I, Julian – Claire Gilbert

This is a cleverly written fictional autobiography of Julian of Norwich, focusing on her relationship with God as it develops through her life.

Julian of Norwich was the author of the earliest surviving writing in English by a woman, detailing her visions of Christ and her interpretation of them. She became an “anchoress”, dedicated to a life of prayer and meditation, literally sealed into a small cell by bricks, with a couple of small windows and no means of exit. There until the day she died.

She lived in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, and the historical events of the time are influential on the course of her life, especially the loss of so many during the Black Death. The events from local history led her to become so focused on seeking and serving God. There is much fascinating detail in the book, offering an understanding of what life in the medieval period may have been like.

It is intriguing to consider the thought process and personal story that may have led her to decide to take up an anchorage, to us perhaps one of the strangest callings in the church. To be locked up for life, voluntarily imprisoned in a cell like room beside a church, dedicated to a life of prayer, on display for all to see and consult with on spiritual matters.

The reader will gain an understanding of what it may have meant to her to be confined, solitary. The book describes it as there being nothing now between her and God. No distractions or relationships. Just fully focused on prayer, worship and communing with God. When you get over the horror that it first creates, in fact there is something attractive about it.

The process does seem to break her though, which is believable. The solitude magnifies her doubts and inadequacies. But through her brokenness she emerges stronger, shedding her old self and truly living in step with God.

It is written as an internal monologue offering a deep dive into the thoughts and emotions of the character. It is a very engaging read and the author has established a very appropriate tone of voice, believable as Julian’s voice.

Julian’s decision to write in English, the spoken language of the day, rather than French or Latin, reminded me a bit if how Christ would have spoken Aramaic in the day to day, which was not generally written. But was the language to communicate the Gospel to the masses.

Throughout there is an interesting undertone of women realising that they can think and act according to their own judgement, to make their own decisions, contrary to the way society would have expected them to behave. Hence how she went on to be such an influential woman and a free thinker, liberated by Christ.

It is the radical view that all can live in relationship with God, rather than just through the priesthood or the church, that sees her suffer persecution by the church. The abuses of power by the church led her to realise that following Jesus is about relationship, personal relationship with a loving Father, who wants to commune, relate and communicate with us all. Quite the opposite of what the church at the time seemed to be showing.

This is a work of fiction, but it is clear that much research and thought has gone into creating this fascinating book.

I, Julian, by Claire Gilbert, is available here.

Thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.