Plainsong | Suzie Howell & A.K. Blakemore | Granta


As a historical novelist, I am interested in Howell’s notion of ‘living comfortably in the present’. I came to historical writing from poetry, when a series of upheavals in my life left me appalled by the vulnerability, the self-consciousness I felt I had too lavishly bestowed on my poetic work. Historical writing was – at least, at first – a kind of retreat. In writing about the past, rather than the present, I could masque, and play. It was also a way of ensuring I wouldn’t write characters that might be mistaken for myself (specious, even intrusive, autobiographical interpretations are something I think most female-identified writers experience). A sort of renunciation of a sort of voice. These practices do not bear comparison to those of the sisters of the Society of the Sacred Cross, whose dedication to devotion, silence and solitude leaves me sheepishly awed (it could, as they say, never be me, with my wine and vaping and impractical footwear). I just want to illustrate, by my own experience, that women’s relationship to silence, in both the religious and secular realms, can be a complicated one.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how much of our contemporary language concerning liberation, especially the liberation of women, centres on speech and noise. The demand to ‘speak up for’ or ‘speak out against’, to raise your voice, to declare. To divulge – whatever the cost – the injustices, or traumas endured. The ubiquity of social media – where to say is to do – has profoundly altered our relationship with the declarative mode. I’m not saying this is bad. The freedom to speak for oneself should rightly be acknowledged as a privilege. But sometimes it seems to me that if ‘speaking out’ becomes a requisite component of liberation, there follows a corollary implication that silence is inherently oppressive. This implication, like anything blunt-edged, can be weaponised.

The anonymous author of the thirteenth-century Ancrene Wisse, a handbook for prospective anchoresses, quotes Saint Gregory: ‘She who wishes God’s ear to be nigh her tongue, must retire from the world, else she may cry long ere God hear her.’

I’ve been struck by the recent revival of interest in women who, through devotion and seclusion, fostered lives of relative liberation. Novels such as Lauren Groff’s Matrix and a rereleased edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them recast the nunnery as a space of female joy and sovereignty in medieval England; while Robyn Cadwallader’s The Anchoress and Victoria Mackenzie’s For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain address the apparent contradictions in the pursuit of spiritual freedom through the most complete social seclusion. I wonder if this revival is in part due to increasing awareness of the tensions discussed above – that the contortions and compromises required of the contemporary feminist have left us aching for alternative (and perhaps unexpected) models of emancipation. Or perhaps it is the opposite: that we see in these women, struggling for self-realisation under the double bind of secular and theocratic misogynies, reflections of ourselves.


I don’t want to fall into the trap of historicising the Sisters of Tymawr, because Howell’s photographs so cleverly resist our modern, and perhaps rather patronising, impulse to approach the visibly religious as antiques – dusty, charming ornaments on the mantelpiece of our collective history. The women pictured in these photos are real: living and thinking and gardening and writing and painting and cleaning their glasses and attending workshops on non-violent communication and hosting prayers for female poets and single mothers – now. I’d rather let them speak for themselves. If that’s their choice.

Suzie Howell

Suzie Howell was born in Bristol and is a photographic artist living in London. Howell’s work has been exhibited in London and New York and has been featured in various photographic publications. Recent commissions include work for the New York TimesGrantaDocument JournalBound Magazine, the BBC, the Financial Times and the New Statesman.

More about the author →

A. K. Blakemore

A. K. Blakemore is a poet and novelist from London. Her first novel, The Manningtree Witches, won the Desmond Elliott Prize for Best First Novel and was shortlisted for the Costa and RSL Ondaatje Prizes. Her second novel, The Glutton, is forthcoming from Granta Books.

More about the author →