Revelations: A Novel
- By Mary Sharratt
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Carrie Callaghan
- May 3, 2021
A 15th-century wife embarks on a revolutionary pilgrimage.
In southern Germany, in the early 15th century, Englishwoman Margery Kempe takes shelter as she journeys on a perilous pilgrimage to the Holy Land. As novelist Mary Sharratt describes in Revelations, Margery finds refuge with an enclosed order of Dominican nuns. The prioress, her hostess, listens with longing to Margery’s adventures, hard though they were. For it is the Dominican men, the prioress explains, who can journey the world preaching.
“They travel far and wide,” she says. “We nuns must support their efforts through our silence and prayers.”
The men do. The women…do not.
Such is the established order that Margery Kempe upends.
Margery, based on a real woman, has born her lustful husband 14 children, lost many of them to stillbirth or illness, and nearly lost her own life in the childbed. She endures marital rape while her spouse exercises his “rights,” and she tries to persuade him to swear an oath of chastity to spare her a life-threatening 15th pregnancy. The only thing that gives Margery solace is her faith in a loving, divine Beloved — a glowing Christ who came to her in visions as she suffered from intense postpartum depression and delirium.
But her husband cannot abide a chastity vow and detests having a woman tell him what to do. Desperate, Margery seizes upon an apparent miracle — when a portion of the cathedral collapses upon her yet does her no harm — to publicly declare her intention to venture to Jerusalem as a pilgrim.
Throughout Sharratt’s compelling novel, Margery’s determination and independence confound the men — and many women — she encounters. She insists upon wearing white, to signal her purity and devotion to God, when tradition demands only virgins do so. She persists in her desire to take a pilgrimage, even though none from her family will accompany her, and women traveling alone were unheard of at best, and targets for assault and slavery at worst.
Her persistence will charm readers, especially since her dedication to her own quest is based on The Book of Margery Kempe, the first published English-language autobiography. Margery was a groundbreaking woman.
She was also, decidedly, a woman of her times. She is often moved to showy demonstrations of weeping, and she falls into ecstatic communion with her Beloved. She cherishes the refuge that nuns’ orders offer to women, and she finds stimulating conversation only with abbots, prioresses, and other religious figures — likely the only learned people available to a curious woman of that time.
Sharratt captures Margery’s mysticism beautifully, even for this skeptical reader. Margery’s own doubt in her visions serves to make them all the more convincing, and her yearning for the sublime in a world that otherwise diminishes her is utterly understandable. At one point, she travels to a beach, which serves as a blessed respite. “There was only this beach, the silky sand seeping into my worn shoes,” she tells us. “Every step a prayer.”
Not everyone Margery encounters feels that same conviction. Her trail is littered with snarling priests and jealous men who want to restrict her movement, claim her body, or snuff out her potentially heretical thoughts. These men can feel like masked demons in a pageant, spitting out venom for the pleasure of it. But in Margery’s first-person narrative, the superficial malevolence seems appropriate, a reflection of her victimization in a world unwilling to accommodate female agency.
Margery spends months walking, riding, and sailing to make trips that would today take a matter of hours or, at most, days. She knew so little of the world that her one crude map was a valuable asset to her companions, and in each town where she arrived, the clothes and customs of the inhabitants were complete surprises. Traveling with such difficulty and innocence seems unimaginable today.
But what have our speed and knowledge earned us? Margery’s toils as she travels are the pilgrimage itself, and she learns at every stage, from nearby York to the slums of Rome. The world is as large as we believe it to be, and our journeys are shaped by our spirits, not by the length of the road stretching before us.
Early in her adventures, Margery encounters the famed real-life mystic Julian of Norwich. “All is well and all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well,” Julian reads to Margery. While the course of Margery’s journey shows her that man’s world is not all well, she nonetheless retains her faith in the depth of love. That seems a healing power the 21st century can use just as well as the 15th.