by Margaret Skea
[The publisher kindly provided me with an advanced reading copy of Margaret Skea’s new historical novel, due to be published on October 18th.]
‘It is very shameful that children, especially defenceless young girls, are pushed into the nunneries. Shame on the unmerciful parents who treat their own so cruelly’ [Martin Luther]
When I began drafting this article, it was with the intention of entitling it ‘Get Thee to a Nunnery.’ Then I had second thoughts. The novel’s subtitle, Deliverance, suggests something quite different. I decided that, as the true theme of Katharina was one of liberation and hope, ‘The Great Escape’ was more suitable.
Unlike Steve McQueen, Dickie Attenborough and their fellow prisoners in the movie – for whom things end badly – Katharina and her friends actually make it. And their escape is all the more remarkable because, unlike POWs in the twentieth century, nuns in the sixteenth are not known for their enterprise and daring. But I leap ahead . . . .
Katharina von Bora has no desire to be a nun. At six years old, although she has lost her mother, she lives quite happily at Lippendorf in Saxony with her father and three brothers, two of them older than she. However, when her father remarries, her life changes. Sent in 1505, against her will, to a convent school at Brehna, she is subsequently ‘transferred’ to a Cistercian house at Nimbschen, where the abbess and another of the nuns are relatives.
‘We are practising signing in pairs, the silence between us filled with gestures and grimaces. When Eva can’t make me understand what she’s trying to say, she tosses her head and whispers . . .’
The Cistercians are a silent order and Katharina must learn sign language. In spite of the restrictions, Katharina makes friends and settles to the life of the convent. The girls are not above a bit of illicit conversation from time to time and, seldom though it occurs, news of the outside world does occasionally reach them. Katharina eventually takes her vows as a nun. She has nowhere else to go.
It is now 1517 and word reaches the sisters of a controversial monk who is speaking out and printing sermons against corrupt practices in the Church – Indulgences, where, for a sizeable fee, the clergy will pray for the soul of one’s ancestors to be released from Purgatory. He also challenges the Pope’s infallibility, and calls for priests to be married. His name is Martin Luther.
‘The harvest is long since in, the season of Advent approaching, when we hear the latest scandal. It begins with a tract ‘On Monastery Vows’, in which Luther advocates that anyone who wishes should be permitted to leave the cloister, insisting the vows are unbiblical . . . .[His words] strike a chord with me too, a flicker of envy that I seek to suppress . . .’
Much of Luther’s teaching resonates with the young nuns (some of the older ones too) and the more they hear and read of his speeches, the more confined they feel themselves to be. With the help of a friendly merchant, twelve break free, risking their lives and his in the process. Arriving in Wittenberg, they are taken in by local middle class families of the ‘Protestant’ community, given clothes, and found work – and/or husbands.
Katharina does receive more than one proposal of marriage, and how she responds to them fills the second half of the book. Yet her presence in Wittenberg causes some upset. She is intelligent and opinionated, qualities resented by many of the men in the community. She forms a friendship with Elsa Reichenbach, her first host, but Elsa’s husband Phillip is unhappy about her presence and she goes to live with the Cranach family, where she forms a bond with Barbara, the lady of the house. Meantime, Luther’s Reformation is breaking out into an uprising against the authorities, fomented by renegades of his movement. Luther denounces violence but is unable to stem it. Thousands die in the clashes that follow.
Though many of the events depicted in Katharina are supported by historical evidence, it is fiction and not history. On the author’s own admission, it contains speculation and invention. However, the invention is seamlessly contained within the whole and the story reads like an autobiography. It was spoiled for me only by the inclusion in some chapters of snippets from the last days of Katharina’s life, which I felt were intrusive and unnecessary.
In Katharina, Margaret Skea tackles characters and settings which will (I suspect) may be unfamilar to most English-speaking readers of fiction. She takes a risk and is very brave to do so. An author’s commitment to a historical period or to a real-life character, her enthusiasm, meticulous research and quality of writing are not always rewarded as they deserve. The subject matter of Katharina is controversial. The novel portrays Martin Luther as a man who speaks from the heart – often without thinking, as an untidy man, sometimes quick-tempered, yet with a wry sense of humour. To what extent Katharina von Bora (Luther, as she became) was later able to temper his faults and weaknesses with practical common sense and wisdom is unknown. But there are hints here that she did. Many of the historical consequences of the Reformation Luther led were not of his making, nor were they consequences he either foresaw or desired.
My first emotion when I heard of the novel was curiosity. I was reading Philippa Gregory’s The Last Tudor, also a re-imagining of the lives of real historical women, so it was easy to slip from that into another work in a similar style. Of course, I knew of Martin Luther. Many years ago, I had actually played the part of Luther in a historical pageant, organised by one of the churches in the district where I lived. But Martin Luther’s wife? He was a monk, surely . . . did he actually have a wife?
However, as I read, I became caught up in the story itself. Katharina is a novel which focuses on the plight of women in an intensely patriarchal society. Things are by no means perfect today – even in my lifetime we still had Magdalene Laundries! – but as far as I know. most, if not all, nuns today are nuns because they have a calling.
I enjoy historical fiction and Katharina; Deliverance is an excellent and worthy example of the genre.