I just finished The Book of the Maidservant by Rebecca Barnhouse. From the the first sentence I could hear the voice of Johanna, the maidservant of Dame Margery Kempe; that is what committed me to read this book.
Dame Margery, a renowned medieval holy woman wails morning, noon, and night for the suffering of the Virgin Mary. She boasts of her favor with God, yet she shows no compassion for the suffering around her.
She tells Johanna that she is accompanying her on her pilgrimage to Rome as her maidservant. During this journey they travel with various others either on a pilgrimage of their own or by happenstance. Not long into their travels, Johanna feels the sting of betrayal yet she does not yet know that that is what it is. She soon finds herself not only maidservant to Dame Margery, but to the entire group, and the injustice seems to multiply from there.
Before long Dame Margery has outworn her welcome and the group is constantly in conflict. Unfortunately for Johanna she is right in the middle of it. What will happen to this group of pilgrims? Will they make it to Rome? What will happen to Johanna? I’ll let you read and find out.
Recommendation: I really did enjoy this book, as I mentioned Rebecca Barnhouse did an excellent job capturing the voice of Johanna. Even though I’m not catholic and don’t fully understand all the catholic references, I was still able to follow the story and get a feel of the influence of this religion during the medieval times. This is an excellent addition to a middle ages reading list for older children and adults.
As I read this book I found myself pondering the conflicting behaviors of Dame Margery. It caused me to reflected on what a disciple of Christ looks like versus what a disciple should be.
Throughout the book, characters are regularly offended by Dame Margery and her holier-than-thou air. So much so, that her conflicting reputation proceeds her and her virtue is regularly questioned. At another point in the book, Johanna escapes from a man who plans to have his way with her. The servant who comes to her aid is possibly murdered, we don’t actually know what happened. Based on these events I feel this book would be appropriate for readers in the upper grades, probably grade 8 through adult. My youngest two will have to wait a few years before they will understand just what is going on in this story.
An interesting side note is that this book was inspired by the fifteenth-century text The Book of Margery Kempe, thought to be the first autobiography in English. There is a really interesting note from Rebecca Barnhouse about how this influenced her writing of this book.
If you read The Book of the Maidservant, I’d love to hear what you think. Happy Reading!