It was a real honour to be asked by Anna Richenda, recently, if I would review her new self-published novel, The Saint and the Fasting Girl. As a fan of HistoryFish.net her expansive website devoted to medieval religious topics, I had been reading progress reports in her blog about the book’s publication for some time. I waited eagerly for my copy to arrive and it was real joy to finally find it in my mailbox.
As an aspiring author of medieval fiction myself, I can attest to the challenge of writing about this time period. Balancing the historical, physical and human details of the time into something convincing and compelling is no small task. And I’m happy to report that Anna has done a superb job not only in achieving that balance, but producing a sweeping story with drama, action and suspense and even a little humour. And despite its relatively severe religious setting, there is even a little romance thrown in for good measure.
The Saint and the Fasting Girl is set in England in the late 1530s during the reign of Henry VIII — not exactly the most peaceful time in the history of that country. There is little doubt that Henry VIII was one of England’s most controversial monarchs. Consider some of the facts:
He broke from Rome’s papal authority to form the Church of England; he destroyed the monasteries and violently suppressed attempts at religious reformation from Europe. He divorced two of his wives and executed another two; he also put to death numerous courtiers, nobles, poets and intellectuals. He began a war against France that turned out to be so costly that he had to cut the silver content of coins by two-thirds, creating havoc on England’s economy for a decade or more. And he ruled through various outbreaks of the Black Death and pestilence.
If Henry were in power today, he’d be called a despot, and thrown in with the likes of Josef Stalin, Idi Amin and Slobodan Miloševic. Few in England in the early-mid 1500s would have been unaffected by the long hand of Henry VIII.
The Saint and the Fasting Girl is set in this period of social and political upheaval. In particular, Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries is the source from which the tumultuous events of the book flow. Between 1538 and 1541, the monarchy appropriated the properties, finances and buildings of some 800 monasteries in England, Scotland and Wales. It was done in a swift and heavy-handed manner which displaced monks and countless monastery employees, destroyed buildings and even saw the execution of monastic authorities.
Get Thee to a Nunnery!
Anna Richenda takes an unusual point of view on Henry’s destructive actions by focusing on a nunnery, instead of a monk’s house. The stories of nuns and women in this era have not received the same focus as those of monks and in The Saint and the Fasting Girl, we are shown a different dimension to the dissolution story. “What is the hero’s story for women?” Anna asks in her acknowledgments. “What does it mean for a woman to struggle and to sacrifice and to believe?”
The answers come in this story about a group of nuns based in the northern England Priory of Saint Isela. They follow the ways of a prophetic female saint who inspires visions in the nunnery’s leader, Sister Georgia, and guidance by way of a stone amulet, Isela’s relic. In a violent and bitter England of the Middle Ages, ruled by brutish men, Isela represents the female ideal and she promises to return and provide some measure of sanctuary to the nuns and to the flocks of pilgrims who come to see the relic and miracles she brings.
One such miracle involves the birth of a peasant girl whom Georgia believes is “The Chooser,” one of the long line of inheritors of Saint Isela’s prophesied return. As the priory is about to be ransacked by a mob of the King’s henchmen, Georgia stands at the door of the church to christen the baby girl and a fountain of water erupts from the ground. Fearing this to be a miracle, the soldiers retreat and return to London, giving the the priory another reprieve from destruction.
Saints and Villains
The commotion that follows from the priory’s miracle creates problems, however, for the cruel and ambitious Philip SeVerde, the Archbishop of York and one of Henry VIII’s henchmen. He is anything but pious, and would rather be closer to London and the seat of power. At a time when monasteries are being shut down, St. Isela’s is thriving and attracting attention throughout the land. It becomes a source of embarrassment for Philip — an irritant in his thirst for power.
Georgia and her group of mystical nuns turn out to be more than a handful for the Archbishop. While he eventually succeeds in destroying the Priory and dispersing the nuns, he can’t make them disappear completely. Sister Georgia and Lo, The Chooser, manage to stay clear of Philip’s attempts to capture them and they live as fugitives in the countryside. There are no end of hardships, humiliations and physical and sexual abuse, but they survive.
What I admire most about The Saint and the Fasting Girl is Anna Richenda’s grasp of detail and the skillful use of it to create atmosphere. We experience the grittiness of the middle ages, the filth, disease and hardship. Anna takes you inside an abbey and shows you the straw strewn on the floor, makes you smell the fire smoke and the stench of human habitation. You experience the brutal justice and violence administered by the ruling classes and feel the suffering of the nuns and common folk. She gives you a sense of the severity of the religious devotion by way of Sister Theresa, an anchorite — a severe religious devotee who literally walls herself inside a tiny cell built into the foundation of the church to increase her sense of isolation and pious devotion.
A Worthy Infirmerer
Anna’s mastery of detail comes through particularly in Sister Mendaline, the priory’s infirmerer and Georgia’s closest ally. It has been said that if you were stricken with disease or injury in the Middle Ages, your chances of surviving under the care of a medieval physician were greatly reduced than if you received no treatment at all. Sister Mendaline is a worthy exception to this rule.
Mendaline is a born healer and is constantly rescuing either Georgia or Lo from the most gruesome circumstances. On one occasion, Georgia has nearly drowned after a narrow escape from being transported to a jail. She has also been beaten mercilessly by her captors and is barely conscious. Mendaline and her assistants rescue her and nurse her back to health.
“Mendaline prepared egg yolk and spirit concoctions and stirred jugs of wine. Georgia could smell cumin in the pastes that Lo fed to her, and chicken fat in the lanolin oil Lo smeared onto her burns and bruises.”
Anna does well, here, too, with her depictions of the delirium and the symptoms suffered by Mendaline’s patients. Her descriptions of skin colorations, the bruises and scabs, the agonizing pains and even the colour and taste of vomit are particularly graphic.
A Saint with Human Problems
It is this kind of detail that weaves believability and interest into the book. It also makes up for the fact that our protagonist, Sister Georgia, is not a particularly likable character, most of the time. She carries the burden of Saint Isela’s Promise and is so driven by her visions and convictions that she many times leads her followers into dangerous and fatal situations. She is heroic, courageous and saintly in her own right, but also headstrong and foolhardy. She takes a particular dislike to men, perhaps not surprisingly, as all of the villains in the book are either conniving or violent or murderous males — from Philip SeVerde to a reformist priest, to sleazy inn keepers and drunken commoners.
Georgia has her moments of pause when she reflects on her actions, the dangers she leads people into. She feels remorse and doubt about her mission to save the relic and preserve the Promise of Saint Isela, but is powerless to stop herself. Towards the end of the novel, she imperils herself by walking through the streets of York alone, where she is captured by loutish bounty hunters. Later, she steals into the residence of Philip SeVerde to find the relic.
Georgia does find a brief moment of ‘secular love’ with one of the only “good men” in the novel, a gentle commoner named Manwell. Georgia and the nuns are living in the countryside, no longer in their habits, and Manwell takes an interest in her. She softens for a short time as he persists in his attentions. Georgia is drawn to Manwell, as much by his charms as by her own curiosity as to where they will lead her.
A Surprising Twist and a Satisfying Resolution
Where they lead is to pregnancy, as Georgia carries not only his baby, but the great hope, she believes, of Saint Isela. The novel ends with a surprising twist, which I will leave to readers to discover for themselves. I will say that it is a satisfying ending, tinged with relief, though ultimately a little tragic. I also finally found a connection with Sister Georgia, which had eluded me through most of the novel. And I was left with a feeling of admiration for Georgia that I think Anna was trying to achieve with the character.
The Saint and the Fasting Girl is, after all, Anna’s tribute to medieval religious life, which she recreates with passion and loving attention to detail. Her devotion to the subject and the historical context comes through in the fine brushstrokes, and I think Anna would love to just linger on the details of life in the nunnery and medieval medicine and healing. But the writer of historical fiction needs to depart from the facts at some point and build a story that captures and moves the modern reader. Anna has created her own version of the medieval religious life, with miracles, visions and enough action and villainy to keep the reader breathless and wanting more.
The Saint and the Fasting Girl is available at the following locations: