Anna Richenda, barbarism in medieval history, Boy King Edward VI, Historical Fiction, medieval piety, monasteries and nunneries, monastic life, reincarnation, Saint Isela, severe religious devotion, The English Reformation, The Saint and The Fasting Girl
It has taken me quite a while to get through The Saint and The Fasting Girl by Anna Richenda, not because it isn’t well-written historical fiction, because it is, but because I’ve been very busy and I’ve had trouble getting through this book that highlighted the often brutal treatment of main character, Sister Georgia, and her fellow nuns and followers of the mysterious Saint Isela.
The Saint and The Fasting Girl is intelligently written with obvious passion by a woman who is enamored with and well versed in the time period. Set in the years 1524-1551 during the Reformation of Henry VIII’s England and the beginning of the boy king Edward VI’s reign when monasteries and nunneries were being obliterated, this is an exceedingly visceral depiction of the brutality of men and it was sometimes difficult for me to continue reading because it was so realistic and I hated the characters of the King’s cruel subordinate Horley Romsfeld and the vicious Philip SeVerde, Archbishop of York. I didn’t particularly have a lot of sympathy for Georgia either because she was ruthless in her devotion to Isela and I couldn’t understand why she continued to endure horrific hardship for the sake of protecting an ancient relic that she believed to belong to Isela when her journey meant death for so many people around her.
The story begins in a Northern England nunnery and throughout the entire book, tragedy after tragedy befalls the nuns and those closely associated with them as they fight for their right to practice their religion. Sister Georgia, who is known as The Bearer, makes it her mission to follow the visions that are bestowed upon her and to keep safe the ancient relic of Isela, a bronze & amber amulet that provides her with the ability to lead Isela’s followers until her prophesied return.
A peasant girl is born during this tumultuous era and Georgia believes she is The Chooser. The girl is called Lo by the nuns who raise her and after Romsfeld destroys their nunnery and murders Georgia (who is later reincarnated as a common girl named Jane), she is taken prisoner by him to serve as his own personal sex slave.
One might think that this book was written by someone who loathes men, or it could simply be that she chose to write about a barbaric time in which most men had absolutely no respect for women (which is probably the case):
“The preacher took a deep breath. “It is no fault of hers. Women are by nature drawn to whoredom. It is why they must marry and be tamed, to prevent such a fall as this. They must submit to their fathers and their husbands in every obedience. And though they may beat her, yet it is done in love. For it is in her own good, to purge her of sin and licentiousness.”
I just can’t get my head around that!
One of the things I was most confused by was why Georgia would continue to incarnate through several lifetimes to constantly be tortured and abused by the men of medieval times just so she could fulfill her purpose to Isela who we know absolutely nothing about. I didn’t really understand what Isela’s promise was and if it was to the nuns specifically or to women in general.
The character of Sister Mendaline, a born healer, is an interesting one and she often grounds the otherworldly Georgia and literally saves her from a ghastly demise. She also acts as a caregiver and friend to Lo, who seems to be a woman whose brain hasn’t fully developed and can’t think for herself.
I think my main problem with The Saint and the Fasting Girl is that I cannot understand what drove people to such medieval piety and severe religious devotion or what today might be called fundamental fanaticism. I don’t have much empathy for them and think they are weak-minded people who are easily brainwashed even though they may be extremely strong in their convictions. Many of the chapters are titled after saints and I have no idea who they were or what they were the saint of and if I did, I think it might have woven the story together for me in a clearer manner.
There was too much pain and hardship in this book for me to truly enjoy it and not enough light and hope, even though it ends with a glimmer and a surprise. However, if you love medieval historical fiction, you will most likely appreciate The Saint and The Fasting Girl. It was a commendable first novel from Anna Richenda but I was disappointed that I didn’t like it more.
You can learn more about monastic life and medieval history at Anna Richenda’s Historyfish.net.