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Dr Claire Gilbert on her book I, Julian

In her event at the Intellectual Forum on Thursday 20 April, College Visiting Fellow Dr Claire Gilbert will speak about her fictional autobiography of Julian of Norwich, asking: what can a 14th century woman writer's story teach us about our own lives?

The 14th century visionary Julian of Norwich was the first woman, as far as we know, to write in English, and her life was lived in times as turbulent as our own. Yet, as Claire points out, her own story remains something of a mystery.

Julian is the subject of Claire’s research and in-progress book Restoring Porosity: Julian of Norwich and Ecological Consciousness, but when Claire was diagnosed with cancer Julian ceased to be an academic object and became Claire's spiritual companion through two and a half years of gruelling treatment.

"[Julian] was the bright star in the dry as dust theology degree." - Dr Claire Gilbert, Visiting Fellow

As the treatment drew to a close, Claire states that she heard a call to tell Julian’s story in the first person, in homage to her. The fictional autobiography I, Julian, published with unexpectedly appropriate timing at the 650th anniversary of Julian’s May 1373 visions, is the result.

We spoke to Claire to find out more about her book and what led her to write it.

How did you first come across Julian of Norwich?

As one of the medieval mystics I studied as a special subject in my Oxford theology degree.

What most drew you to Julian?

She was the bright star in the dry as dust theology degree. I fell in love with her candour, her lively language, the immediacy of her visions as she conveyed them in her writing.

Why did you decide to write the book in the first person?

I had found a voice of utter honesty writing about my cancer treatment. Julian was my spiritual companion through those gruelling two and a half years. I conceived the desire, as I was emerging from the treatment, to write Julian’s story as an homage to her, with the same deep honesty if I could (although it would be spiritual and psychological honesty rather than factual; since we know so little about her I had to make the account a fictional one) and the first person voice was right. It made me dive deep into her as she reveals herself in her Revelations of Divine Love, almost experience the visions myself, in order to write.

Which of Julian's writings are most important to you?

So many! The 14th revelation of the parable of the Lord and Servant is the most intriguing and I think its reinterpretation of the Fall is completely brilliant.

How has your academic writing about Julian influenced your fictional work about her?

It meant I knew the text really well; I was secure in my understanding that there was an ecological dimension and that her method is porosity. Porous encounters take place again and again in the book.

What is Julian's most important message for us? What should we take away from reading about her life and work?

Porosity. Come to encounters with people and places and nature and God and pain and suffering with an open heart and a welcoming smile and a willingness to learn. Cease to objectify. 

Free tickets for the event are available on our Eventbrite