The Life of a Mystic - I, Julian by Claire Gilbert - a review by Sarah Nicholson

I will confess until very recently I knew very little about Mother Julian of Norwich, perhaps just enough to write on a hazelnut, I’m sure I could fit “all will be well” – her most famous saying - on one, if I wrote in really, really, tiny letters. 

·        I knew she lived a very long time ago – she was born in 1342.

·        I knew she lived in Norwich, in a cell beside a church, a bit like a nun.

·        I knew she wrote a book called “Revelations of Divine Love.” I picked up a copy in a charity shop once, but it just sits on my shelf gathering dust – one day I might read it.

Actually it has the distinction of being the first book written by a woman in English, which is quite a feat.

Now there is a fictional autobiography about her called I, Julian by Claire Gilbert, which brings this mystical woman to life.

I never really enjoyed history at school but give me a historical novel to read and I lap up all the details. Especially when this is about a woman who writes, who challenges the status quo and does things her own way – she sounds very much like me.

Although I don’t think I’m cut out for the life of an anchorite, a religious recluse, cut off from society, living in a cell with the door bricked up.

“although you are alone in your cell you are also porous to the world and the world can find you.”

There is a window out into the world where she can counsel those who wish to speak with her. And of course she prays for those who live outside.

Much prayer is needed because she lives in very troubled times. There are power struggles between the rich, which includes within the church.  Then a pestilence spreads through the land on more than one occasion. She almost died from it. Is her raving caused by it? Her revelations of God start at this time.

Many might dismiss it and discredit her; she walks a dangerous path. Especially as she dares to write in English rather than use the religious language of Latin.

“Words from a woman who should not take it upon herself to speak of such things in English to describe a God who belongs in Latin, to the men of holy church”

But as she says in the novel.

            “they [the religious leaders of the time] complicate God with their Latin”

Of course we cannot be sure exactly what she said. The novel is well researched but the timeline at the end of the book does layout exactly what is truth and where liberties have been taken to shape the narrative. Claire Gilbert says “I have tried to make my guesswork plausible.”

These include fictional characters Felicia, Berta, Matilda, and Margaret, lay sisters who live in a community. Each has a distinctive character, guiding Julian in different aspects of her faith.

They may not be real people but these

“self-tutored lay women have learned by their own discernment to trust that God is infinite and even more beyond that which minds will never grasp.”

However much you already know about Julian this is a great read and there are reviews inside the cover from Rowan Williams to Jeremy Irons. The Right Honourable Jack Straw compares it Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell and a review from namesake Julian Clary says it is “Dreamy. Am tempted to become a mystic myself.”

For me it makes Julian more human and relatable. Yes, she had divine visions from God and set herself apart but her words, written in English, were for the ordinary folk of the time not the learned classes.

Now where did I put my copy of “Revelations of Love?” With a new perspective of this amazing woman, I think I have much to learn and more chance of understanding.


Peter Leyland said…
A great review Sarah. I reached out for the 'all wll be well' quote in April, recorded in these pages as 'When the Drugs Don't Work'. I would like to read that book and I'm sure it would interest some of my friends too.
Fran Hill said…
There's also a 2023 novel about her (more like a novella, actually) called 'For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on my Little Pain' by Victoria Mackenzie and it's so beautiful.

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