Published by Bloomsbury
Publication date – 19 January 2023
Source – review copy
In the year of 1413, two women meet for the first time in the city of Norwich.
Margery has left her fourteen children and husband behind to make her journey. Her visions of Christ – which have long alienated her from her family and neighbours, and incurred her husband’s abuse – have placed her in danger with the men of the Church, who have begun to hound her as a heretic.
Julian, an anchoress, has not left Norwich, nor the cell to which she has been confined, for twenty-three years. She has told no one of her own visions – and knows that time is running out for her to do so.
The two women have stories to tell one another. Stories about girlhood, motherhood, sickness, loss, doubt and belief; revelations more the powerful than the world is ready to hear. Their meeting will change everything.
Margery became the property of her husband when she married him. Before then, she was the property of her husband. Julian, before she became Julian, was similarly owned, though she did not feel possessed. Such was life for women in the 1400s. What they owned became their husbands. To speak out, to try to be heard was seen as mania, the risk of questioning religion, of being vocal in it a heresy.
Both women are distinct characters. Driven to do what they have done by different traumas in their lives. What would have been deemed madness or mania in the 15th Century are what we would recognise today as post natal depression and depression from grief. Margery’s visions of Christ are her way of processing the emotions fuelled from perpetual pregnancy, a means of repressing sexual urges and pleasures women were not supposed to feel. Julian uses the church as a means of escaping a world where she has lost those that she loves. Her grief enough to overwhelm her, instead of the sin of suicide, she punishes herself for surviving by being bricked into a room which she will only leave when she dies.
Based on real characters I found myself on the internet reading about Julian and anchoresses. To modern ears it is probably unfathomable that someone would choose to be cut off from the world in such a final and perhaps extreme way. To be bricked into a room that has no doors but only a window to speak to a maid you cannot see, and another for people to talk to you from the outside world, is something that is hard to grasp.
The book is heavy on religion which is perhaps to be expected. The world at that time was led by the church, men of power used religion to drive their own agenda and society and laws revolved around what the church degreed. It is not however a religious book which makes a difference. As someone who ticks no religion on forms I tend not to enjoy reading about what could be perceived preaching. However, in this instance religion is both the catalyst of the life changes for both women and the solace that they perhaps need.
For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy On My Little Pain is a short book, one that could easily be read in a day. It is one that intrigues the reader, caught up in a world it is hard to imagine existed now. On the surface it is about religion and it’s control on the population, women in particular. But it is also about the subjugation of women, of the guilt felt for love, desire and for feeling anything other than grateful for their lot in life. It is about exerting control where it has been taken away, in the only way that it can. Both women look for a different solace in the same place and with different routes to it. Margery’s visit to Julian compels Julian to do something she had not thought would happen and allows for her tale to be given to the world.
An interesting tale about two complex women, trying to find their own way of dealing with the traumas life throws at them.
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