Review of Revelations by Mary Sharratt
Sharratt offers vivid historical fiction details of the everyday life of Margery of Kempe, a mother of fourteen whose radiant visions led her to stun medieval British society with her vow of celibacy and ambitious pilgrimage halfway around the world.
My story is not a straightforward one. Women’s stories never are.
I read Mary Sharratt's Revelations over the course of this "school year" with my women's group.
In Revelations, Sharratt offers an immersive historical fiction novel that includes thoroughly researched, fascinating details of medieval life. The story is built upon the framework of facts from the lives of Julian of Norwich and what is known of the life of our main protagonist, Margery Kempe.
Sharratt based her story on The Book of Margery Kempe, which was the first published English-language autobiography. (To say that producing this publication was a groundbreaking feat for a medieval woman who was stifled by societal and religious limitations may still be understating its importance.)
When the book begins, it's 1412 in Bishop's Lynn, England, and Margery has almost died after giving birth to her fourteenth child. She takes a vow of celibacy--although she doubts her unreliable, flaky businessman of a husband will adhere to her wishes--and begins to carefully share her vivid (and dangerously disruptive) loving religious visions with trusted others.
She confides in Julian of Norwich, a famed anchorite who lives, walled up in confinement, adjacent to a church, reading, writing, and studying, and reliant on supporters to feed and care for her. (The information my reading group learned on the side about anchoresses was captivating.) Dame Julian encourages Margery's religious awakening--and confides that she has been secretly writing a radical booklet about her own visions.
Margery sets off on an ambitious pilgrimage across Europe and the Near East, sharing Julian's papers and her own visions; meeting largely with aggression, lies, and immense challenges; at other times feeling her hope and religious fervor stoked by the power of her strengthened faith.
Our main protagonist puzzles and angers those around her by challenging the limitations of what women might do or say in the year 1400, and the Church is particularly galled and upset by the audacity of such a woman to have blindingly beautiful visions of Christ and to speak of Jesus's love.
Sharratt injects an undercurrent of what feels like modern feminism in her first-person story.
I've underlined many, many meaningful passages in Revelations, and I found exploring this time through Margery's imagined point of view to be fascinating, particularly the everyday details of life at the time. Sharratt makes the crushing limitations of being female and without autonomy of any kind during the period feel uncomfortably immediate here.
Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?
Sharratt has authored at least seven other historical fiction novels--including Illuminations, about Hildegard of Bingen--and I'm in for more more MORE of her books!
The book's blurb on Goodreads describes Revelations as "a kind of fifteenth-century Eat, Pray, Love." This made me laugh, but it also feels accurate.