My eye was caught by this stunningly beautiful cover – and when I realised this was a fictional autobiography of Julian of Norwich, then it was a no-brainer I’d request it. When on my writing retreats to Bexhill with my sister-in-law, while I was writing SFF novels, she was working on her thesis for her doctorate. And one of the primary source materials she was using were the writings of Julian of Norwich. I was absolutely blown away by the beauty and tenderness of the writing. Julian’s utter faith in the goodness of God shone through – and she also had interesting things to say about despair, too.
BLURB: So I will write in English, pressing new words from this beautiful plain language spoken by all. Not courtly French to introduce God politely. Not church Latin to construct arguments. English to show it as it is. Even though it is not safe to do so.
From the author of Miles to Go before I Sleep comes I, Julian, the account of a medieval woman who dares to tell her own story, battling grief, plague, the church and societal expectations to do so. Compelled by the powerful visions she had when close to death, Julian finds a way to live a life of freedom – as an anchoress, bricked up in a small room on the side of a church – and to write of what she has seen. The result, passed from hand to hand, is the first book to be written by a woman in English.
Tender, luminous, meditative and powerful, Julian writes of her love for God, and God’s love for the whole of creation. ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’
REVIEW: I love this book. Gilbert powerfully depicts a fictionalised account of Julian’s life, from a highly sensitive small child, watching her father die of the bubonic plague, through all the major events in her life, ending up with her living bricked up as an anchoress for the final twenty years. I thought Gilbert handled the language so it gave the impression of a medieval woman, even though it’s written in modern English very well – and it’s a tricky thing to do.
I was reminded of the old Chinese curse – May you live in interesting times – when reading this book. Poor Julian not only endured the death of her father from bubonic plague as a young child, which completely changed the family’s dynamic, but also had to cope with the loss of her own young daughter and husband in another devastating wave of the same terrible illness. I read of her struggles to come to terms with these heart-wrenching bereavements, conscious that I was viewing this quite differently in a post-Covid world.
Huge numbers had died of the plague and there weren’t enough workers to get harvests in – or, indeed, enough people farming the land. The Church claimed the plague was God’s punishment for the sinful ways of the populace – a terrible burden of guilt to carry if you were a young woman not entirely happy in her marriage, who also found motherhood difficult. Julian was all but crushed by it. She then fell dangerously ill – and during that illness she experienced powerful visions of God’s love that a long-time friend, a priest, wrote down as she dictated. Eventually, she got her wish to spend time alone and communing with God, though I was interested to read of her careful preparation before becoming an anchoress, as the abbess supporting her was keen for the project not to fail.
Gilbert writes movingly of her panic attacks at being cooped up and of her ongoing battle with crippling constipation during the winter – her illness seems to have left her rather frail. She was overwhelmed when her loyal servant, Alice, also decided to become a hermit. In time, Julian manages to come to terms with her life and gets a reputation for wisdom and divinity when people seek her out for advice. Her message of God’s unwavering love for all must have provided huge comfort for others also traumatised by bereavement and loss. But she also had to contend with growing suspicion from the Church and members of the clergy.
I came away from reading this book awed at the courage and resilience of this medieval woman from a middle-income family. It’s amazing the depth of her perception and the poetry of her writing, given she didn’t receive any formal education and her contribution deserves to live on. Highly recommended for those interested in the nature of faith, the history of the Church and an uplifting testament to the resilience of the human spirit. While I obtained an arc of I, Julian from the publishers via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.