A Feature Review of
I, Julian: The Fictional Autobiography of Julian of Norwich
Reviewed by Alex Joyner
To be labeled a medieval mystic was once a sure path to freak-dom. Reports of (especially) women mystics from the 13th & 14th centuries are happy to relate their practices of levitation (Douceline of Digne), bodily mortification (Marie of Oignies), and ostentatious weeping (Margery Kempe), but are far less forthcoming about the fact that these were lay people seeking God who were also…you know…people.
So welcome Claire Gilbert to rescue Julian of Norwich from such a Cirque du Soliel spectacle. In her new novel, I, Julian, Gilbert enters deep into Julian’s world and words to flesh out a three-dimensional character who is a fit companion for contemporary Christians in their spiritual journeys. Taking the precious few details that remain from the actual historical figure, Gilbert crafts a credible Julian who, far from levitating, is refreshingly down to earth.
You could certainly make a case for Julian as another of those eccentric mystics. The anchorite life she pursued was extreme. The men and women who took it up were walled-up in a side chamber of a parish church, getting to participate in their own public funeral rite as the mortar was fixed behind them. Small windows on two sides of the cell allowed them, on the one side, to receive food and to participate in worship services, and on the other to counsel visitors who sought them out as they dedicated their lives to prayer.
Gilbert’s text tries to suss out how a person could make such a choice and remain sane (Julian’s predecessor in the cell, in Gilbert’s rendering, does not). But she also reminds us that, even in isolation, an anchorite was not really alone. Julian has a patron and a servant who make their own kind of vows to support her. She has confessors. And she has a changing world around her, roiled by the challenge of John Wycliffe, whose critique of the medieval Catholic Church was stirring nascent English nationalism as well.
As in Julian’s ‘shewings,’ which have come down to us as the spiritual classic, Revelations of Divine Love, this novel is told as a long narration to Thomas Emund, her confessor, in which Julian offers a rich autobiographical account. This Julian is born in East Anglia in 1342 and survives the periodic visits to the town of the bubonic plague, though her husband and young daughter do not.
These episodes are conjecture, but the illness unto death that comes to Julian around 1373 and led to her first vision is not. As a priest holds a crucifix before her face expecting her final breath, Julian is overcome by the love of Christ and understands that the suffering of the world is not God’s wrath and the suffering of Christ on the cross is an invitation to “Enter and endure the pain and it will, it will transform” (114).
Upon her recovery, Gilbert’s Julian spends time with a proto-Beguine community of lay women who conduct their own ministry on the margins of the church. Eventually she makes the choice, along with her maid Alice, to take the radical step of entering the anchorhold.
Julian’s world, far from growing smaller, widens as she enters her small cell. Troubled souls come to visit at her window for healing counsel. “Scholars come to quarrel and question, often because they have read [Thomas’s account of her visions],…but also because I am a strange being, a woman who is living her own life of prayer”(208). She feels the suspicion of both ecclesiastical authorities and disciples of Wycliffe.
Julian, however, remains rooted in her visions, which today are too often parodied as a kind of Pollyanna faith, especially the ubiquitous adage “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (293). But Julian’s faith is rich and deep, never skirting past the graveyards of this world, but opening up the nature of a loving God. This is clear to every close reader of Revelations of Divine Love, but Gilbert lifts it up in her imagining of Julian’s developing theology:
I see no wrath in God, I see no forgiveness in God because there is nothing to forgive; I see the saved but I do not see the unsaved. And in the saved I see all people, and I see the earth and all the planets. I see this higher truth, shown without any doubt. God says, Sin is behovely, it is necessary to the story, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well (293).
In 2011, Denys Turner produced an excellent theological defense of Julian titled Julian of Norwich: Theologian (Yale University Press) in which he argued persuasively that the mystic was not only orthodox but also deserving of a place among the greats of medieval theology like Bonaventure and Aquinas. He made much of the nature of an anchorhold: “Physically, as well as theologically, an anchoress lives, to employ a phrase of Bernard [of Clairvaux]’s, in regione dissimilitudinis, in a ‘land of unlikeness,’ a place of ‘exile.’”(13) Such a figure, he suggested, might be an ideal guide for postmodern people who are also traveling in a kind of exile from faith.
Gilbert also seems to look to Julian for guidance in these strange times. The author narrates a familiar world emerging from a pandemic and trying to make sense of a flailing church and ominous political conflicts. Gilbert’s Julian intuits a connection we may see as well:
Perhaps, I think, we cannot bear the realisation that we were helpless to avoid the pitiless scourge, that our prayers and our tears and our clever physic were powerless…Instead of giving ourselves time, time to grieve and time to learn what the pain and the loss and the helplessness mean, we have turned our faces towards other things that we think we can control, like sedition and heresy, and let the fury that was in truth grief grow in us, against each other (274).
I, Julian is clear, smart, and rich with the details of a medieval life that resonates through time. British author Sarah Sands compares Gilbert’s depiction of Julian to the way “Hilary Mantel immersed herself in Cromwell” in her much-lauded trilogy about the 16th century statesman that began with Wolf Hall. The comparison is not so far-fetched. This is great writing about a figure who needs to be known far from the small cell in Norwich where she opened wide to a universe filled with God’s love.
Alex Joyner is a pastor and writer currently serving First United Methodist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the editor of Heartlands [ alexjoyner.com ] co-author of Living Faithfully: Human Sexuality and The United Methodist Church, (Abingdon, 2019), and his most recent essay “The Silence of No-One’s Land” was published in Streetlight Magazine.
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