Sacred Hearts

Sacred Hearts

by Sarah Dunant

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation, with smart reviews for modern readers on Sirius XM Book Radio. The book is Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

In 16th century Italy, women of quality had two choices — marriage to a man or becoming a bride of Christ. And if you intended to marry a man, you had to have enough money to pay a decent dowry. And those got so expensive that most families could only afford one wedding. What about all those leftover girls? That was how — astoundingly — nearly 50 percent of noblewomen in Renaissance Italy came to live in convents, and certainly not all of them went willingly. Sarah Dunant goes behind the high stone walls of Santa Caterina convent and as shes done in earlier volumes of her Renaissance Trilogy*, helps us see through the eyes of the women who lived there. Some happily, quietly, even ecstatically, some believers and some not, but some, like 16-year-old newcomer Serafina, literally screaming the walls down over her fate.

What I found most interesting about this book was how my sympathies shifted to at least consider the life of a nun as not being the same exact thing as buried alive. At first, like most readers (I am guessing) I was filled with Serafina’s own indignant outrage and began plotting to get her out. But in a sort of literary miracle, I began to see convent life from the other side — what have these women gained by being removed from the world?

Dunant asks us to consider what a woman’s life might have been like outside the walls, with all that freedom. Freedom that is, to marry the man your father chooses, freedom to have as many children as  your body can bear, freedom to die from an STD your husband might have brought home — a short life, but hardly a merry one, and certainly a life with little time for frivolities like music and art. Inside, there was nothing but time. In many convents women were encouraged to write and perform music — sacred of course — and who but the sisters would be responsible for cooking, cleaning, medicine, commerce? This was a world without men. But that hardly means it was without internal warfare, turf battles, and the constant push and pull of the secular world outside. And although their way of life has vanished, some of their concerns were startlingly modern; the women struggle with eating disorders, and the one-upsmanship of teenage suffering — “my cutting is more dramatic than your anorexia” for instance.

I dont know how I would have done as a sister of Santa Caterina (as a 21st century Jew it would take more than a time machine for me to find out) but Sarah Dunant’s elegant writing opened my eyes to a different, difficult, occasionally beautiful way of life.

*The Birth of Venus, and In the Company of the Courtesan.

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