Clare Gilbert’s I, Julian is a biographical novel telling the story of the anchoress Julian of Norwich, who was a mother, a mystic and a radical, as well as the first woman to write a book in English – Revelations of Divine Love, a description of the visions she experienced at the age of thirty, when she thought she was on her deathbed. As a woman in the medieval world, the real Julian did not feel able to write about herself directly, instead calling herself ‘the creature’. Gilbert creates an engaging first-person voice for her that feels both accessible and true to the period.
The book begins with Julian as a young child so sensitive she is troubled even by the sight of ‘a flower broken at its stem by a thoughtless human hand’. When she loses her father to ‘a new, ugly, pitiless, mortal sickness’, she becomes obsessed with the belief that a vengeful God has punished her for her sins. Later, Julian loses her husband and child to the same plague and feels she is caught ‘in a binding circle of pain, pain demanded by God, pain received from God’. Eventually, she finds refuge in a community of laywomen who live, pray and study together, earning their keep as ‘parchmenters’.
As part of this community, Julian tends to ‘the poverty-stricken, beached survivors of the pestilence-wave’, while continuing to feel that God ‘remains aloof, angry with me’. When she herself becomes seriously ill, she has feverish visions that culminate in God speaking to her: ‘He did not say, you shall not