran out, released for a few minutes. Another turtle. For a moment, I thought it was one of the two I’d moved earlier, but no, this one was bigger again. Bucket and gardening glove — I’d leave them by the front door now, just in case — and the trek down to the dam again. As I stood back and waited for the turtle to poke out its little grey scaly head on its snake-like neck, I thought about all three and their three sizes, a bit like the three bears. Whether this was where the daddy one wanted to be, it slid into the water and swam away.

Later that evening, sitting by the dam with a drink, we kept a lookout for the little heads that poke above the water for a minute or so, then duck away again (unnervingly like commas to an obsessed brain). That night, we couldn’t tell who was who, but we knew there were three more.

When we were very young

A few weeks ago I went to a baby shower, my first ever. Fortunately, it was a laid-back gathering, a chance to meet people and chat over mulled wine and sausage rolls and cupcakes. We played a few simple games, but we were spared the horror games that I have only heard of — passing the nappy filled with melted chocolate, nappy-changing competitions and the like.

One simple game that began the afternoon was the invitation for everyone to name their favourite children’s book. What a hard decision! As we went around the room, people murmured, sighed, laughed and nodded, memories obviously flooding back: being read to as a kid, or reading to their own kids. Lines and pictures came back to me.

I don’t remember my own early childhood books very well. I think the full fare of Enid Blyton and Peter Rabbit were the main ones. I was especially fascinated by Peter Rabbit pleading with Mr Robinson not to be thrown into the briar patch, then laughing in delight when he had. So innocent of subterfuge I was that my older sister had to explain. I did learn a new word, though — soporific — and discovered that, strangely, too much lettuce makes you sleepy. But I think I made up for that lack of books when my own kids were born.

Someone in the group named Where the Wild Things Are­ (‘“And now,” cried Max. “Let the wild rumpus start.”’) and the next person mentioned In the Night Kitchen (‘I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me. God bless milk and God bless me.’). The list went one: The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the Spot books (though not my favourite), all the fairy tales, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (‘We’re going to catch a big one. I’m not scared. What a beautiful day. Uh oh!’) The Wind in the Willows, The Paperbag Princess — one of my absolute favourites, where the heroine outsmarts a dragon and then tells the snooty prince, ‘You’re a toad, Ronald’ and marches off into the sunset.

My pick was Each Peach Pear Plum by the Ahlbergs, an almost perfect book for reading to kids because it has rhythm, rhyme and gorgeously detailed drawings. On each page a fairy tale character (and at the end, a pie) is hidden among the detail, hence the ‘I spy’ part of the rhyme. We had (still have) a tiny hardback copy, which made hunting among the detail even more fun.

The first line seems perfect, even though it doesn’t strictly make sense. It’s the sounds that work so well. ‘Each’, an ordinary kind of word, becomes so much more interesting next to ‘peach’, such fun to say. ‘Pear’ then softens, links gently to ‘plum’, such a good word for the line end. But most of all, they feel round and rich, juicy even. We used to draw out ‘I spy’ into long thin sounds, then pounce on ‘Tom Thumb’. When the game finished, a group of us managed to recite the whole thing. Hubbard and cupboard, ditch and witch, hunting and bunting — the rhymes are such fun to say. And at the end, it’s: ‘Plum pie in the sun / I spy everyone!’ It all comes together in one loud acclamation. Perfect.

It was all quite nostalgic, remembering the books I loved as much as my kids did. But then I remembered an incident my eldest daughter had reminded me about a few years ago. When she was about ten, and her younger sister was about eight, I read them The Hobbit. They loved it, the younger one being fixated by the spiders in the forest; the older one impatient and sneaking off to read the next chapter on her own. Apparently one night they were naughty and I was so angry that I pronounced there would be no more Hobbit. What?! How could I do that? But it seems I did; I’d obviously blocked it out. What a cruel and inhuman punishment — to deny them the end of the story, the satisfaction of resolution, the ‘I spy everyone’ kind of resolution. I apologised, but they laughed and said kindly, ‘Yeah, but we were pretty naughty. Fair enough.’

But I’m not sure — maybe scrubbing the floors would have been less mean…

I spy everyone 2