Maybe it's my somewhat Catholic childhood showing, but I was fascinated by Sarah Dunant's third novel in her Italian Renaissance trilogy, Sacred Hearts. More specifically, it's the portrayal of Benedictine convent life in Ferrara, Italy during the year of 1570 that kept me reading. Get thee to a nunnery, indeed! Many young women who were not married off (being too ugly or too smart, for example) were instead sent to the convent and confined for the rest of their lives.
The convent of Santa Caterina pictured here is a bustling world unto itself. The talents of the sisters are put to good use: they illuminate manuscripts, compose choral music and write and perform religious plays. Suora Zuana, one of the main characters, acts as the convent's healer. Her father was a doctor, and her knowledge of medicine is considerable. She grows herbs and makes all the concoctions that keep the sisters healthy. Reading the novel, I began to see the advantages of living behind thick convent walls. You didn't die in childbirth. You were not bullied or beaten by a husband or father. Yet the convent was a complicated place; both safe and claustrophobic, rewarding and stifling.
Surely there were many unhappy novices who rebelled against their sudden internment. And that is where this well crafted novel begins, with the raging howls of a sixteen year-old novice named Serafina. Her noble family found out she was in love with her low-born music teacher and plunked her into the convent. She has the voice of an angel, and will be a welcome addition to the choir. Serafina spends time in the dispensary learning about herbs from Suora Zuana and plotting ways to escape. Before the novel's end, she takes the art of fasting to a near-anorexic state, explores religious ecstasy, and receives both kind and cruel treatment from the nuns.
Listening to Sarah Dunant talk about Sacred Hearts on a British Interview Online site, I learned as many as half of high-born women in Renaissance Italy were sent to convents. Females were in surplus and marriage dowries were greatly inflated. The fictional nuns of Santa Caterina were able to live rather lavishly behind their cell doors. They were allowed to own pet dogs. They kept the silk sheets, thick carpets, books and trinkets they brought with them. Church reform would change such freedoms shortly after the time period pictured in the novel.
What great characters nuns make. They struggle with so many issues of obedience. And like the rest of humankind, their lives are full of passion and sorrow. The depth of soulful examination Dunant achieves with her characters is spellbinding. In her hands the spiritual life is a sensuous life, keen with pleasure and sharp with pain. Behind the convent walls in Renaissance Italy, no matter that they were married to the Catholic Church, each nun had a voice and a vote. Is it just me or does this seem radical? Sacred Hearts took me to places both heretical and sacrosanct. Thank you, Sarah Dunant.