Monday 21 August 2023

For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain

Finished August 18
For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria MacKenzie

This short novel is about two real women, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. Both women were from well-to-do families in England and stories of and by them have survived beyond their lives, which ended in the 1400s. 
Julian was a name that was taken on by her once she became an anchoress, a woman who was sealed into a small room against one wall of a church. Her room had a window into the church, a window into a small room used by her maid who brought her food and other things she required, and took away waste products, and a high window to the outdoors. She lived in a time of hardship and disease and lived through more than one outbreak of plague. The first took all of her family except her and her mother and unmoored both of them for a while. She was able to get permission to learn how to read and write and eventually married and had a child. Sadly, the second plague took both her husband and child, and she moved back into her mother's home. During an illness of her own, she had what she called 'shewings,' where Jesus appeared to her and told her things and brought her comfort. This reinforced her natural interest in religion and led her to her choice to become an anchoress after her mother's death.  She had considered becoming a pilgrim or hermit, but was dissuaded by others due to her gender. As far as we know she never told anyone of the visions she'd had, but she did write of them and her papers were found years later.
Margery was married to a man she didn't love and had many children, but also great trouble during childbirth. During an illness after her first child was born, she had visions of Jesus and continued having similar visions during her life. She tried to communicate what she learned of these publicly by telling of her visions and weeping about what she had learned, but was criticized by many for this and was asked many questions by religious men trying to convict her of being a heretic. She sought counsel many places, including from Julian of Norwich, and travelled to Jerusalem later in her life. She couldn't read or write, but had a scribe write her story. 
This book is in three parts. The first is the longest and alternates the women's stories using their own voices as they tell us of their experiences and their search for meaning. The second part tells of their meeting, which they did on two subsequent days. The last part is the shortest and tells of Margery's careful keeping of Julian's story and how she planned to write her own.
There is also an epilogue that explains the facts about the women, how Margery's story came to be written down, and was the autobiography written in English; how both women's stories came to light, and the importance of these in terms of medieval literature. 
It is interesting how Mackenzie has combined these two lives, showing their differences and parallels and giving their voices life. 

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