We don't know much about Kempe's life before her conversion experience, but we do know that she was a go-getter from a prominent family in Bishop's Lynn. This was a thriving market town and seaport, and Kempe's birth family prospered there—daddy was the mayor and an alderman at one point. So it's no surprise this girl loved the good things in life: fashionable clothes ("slashed" outer garments that showed the bright colors of the unders), plenty of money, and a comfortable home.
Old Marge was a bit snobby in those early days, too. She tells us, for example, that her husband really didn't deserve to marry into such a good family. Burn. She also confesses to being grabby with money and jealous of prosperous neighbors:
Her whole desire was to be respected by people. She would not learn her lesson from a single chastening experience, nor be content with the worldly goods that God had sent her—as her husband was—but always craved more and more. (I.2.44)
Kempe's inability to read the heavenly signs—including the ignored warning of a severe illness and miraculous recovery—paves the way for a major life crisis. The spunky entrepreneur who loved social recognition and started and scuttled two businesses in quick succession was about to enter into a whole new version of reality.
Kempe's conversion experience and newfound zeal for God may have been nothing new—she even talks about the similar experiences of Bridget of Sweden and Mary of Oignies—but who Kempe is is unique. She's a wife and mother of fourteen kids who never had any real plans to separate permanently from her family in order to live a proper contemplative life.
In short, Kempe's not your typical young and holy virgin who steps away from the world for the love of God.
This difference causes Kempe no end of grief, both personally and from the world at large. In her own mind, she is not "bride of Christ" material. How can she dare to wear white, like a nun, and call Jesus her lover when there's clear proof that she's had sex? Back then, even sex within marriage made you kind of impure, especially if you were a woman. Kempe expresses disappointment that she can't follow the traditional path:
"Lack of virginity is now a great sorrow to me. I think I wish I had been killed as soon as I was taken from the font, so that I should never have displeased you, and then, blessed Lord, you would have my virginity without end." (I.22.86)
Like the clergy and most of the people in her town, Kempe can't see a path to holiness that isn't the virgin's or martyr's path. (A martyr's path was death.) If she treats herself harshly, the response of most clerics and "friends" is worse. They view her tears and her strict way of life after an existence of normalcy as hypocritical—and even heretical. Kempe's attempts at holiness in an unexpected station in life are not greeted with joy or acceptance.
Kempe doesn't fit the mystical profile in yet another way: she can't read. This limits her access to spiritual works and makes it impossible even to write her own life experiences on her own. When she attempts to work the complicated figurative language of mystical union with Christ, she fails in spectacular and creepy ways:
"Daughter, you greatly desire to see me, and you may boldly, when you are in bed, take me to you as your wedded husband, as your dear darling, and as your sweet son, for I want to be loved as a son should be loved by the mother, and I want you to love me, daughter, as a good wife ought to love her husband. Therefore you can boldly take me in the arms of your soul and kiss my mouth, my head, and my feet as sweetly as you want." (I.36.126-27)
Kempe is not trained to keep the different personas of Christ separate in order to avoid weirdly incestuous overtones, so what we get here is… weirdly incestuous overtones. Clearly, Kempe's a Jesus fish out of water. All of these obstacles would be enough to stop most people—but not Margery Kempe.
Just as Kempe has to do some trailblazing if she wants to practice her vocation, she's also putting her own stamp on the practice of the contemplative life. Like Julian of Norwich, a fellow female English mystic, Kempe's communications with God are "homely"—meaning that they're described in terms familiar to Kempe and her life in Lynn. She likes talking about things like fish and interior decoration, and God is down with that.
Kempe sees Christ as a handsome man who sits at her bedside when she is ill and who invites her to touch him intimately—in her soul, of course—as any wife might touch her husband. Christ himself speaks to Kempe like a boy from Lynn might, using similes that a girl from a seaport town would understand: "Daughter, you are obedient to my will, and cleave as fast to me as the skin of a stockfish sticks to man's hand when it is boiled, and you will not forsake me for any shame that any man can do you" (I.37.127).
In turn, Kempe sets off on spiritual journeys that let her do what she knows best: serve as wife and mother. She leaves her reality behind to join Christ and his mother in their own timeline, where Kempe can, in her imagination, work as a serving maid to St. Anne at the birth of Mary or accompany Mary when she grieves for her dead son.
This affective piety suits Kempe's "gift of tears" really well. To be swept up out of this world and placed in emotionally intense situations—like standing at the foot of Christ's cross while he suffers and dies—requires a great sense of compassion and an ability to cry in public without shame.
Kempe's compassion and imagination are easily activated by anything that reminds her of Christ. And since she begins to see God in everything, she basically spends most of her time in a mystical vision, rather than in the reality of Bishop's Lynn. Which means that she spends A LOT of time crying.
Because she has such direct and raw spiritual experiences, Kempe can't help but be overwhelmed emotionally and physically, often in awkward places. Her companions can't even really control their frightened reactions to her spasms and noise: "Then the people spat at her in horror at the illness, and some scorned her and said that she howled like a dog, and cursed her, and said that she did a lot of harm among the people" (I.44.143).
While this response lacks compassion, we kind of get it. How would you feel if you were out with your friends, and one of them started howling at the mall because some lady's baby reminded her of Jesus? There's also the question of Kempe's spiritual legitimacy. She totally lacks street cred with both clerics and laypeople because she's neither fully a nun nor fully a housewife. She's trying to have it all, they think, and it feels like a scam. This is certainly the case with the "Good Friar," that rock star of a preacher who can't stand Kempe's screaming during his sermons.
Most of the time, her friends' annoyance with her behavior means nothing more than social isolation for Kempe. But her lack of popularity with laypeople and minor clerics has some serious fallout, as we see when she is pursued and arrested for heresy. Yeah, punishment for heresy is usually death by fire. No such thing would have happened if Kempe's reputation for loud, obnoxious spirituality hadn't won her some serious enemies.
Though no form of advice—and Kempe gets a lot of it—can keep her from getting into trouble, she does have a secret weapon: the gift of gab. Kempe tells us that this ability to speak well in perilous situations comes from the Holy Spirit. Well, okay, but we're betting that Kempe's seriously nonstop chatting—to confessors, preachers, anchorites, townspeople, foreigners, and even jailers—might have something to do with it, too.
Whatever the source of her eloquence, Kempe uses it to do some of extraordinary things, especially for a woman of her time. She travels alone, all over Europe; she gets herself out of clerical inquiries without any help; and she charms jailers, against their will and better judgment: "And so, as she went along with the said men, she told them good stories, until one of the Duke's men who had arrested her said to her, 'I rather regret that I met with you, for it seems to me that you speak very good words'" (I.53.168).
Kempe has the same effect on the Archbishops of York, Lincoln, and Canterbury, who find themselves pleased by this lady's chatter. It's Kempe's candor, enthusiasm, and bullheaded loyalty to Christ that leaves her free to pursue her unique life—and keeps her from becoming a footnote in the history of Lollard persecutions in England.