Review by Christine Havens
“This life, this rich, anchored life.” Simple words, profound words. Words from a person who has fulfilled her calling from God.
Claire Gilbert gives these words to Julian of Norwich in the prologue of I, Julian, her imaginary testament of the faith journey of this beloved mystic, writer, and saint as told to Thomas Emund, a historical person who serves in the fictional role of the anchoress’s confessor and friend. Thomas has come to the anchoress in the year 1403 wanting her life story.
Not much is verifiable about the life story of the historical Julian, as Gilbert notes at the back of the book. An anchoress was attached to St. Julian’s Church in Conesford, which is roughly 11 miles northwest of Norwich, until 1416. The surviving manuscripts ascribed to her have been dated to the 15th century and later.
A legacy of 20 shillings for a “Julian recluz a Norwich” appears in a will in 1416. There are a few other such legacies, and Margery Kempe, another medieval mystic, notes their meeting in her book, written around 1413. This is, in essence, all that is documented about the first woman who wrote a manuscript in English. We have no paintings, no descriptions of her, no details whatsoever. Just her voice.
In writing I, Julian, Gilbert embodies Julian, giving her an incarnate form as opposed to leaving her a disembodied voice from the medieval past. Gilbert, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Julian and ecological consciousness, quite ably deconstructs Julian’s Short Text, which records the “showings” she received from God in 1373, and her later Long Text, a deep examination of her visions written by Julian nearly 20 years after the initial revelations. Her words provide context for the plausible guesses Gilbert makes in her manuscript.
Julian begins her tale to Thomas by recounting the first traumatic event in her life — the death of her father during the Great Pestilence of 1348-49. Gilbert has the family living outside the walls of Norwich; Julian is an only child and wanders frequently through the forest, contemplative even then. She is scarred by the death of her father, and this is when her fraught relationship with God and the Church begins. Julian envisions a God angry with humanity since he’s sending so many devastating illnesses; she looks for ways to appease him, finally settling on asking for three wound-vows — contrition, compassion, and longing for God — after hearing a Franciscan friar preach.
In 1373, Julian falls ill. It is here, near death, that she receives her showings from God. These scenes are some of the strongest in the book. Gilbert’s Thomas Emund enters her life for the first time, imagined as the one who holds the crucifix. Julian also credits him as the spiritual turning point in her life: “What would my life have been if you had laughed with the others when I said I raved, Thomas?”
Julian’s course is set once she recovers, though it takes years before she feels called to be an anchoress, one who is locked into a small cell attached to a church and devotes her life to contemplative prayer. While anchorites had some contact with others, they were considered dead to the world. Chapter 38 is one of the most evocative in the novel as Gilbert has Julian describe the requiem Mass and being sealed in the cell.
Once she is alone, Julian says, “I have never felt so fully alive.” Though she has times of doubt and times of hardship, she feels she has realized her vocation, her relationship with God. Gilbert uses the anchor metaphor throughout the book to ground the reader in Julian’s faith and her words.
The remainder of Julian’s storytelling follows the course of events in medieval England: the Peasants’ Revolt, the advent of the Wycliffites, and the violent suppression of heresy by the Catholic Church. In this dangerous atmosphere, Julian decides to write a reflection of her visions in English so that anyone can read them and see that God meant them for everyone to mark and understand.
I, Julian is a remarkable undertaking, giving shape and form to a voice that still inspires Christian, secular, and spiritual readers to this day. Gilbert anchors readers in Julian’s life, using her gift of vibrant imagination — and what a gift to receive.
Christine Havens is a writer and a graduate of the Seminary of the Southwest. She is passionate about literature and theology. Her work has appeared on Mockingbird Ministries’ blog, Mbird, and in Soul by Southwest, literary journal of SSW.