SACRED HEARTS by Sarah Dunant

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July 23, 2010


In 16th-century Italy, a noblewoman of marriageable age had two choices: marriage and children, or reclusion to a convent. With the price of wedding dowries rising ever higher, most noble families could only afford to marry off one daughter. The rest, for a much-reduced dowry, went to the convent. But “not all went willingly,” author Sarah Dunant states in her preface, a deliciously ominous portent of the story to come.

Sacred Hearts is the third of Dunant’s Renaissance Italy trilogy, following bestsellers The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, and it does not disappoint. The year is 1570. Sixteen-year-old Serafina, previously considered the “marriageable” daughter, has been spirited off to the convent of Santa Caterina after forming an inappropriate attachment to her common-born music tutor. Suora Zuana, mild-mannered and scholarly, is the convent’s dispensary mistress who goes to tend to the hysterical, raging Serafina her first night. A friendship of sorts forms after the abbess assigns Serafina to work as Zuana’s assistant in the dispensary.

Serafina, in spite of Zuana’s friendly overtures, is determined to leave, to meet with the music tutor who promised he would come find her. She uses her peerless singing voice, as valuable to the convent as her dowry, as a method of communication with him in the church, from behind the iron grille that separates nuns from parishioners. Having thus far refused to sing, she now astounds all who hear her. As a convent is endowed by its wealthiest patrons when it can produce such sublime music, by singing so beautifully, Serafina has inadvertently sealed her own fate. No convent would ever allow such a songbird to leave.

Serafina’s resistance to her fate, Suora Zuana’s observations, the growing tensions, both inside and outside the convent walls, form the story’s core. From a lesser author, such a story, set entirely within the convent compound, no male characters to speak of, might prove limiting. But Dunant is a master at bringing the Renaissance era with all its glorious, malodorous, visceral details to life. Her genius, as with all good writing, lies in the language, the sensory description, the shadings of light against dark, culling passion and conflict from unlikely sources, imbuing the characters with life.

Sacred Hearts works also as a social commentary, exposing the mores, values, and hypocrisies of a society that puts such emphasis on religion and piety, only to twist it all to accommodate creature comforts. (The wealthy need only subsidize convents and its occupants so the nuns will pray for their souls and thus will all be saved.) It casts illumination on the plight of so many women of the time, shuttled to a convent as a convenience their family and not for any personal feelings of religious fervor. This is not always for the worst, however. Here within these walls, women are allowed to be musicians, writers, composers, nurses, pharmacists. In some ways these women are freer than they would be on the outside. But increasingly strict measures—distressing to some of the nuns and thrilling to the purists—are to come, in the aftermath of the Council of Trent. Music, literature, theatre, the culinary arts, weekly visits from family; the nuns stand to lose much of this.

Suora Umiliana, the novice mistress, is one who embraces and welcomes such measures. She believes only in the power of pain, penitence and prayer. Her followers include Suora Perseveranza, who wears a cinched leather belt studded with nails that pierce her flesh to yield an ecstasy of a different sort, depicted so brilliantly here:

“She keeps her gaze fixed on the wall ahead, where the guttering light picks out a carved wooden crucifix: Christ, young, alive, His muscles running through the grain as His body strains forward against the nails, His face etched in sorrow. She stares at Him, her own body trembling, tears wet on her cheeks, her eyes bright. Wood, iron, leather, flesh. Her world is contained in this moment. She is within His suffering; He is within hers. She is not alone. Pain has become pleasure. She presses the stud again and her breath comes out in a long satisfying growl, almost an animal sound, consumed and consuming.”

Abbess Madonna Chiara is another strong, outspoken character. As lead administrator of the convent, she holds a position of tremendous power and authority for a woman of her time, the sole negotiator with the outside world. Within the convent, conflicts and a challenge to her authority arise in the form of Suora Umiliana and her acolytes, striving for ever more piety and privation. Both Zuana and Serafina are cast in the middle of this tug-of-war, with far-reaching consequences that result in a most satisfying story conclusion.

Dunant refrains, wisely, from applying 21st century sensibilities to these characters and their personal definitions of sanctuary and happiness. Sometimes this felt a little claustrophobic to me—as did the thought of living my days out in a convent, being woken at 2am for the first of eight daily prayer sessions in a chilly, dark chapel. Perhaps I identified too closely with Serafina, trapped in this smaller world, craving the other one, suffocated by the odds of finding freedom. Yet this was a very real order of existence for a great deal of Renaissance women. And Dunant, as she does so well, has made me see these women of history in a new, unexpected light.

Sacred Hearts is an engrossing, enlightening read, sure to please fans of Dunant’s other Renaissance trilogy novels, and earn her some new readers as well.

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