Monday, June 21, 2010

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

More nuns! I wasn’t trying to read two books in a row about nuns, but I did. (See Angelology by Danielle Trussoni.) In Sacred Hearts the sisters can’t summon angels, but they do have power, in their own limited (but more realistic) way.

In Renaissance Italy dowry inflation caused trouble for aristocratic women. Grooms’ families demanded dowries that were so large, most families could only afford to finance one daughter’s marriage. While one girl (usually the oldest, but not always) could marry, her sisters were out of luck, and most of these girls ended up in convents, as there was no place for them within their own families once their parents died. I read one statistic that said that nearly 50% of women in Renaissance Italy were nuns.

Sacred Hearts is set within this milieu. As you can imagine, many of the women who ended up in convents were there under duress, or even against their will. Their interest in God and service was minimal. Lucky ones lived in convents where the rules were lax, and books, music, and frequent visits from friends and family made their days bearable. Others found some solace in meaningful work in the community of sisters. In Sacred Hearts this is the case of Suora Zuana, who acts as her convent’s apothecary, mixing medicines from plants and healing the sick. Her friend, the convent’s Mother Superior has also found her niche. Running a convent is a complex task requiring diplomacy, financial acumen, and political sophistication. Together these two women must deal with the case of the rebellious novice Seraphina, a 16-year-old whose father has banished her to the convent after her indiscretions with her handsome music teacher. Zuana and the Mother Superior (whose name escapes me, is it Benedicta?) must use creativity, common sense, and compassion to resolve this issue.

I liked this peek into a community of women who must make the best of their lot in life. Sarah Dunant writes good historical fiction that is neither weighed down with too much detail nor too anachronistic. It would have been easy to make this story a crusade against the oppression and patriarchy of the church and all that; Dunant avoids this while still telling a tale of injustice and survival.

(Book 26, 2010)


Hannah Stoneham said...

This sounds like an interesting window into a female community - lovely review, thanks for sharing


Becky Holmes said...

I need to correct one thing that is slightly wrong. I was wrong when I said that 50% of ALL women in Renaissance Italy were nuns; instead I think it was around 50% of the women in the noble classes. I believe that not nearly as many peasant women ended up as nuns. Sorry for misleading everyone.

PattisPages said...

I didn't expect to enjoy convent intrigue, but I did, too.

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