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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

The Anchoress

1. Why did Sarah decide to be enclosed as an anchoress? Her reasons may be multiple.

2. What choices were available to Sarah?

3. As a child, Sarah longed to fly like Swallow, the jongleur. What use does the story make of the symbol of birds and flying?

4. What does Agnes’s presence in the cell mean for Sarah?

5. Words and stories are important in this book, but each character has a slightly different relationship to them. How do Sarah, Ranaulf, Anna, Avice and Eleanor relate to words and stories? 

6. Avice says, “Afer all, a tree is always a tree, a pot is always a pot, however we say or think on it.” What does she mean, do you think?

7. In the book of Genesis, Eve takes and eats the forbidden fruit, traditionally represented as an apple. There are two apples in THE ANCHORESS. What is their significance?

8. Do you think Sarah should have told Anna that she knew Thomas raped her?

9. The word “holy” is from the Old English hālig, meaning “that which must be preserved whole or intact,” and is connected with the Old English word hāl, meaning health and wholeness. In current usage it is a word layered with expectations: love of God, niceness, meekness, obedience, piety, and so on. Sarah hopes and prays that she will become holy. Does she? If she does, in what ways?

10. Isabella says very little, but Sarah says she has helped her decide to stay. What do you think Sarah means?

11. The Rule that Sarah follows emphasizes the dangers of the eyes above all of the senses. Think about the significance of sight in the novel. What role does it play? Keep in mind both Sarah and Ranaulf, but also the people in the village.  

12. In what ways does Ranaulf change?

13. Sarah describes Father Peter’s gentle care and contrasts it with Father Ranaulf’s stern silences, yet she says she has learned from the spaces between Ranaulf’s words. What does she mean? Does Peter’s care limit her growth in any way? (He says, “You must learn humility, child. Think of it as submission to me, the man you are sworn to obey.”)

14. How do you think the fire started? Why?

15. The novel is set more than seven hundred years ago; does it have any relevance to women today? How?

16. Geraldine Brooks once said of writing her own historical fiction that times and contexts may be different, but people are still people. Do you agree?

The Anchoress
by Robyn Cadwallader