By Mary Sharratt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021
Hardcover, 318 pages
Reviewed by Nancy Fitzgerald-Bellovary
I have not read much about the medieval time period, so I was very interested in Mary Sharratt’s newest book, Revelations. The book deals with the life of Margery Kempe, who lived in England during the 1400s. Her life is one of privilege, but a consuming marriage and motherhood to 14 children starts her on a trajectory that ends with her becoming a religious mystic and traveler.
Ms. Sharratt vividly describes the details of life in the fourteenth century. You get a real sense of the trials of day-to-day existence that Margery endures. The hopelessness of women in even a privileged life is examined and brought to life. It makes you wonder that any women were able to survive this type of existence, let alone have 14 children. The reader is relieved when Margery is able to break free of this life and start her quest.
Margery’s journey from mother to pilgrim to writer has many twists and turns. The reader comes to admire her resilience and determination. Her bout with postpartum depression is something many women can relate to.
This depression is relieved by a vision of Jesus that gives her the strength to set off on her path. This is a continuing theme of the book. There are situations you feel will be the end of her or her journey. For example, she was perceived as “mad” for her strange ideas, including the desire not to subject herself to her husband. However, she perseveres and achieves her goals.
The parts of the book I enjoyed most were her encounters with other women who had similar passions. Whether it was famous anchoress Dame Julian of Norwich or female scribes, there is a sense that Margery was not alone in the world. She bravely took on the mission to carry Dame Julian’s book so it could be copied, and this inspired others. She found friends in each place she traveled, whether it was a Muslim tour guide or a poverty-stricken couple. They sensed her purpose and helped her complete her journey.
The one area of the book I had some difficulty with is that it seemed a little contrived that her nemeses always returned at the most inopportune moments. this made me skeptical about how accurate the historical retelling of this story, so I was glad to see in the afternotes that there was information in Margery’s writings that validated some of these encounters. This book is historical fiction, and it should be read with that in mind, but it did inspire me to look more into Ms. Kempe’s life, and that is, I think, a positive outcome of reading this book.
Many women in today’s society continue to struggle to be able to pursue their passions. Although there are challenges in our lives, they do not compare with the ones Margery endured. This book gives the reader inspiration to realize all she accomplished in her society. If Kempe was able to travel the world, write a book, and forge her own path, we should be able to do the same.
Ms. Sharrett’s website has the tag line “Writing Women Back into History.” She has brought Margery Kempe back to life and made her an inspiration for us all.
© 2021 by Christian Feminism Today.
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