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Julian - and heroic self-isolation

Posted by Simon Parke, 23 March 2020, 3.47pm

It is strange how contemporary the past can suddenly feel.

I recently wrote a novel about a woman who self-isolated…for forty years. She could scarcely have been less contemporary to this social media-connected age. Who in their right mind self-isolates?

And yet now her story is going viral…so to speak. Who’d have thought it?

So yes, I’m often now asked about Julian of Norwich and the book about her life, ‘The Secret Testament of Julian’.

It is, of course, fiction; making the most of the gaps history provides. But it is securely rooted in the difficult times in which she lived - 14th century England; and in the person and the words of Julian herself.

She did leave a lot of clues about herself in her remarkable writings.

But rather than me talk about it, which I don’t do very well, let me hand over to the latest reviewer on Amazon, who writes much better than me.

What did they find? Here goes:

‘This is the most unusual, extraordinary – and rather moving – book I have ever read. Having struggled in the past with the writing of Julian herself, I was afraid I was possibly going to find this a difficult read, and even perhaps somewhat pious.

How wrong I was!

To quote Beatrix (Beaty) as she was christened: ‘The devil laughs when a woman writes, it is well known!’

Coping with great good humour and courage, Julian is born into a world of misogyny, disease and abuse. The plague is decimating the population, and is described by the grasping church as ‘God’s will, and his anger’.

She loses the two beings closest to her to it.

After surviving a deadly illness herself, during which she had visions of a loving and merciful God, she chooses to become an anchoress – walled into a tiny cell for 40 years, dependent on the goodwill of others to provide for her needs.

The aptly named Mr Strokelady casts a fearful shadow over her life. When he arrives at her cell window, now the town’s mayor, a shiver ran down my spine: he held the power of life and death over Julian and others, as well as being personally vile.

For a woman to write at all in the 14th century was forbidden. For anyone to be discovered writing in English, and not the obligatory Latin of the church, was punishable by death.

Characters that particularly stick in my mind: Sara, her faithful friend and ‘maid’, Mr Curtgate, the ill-fated vicar and Margery Kempe: disturbed or inspired?

The Secret testament of Julian’ strongly reminds me of the play by William Nicholson about C.S. Lewis: ‘Shadowlands’. That, too, packs a powerful punch, and both books frequently had me in tears, dealing as they do with love and death, grief, illness and loss. Here are life-changing thoughts on the nature of suffering.

Both books are also suffused with humour and courage.

Preparing for a difficult encounter at her cell window, Julian picks up a hazelnut that has fallen, and marvels at it: ‘like all of us: made, loved and kept’.

‘All things shall be well, and all things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’’

‘The Secret Testament of Julian’ is available on all the usual online platforms; or it could be ordered from your local independent bookseller. If you’d like to order from the wonderful Sarum College bookshop, here’s the link:


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