Dame Averilla

(creator: Barbara Reichmuth Geisler)

Barbara Geisler
Dame Averilla is the 12th century infirmaress at the Benedictine Abbey of the Virgin Mary and Edward, King and Martyr, at Shaftesbury in England. She has a gap-toothed smile and is "a tall woman with a long face and a weathered skin of one often out of doors. Her grey eyes held the certain calm of the long professed". She has "strong, slender hands" and has become an expert in the medicinal use of herbs. She is very conscious of her human failings (she had been very envious of Dame Joan, when she had been appinted prioress), but is quite prepared to break the rules of the abbey when she feels she must. She has an "uncanny ability to sense the feelings of those around her" and makes a brave and shrewd investigator.

Barbara Reichmuth Geisler is a native of San Francisco who holds baccalaureate and master's degrees from the University of California at Berkeley. She was head librarian for the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum. She lives in northern California with her husband who is an Episcopal priest. Other Gods was her first novel.

Other Gods (2002)
Other Gods Is the first book in the Averillan Chronicles series. It is set in the large abbey at Shaftesbury in 1139. Infirmaress
Dame Averilla is sorely troubled when she finds that King Alfred's Laece book, a precious collection of herbal and medicinal lore, has gone missing. Also missing is the eccentric Dame Agnes - presumed by many to be possessed. As Averilla puts it, "Agnes has had a strange sort of madness this year past. She will be her old self for weeks, aye, even months at a time, and then she will start to rave and speak gibberish .... and she blasphemes. She hears voices and they scare her. I know not whether she is now running away from them, or whether the voices told her to run."

Dame Averilla suspects there may be a connection between what is happening and the town's wise woman, Galiena, reputed to be a witch. But efforts to find the herbal and the missing woman are hampered not only by Dame Joan, the discipline-obsessed sub-prioress who heartly dislikes Averilla, but by an ongoing power struggle between the nuns of Anglo-Saxon heritage and the daughters of the new Norman elite.

It gets off to an interesting start, helped by an illustrated map of Shaftesbury. a floor plan of the abbey, a cast list, and, at the back of the book, explanatory notes and even a glossary. It is not too hard to tell that the author is an ex-librarian! As you might expect, she has done her research well, and period details, like the way the abbess eats, are often interesting: "Delicately, the abbess cut the squab in half with her eating knife. She chewed reflectively, sucked the grease off her fingers, and wiped her fingertips on the edge of the tablecloth, as was customary." (The word squab, by the way, does not appear in either my English dictionary or the author's glossary.)

The author has tried to suggest the 12th century setting by using words like modor and fader with an occasional ye wot thrown in. The more educated nuns, however, speak immaculate English: "If I remember correctly, our Lord had something to say about widows and orphans." But the abbess Emma (who is half-Norman and half-English) can relapse into "Truly think thee that Master Chapman has been defrauding us?"

One interesting character is the ever-generous, half-starved parish priest, old Father Merowald. "He was a man of a very ancient age with a powerful love of God. Sanctity gleamed through the withered parchment of his skin." He struggles to explain God's love: "He took your sin," he reminds a conscience-stricken Averilla, "so that you would never think that any act of yours is too evil to be forgiven. He feared - " He stopped speaking and absently dropped Averilla's hands. "Can God feel? He lives. Yes. He loves." His eyes rested her unseeing on her face for a moment. "I don't know, of course." He shook his head. "But he loved us. He didn't want us, His sheep, to turn away scared and ashamed of him. He wants us near. I cannot imagine why, but He does."

Despite his decrepit state, he eventually makes his way into the forest to witness a terrible battle between the villagers who have suddenly all reverted to paganism, and the bailiff's men plus Averilla and another nun. The wild pagan activities are not entirely convincing, as when Averilla "felt a frenzied blaze within her; felt her body flame. Something real and foreign and pagan lurked in these woods, something wild and beckoning, carnal in its need". According to the pagan leader Galiena, the goddess Helias "requires blood. Not just any blood. No. She wants those that befoul her; those that are as anathema to her; whose very existence is a stench to her; a defilement." But after all the bloodshed, Galiena, believe it or not, becomes Merowald's housekeeper - and eventually emerges unscathed from a witch's "ordeal by hot iron" - when it is Averilla who actually feels the pain.

The pagan goings-on may seem improbable, but domestic details of life in the abbey are well described and most of the nuns, particularly Dame Averilla and the abbess, come across as sympathetic characters.

Graven Images (2004)
Graven Images is set in 1141, when in the midst of political and social upheaval, the nuns of the Benedictine Abbey at Shaftesbury face new tribulations. The abbey is near bankrupt, threatening the completion of a much-needed altarpiece for St. Edward’s chapel. Worse, the tranquillity of the daily round of prayer and ritual is disrupted by the murder of Saviette, a young girl of the town. Suspicion falls on Master Levitas, who is a Jew, and thus a ready target for the intolerant townsfolk. Convinced that Levitas could not have committed the crime, Master Hugo, brought to Shaftesbury to sculpt the altarpiece, befriends the old man. Dame Averilla, now the abbey sacrist, abhors all the anti-semitism, and suspects that Jared, son of the abbey’s reeve, is responsible for Saviette’s death. Averilla, Hugo, and Abbess Emma shelter the falsely accused Levitas while they struggle to discover the truth.

Averilla "had started to believe that her gift of healing stemmed from inside her and not from the hand of God" and so felt that, much that she regretted leaving the post of infirmaress, it was something she could accept, even if "the worst part of the punishment was being asked to forgive Dame Joan" for her misdeeds. The relationship between the two nuns is convincingly described, as is the way that Averilla at first "sulked, and wouldn't meet the calm eyes of the abbess".

But Emma, the abbess. also has her problems, what with her concern over the debts of the monastery, the demands of officious Father Bonifice (the nun's priest) and the insistence of the abbey steward to have his own way. "The agony of her responsibilities had carved rivulets in what had been, before her election as abbot, an unusually serene face", and she found it difficult to pray: "Where are You? Always I have felt Your presence beside me. I had only to open myself to You, and tears would pinch my heart, a swallowing of myself in you. But where are You now? I cannot find You." Her relationship with old Dame Authwulfa a retired prioress and now in the infirmary, and the only person with whom she can really share her worries, is also convincingly and sympathetically described.

The author is at her best when describing such period pieces as Hugo at work with his apprentice: "Hugo now chose a thin 'V'-shaped tool. 'Called a veiner, this is, or a fluting tool,' and swiftly he started to scribe a series of running cuts. 'Just to get the outline in.' He worked quickly, placing a line here, a squiggle there, 'to make sure that it squares with the shape and size of the wood. Call this bosting out '."

She is not quite so strong on language, though, as when lay sister Cadilla, thinks that " 'e (Saint Edward) made Dame Averilla disobey the abbess, so the abbess 'ad to punish 'er by taking 'er from the infirmary". But the next moment she is thinking about "crossing herself" not " 'erself"." And the occasional inclusion of an "I wot" or two does not really help.

But there are some nice turns of phrase, as when a quarrelling mother and daughter are described as leaving their house with "silence shouting between them". And the persecution of the Jew, and the ensuing violence, is described both vividly and in a way that really involves us in the action. Another interesting character is Hugo, the carver, who is based on a real historical figure about whom next to nothing is actually known.

Avarilla herself gets rather lost such a large cast of characters, and she is not even directly involved in the most exciting part when Hugo and Levitas flee down the sewer system. This, for once, is really attention grabbing. The subsequent scene in which Dame Avarilla confronts an angry mob inside her church, is less convincing: "Snatching one of the huge candlesticks with both hands, (she) swooped down on them. Because of the massive weight, she could only drag it and then heft it in a semicircle about her, but no bitch defending her brood could have carried a heavier weight of anger. Her eyes alone were fearsome. 'Get you hence from this sacred place,' she howled. Her rage was palpable, and the men bumped into one another as they skidded into headlong flight."

Following a dramatic fire, and the attentions of the mob, Levitas ends up badly injured - but some of the suspense about whether or not he will survive is lessened by the way that Hugo has already referred to things that he says that Levitas later told him - so we know that, come what may, he must have survived.

This is a long, slowly paced book, made to seem even longer by the way that the author cannot resist the temptation to tell us more than we really need to know about the past history of some of the characters. So there are unnecessary flashbacks, such as to when the suspected murderer, Jared, was seven; or when Father Boniface, as a teenager, had gone swimming nude with his cousin Eleanor; as well as the account of Saviette's first seduction. And another takes us back to Rome when a younger Hugo was working there. The author seems to find it difficult to know when to stop, and the main storyline tends to get submerged under all this detail.

In Vain (2011)
In Vain is described as "A Prequel to the Averillan Chronicles". It starts in April 1107 when Averilla was still a young nun.

Abbess Cecily is hosting a dinner at Shaftesbury Abbey. Among the guests are her half brother, Sir Tirel, a world-weary veteran of the Crusades, Sir Baudri de Beaumont and his lovely wife, Beatrice, and Beatrice's look-alike sister Sophina. As minstrels, jugglers, and acrobats amuse the diners, Beatrice suddenly collapses in agony and breathes her last. It falls to Dame Averilla, a headstrong young nun who "held an engaging gawkiness wrapped around her youth", Sir Tirel, and Bailiff Robert Bradshaw to investigate. The three must determine whether a crime has indeed been committed, or whether the death, which appears to have been caused by poisoned food, was a dreadful accident.

Although some of the characters (like Abbess Cecily whose one aim is to rebuild the abbey church on a grandiose scale, and parish priest Father Merewold who chats away to God in mumbled phrases that both he and God "seemingly enjoyed") are of some interest, the plot gets distinctly confusing and it is not always easy to remember who is who. Few of the historical characters seem to emerge as real people, and there is a consequent lack of human interest, especially when their speech alternates between "You say me nay?" and fluent contemporary English.

The confusion is increased by the annoying way that the author keeps flashing back to describe things that happened years before. This slows the action down. Episodes like that in which Averilla first arrives at the abbey as a penniless little girl would have benefitted from a more coherent structure in which we had followed her early life in chronological order. But that would have been a different book - if a more interesting one.

As it is, the story sometimes get lost in historical explanations such as, "If you are right, it means that Robert of Normandy, the firstborn of the Conqueror, still has a male heir - a possible male heir - but no, for the child would be illegitimate. But wouldn't an illegitimate son of the eldest son of the Conqueror take precedence over the illegitimate son of the third son, King Henry's son, Robert of Gloucester? The question then becomes whether this child takes precedence over Henry's legitimate daughter?" A little of this sort of conversation goes a long way.

It is only when, towards the end of the book, a tiny crack below the new lantern tower in the church starts to lengthen and grow wider, and the praying nuns below are threatened with imminent disaster, that any sense of excitement builds up. After all this, Abbess Cecily gives away her beloved dog Chewy to an injured girl and bemoans, "Where do I go for love now? Whom can I love?
And the answer came, "Where you should have looked before. I am here." It seems just too glib.

The book ends with sets of notes on historical fiction (including information about the real-life people behind some of the characters), a bibliography, and a timeline of historical events, followed, believe it or not, by some 12th Century recipes and a glossary. All this is no substitute for a gripping plot.

The author has her own website.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


Other Gods cover
The books are self-published but handsomely produced.
Graven Images coveer
It seems odd that there is no explanation of the origin of this striking illustration.
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