Victoria Mackenzie’s debut novella, For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy On My Little Pain, is told in short fragments, switching between first-person narration from the significant late fourteenth-century and early fifteenth-century female religious writers, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. As Mackenzie notes in her afterword, Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love is the earliest book written in English by a woman, while Margery’s dictated The Book of Margery Kempe is the first autobiography in English by anybody at all. As my knowledge of these two figures is pretty limited, it’s hard to say how For Thy Great Pain… would read to somebody who knows more about them; but I thought the clarity and simplicity with which Mackenzie conveyed the ideas these women struggled with was impressive. While both wrestle with their relationship to God, I found that this novella both evoked how serious and important these questions were in the late medieval period, and had resonance for modern readers who don’t consider themselves to be religious.
In the early sections, I found it hard to tell Julian and Margery’s voices apart, but as the novel unfolds, Mackenzie establishes their distinctive characters and their very different attitudes to their holy visions. This novella focuses on Julian’s time as an anchoress – she spent the last twenty-plus years of her life in a cell annexed to St Julian’s Church in Norwich, with no physical contact with another human being. Mackenzie beautifully handles Julian’s early difficulties in her isolation, and also the reasons why she chooses it. ‘I had wanted to prolong each moment of my life, to get closer to experiencing time as God experiences it: not the instantly dissolving moment, but something larger and more encompassing. A stillness that doesn’t pass as soon as you think yourself into it. I’d thought I would live as slowly as moss in my stone cell. But… I was myself, with all my usual racing thoughts’.
In contrast, Margery is perhaps less obviously sympathetic as she roams around, telling others of her visions and crying publicly and loudly about the sufferings of Christ. Mackenzie writes her with wry humour, letting her desire to be remembered as a saint and comfort herself by thinking how she will be adored by God, Jesus and Mary in heaven even though she is mocked on earth. However, the clever choice to juxtapose Margery’s story with Julian’s allows us to take her on her own terms rather than having to read her as a symbol of how all medieval merchant women engaged with religious faith. We can see how her ostentatious holiness serves her in a patriarchal society, allowing her to do otherwise forbidden things like neglecting her children and refusing to have sex with her husband. While Julian’s backstory is more likely to appeal to the modern reader – tragically widowed, losing her only child, unable to understand Margery’s ingratitude for her fourteen children – Margery brings us closer to the otherness of the medieval past.
Despite the theological subject-matter, this book flowed so naturally that I found it difficult to put down, and even if I was sometimes inclined to skim the Margery sections to get back to Julian, I admired Mackenzie’s intentions in telling both of these stories.
I received a free proof copy of this novella from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on January 19th.
5 thoughts on “‘Experiencing time as God experiences it’”
Yes, this massively grew on me—the differentiation of the voices worked really nicely and echoed the style of both Margery’s and Julian’s works (at least, what I remember, having read them both about a decade ago…) It did feel like a proper window into the otherness of the past.
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That’s really interesting to hear. I had encountered Margery historically but I’ve not read either of their works. I’m now very keen to read Julian’s book.
Revelations of Divine Love is wonderful—I found it genuinely enjoyable quite apart from its academic interest. Penguin Classics does a nice edition.
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This one is a struggle for me, as I famously dislike novelisations of real people yet the subject matter is so compelling. I hadn’t realised it was a novella, so I might well go for it, as I reckon I can cope in a short piece. I’ve read both, too, also decades ago, so it would be interesting.
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Yes, I’m also a little hesitant about books that focus on real people but this does feel quite different. It doesn’t attempt a potted biography but is very voice-driven and, as you say, short!