For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria MacKenzie: Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe

Cover image for For Thy Great PainHave Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria MackenzieFor Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain is one of those books I suspect I’d not have read if I hadn’t been sent it. Proof that stepping outside your comfort zone often reaps rewards. Victoria MacKenzie’s ambitious debut reimagines the lives of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, both of whose books are still read and studied many centuries after they were written.

Amidst the bustle of this world , it does no harm to have a woman who watches

After her mother’s death, Julian of Norwich requested permission to be made an anchoress, a religious recluse, walled up in a cell attached to St Julian’s Church, her maid living in a neighbouring room. From a wealthy background, her life had been marked by tragedy losing many members of her family, including her beloved husband and child, to the waves of pestilence that swept through the fourteenth century. Her withdrawal had been prompted by a series of religious visions when she was afflicted by a fever aged thirty about which she remains silent. In contrast, Margery Kempe proclaims her ever more baroque visions of Christ to the world, standing on the streets of Bishop’s Lynn, heedless of the risk of heresy charges for both her own life and her husband’s reputation. Seeking advice from a sympathetic local priest, she travels to Norwich to meet Julian who entrusts her with something precious: the book of meditations written in her cell. Margery will also commit her story to paper, dictating it to her son.

Her voice swanned and preened and boasted, yet there was another note to her song. Margery Kempe was the loneliest woman I had ever met

MacKenzie alternates the stories of these very different women, telling them through their own voices in striking, simple but often beautiful language. Julian is quietly reflective, choosing to remain silent about her visions but engaging with those who want the blessing of the holy anchoress. The risks she takes are confined to her literacy, forbidden to women. Margery is entirely different, beset by visions of Christ which are both visceral and sensuous, unable to remain silent despite the regular burning of heretics. The meeting when it happens takes up little of the novella but there’s a sense that these two women, the antithesis of each other, form an immediate bond based on their mutual faith. MacKenzie ends with an epilogue which tells us that The Book of Margery Kempe was found entirely by accident, falling out of a cupboard in 1934 when someone was looking for a ping pong ball, while Revelations of Divine Love was kept hidden by a succession of women for centuries. A riveting book, a celebration of the resilience and determination of women, extraordinarily ambitious for a debut but MacKenzie carries it off beautifully.

Bloomsbury Books: London 9781526647887 176 pages Hardback

23 thoughts on “For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria MacKenzie: Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe”

  1. My goodness, everyone’s noticing this book – it IS making waves. Your review has confirmed my wish to read this. It looks such an interesting exploration of two very different people.

    1. I was a bit sniffy about it when it turned up, Cathy, but was so impressed with the writing and the way she gets inside these two very different women’s minds. Hope you enjoy it if you get to it.

  2. Yeah, this really grew on me. I also think she very successfully evokes the rhythms of both women’s actual prose (I read Margery’s and Julian’s work as an undergrad and both have quite distinctive voices).

  3. I saw this mentioned on The Guardian and instantly thought it would be right up my street. Your review has confirmed it. Glad it was an unexpectedly positive reading experience for you. Those kinds of books can be a real gift.
    One to add to my list. Yikes!

  4. I’ve read this and was struck by it, despite the (in this case) necessary references to religion. I found the pair fascinating. And like you, there are many books I wouldn’t have read, and enjoyed if I’d not been sent them. Great review.

  5. I have a real fondness for Margery and Julian, and their voices are so different, imagining that meeting must have been quite enjoyable for the author! I remember in my medieval lit class being definitely out on a limb in my support of Margery – everyone else found her really annoying 😀

  6. But so short!!!Such a wonderful story I’m sure it could have stretched to a couple of hundred pages.I read it in two hours,totally rapt and anxious to know more of these complex women.Even laughed aloud a couple of times,with Marge’s conflict between body and spirit.More,please.

    1. Ah, I’m a novella fan so its brevity suited me! I agree with you about their complexity, though. Pretty impressive for a first novel. Looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

  7. Well it seems like everyone whose blog I read is reading this. I don’t really like historical novels or works of fiction about real people – however, I just really enjoyed the book I read about the Ladies of Llangollen and I really want to read this one. Seeing its length means I can pop it into Novellas in November if I spot a copy between now and then!

    1. Perfect for #NovNov! Pleased to hear it’s getting so much attention. I had to get over my historical novel antipathy, too, but it’s so different from anything else I’ve read recently and so accomplished I’m glad I did.

  8. Following my remark to you earlier today that I took notice of your reviews (especially if negative 😉 ), I thought I should tell you it was you who drove me to this book, which I’ve just finished. Absolutely involving, despite not sharing the absolute faith of these women. A book to remember,.

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