Imagine you are one of two daughters in a nobile, but not so wealthy, Italian family in the 1500s. Dowry prices to fetch a "respectable" husband, with the proper family name and influence, were on a steep rise. For families that didn't have the funds to pay dowries for more than one daughter, it was common practice to raise one of the daughters for marriage and the other for a life in a convent.
An arranged marriage or convent life, which might be worse? I'm already trying to figure out how I would have been able to escape either. Add to this, the Catholic Reformation was also on the rise, and the few freedoms that nuns had within the convent were being stripped away.
Such was the case for Serafina, the young character in the novel, Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant. The only problem was that Serafina had been raised for marriage. However, she suddenly found herself locked up in the convent of Santa Caterina in Ferrara, a far away place from her family in Milan. The story starts here with Serafina howling in her cell. The dispensary nurse, Suora Zuana, comes to drug her, if not into submission, at least into sleep.
Serafina, rumored to have one of the most beautiful singing voices, has been sent to Santa Caterina to join their already well-recognized choir of nuns. Sent so far away from her home and obviously not raised for convent life, Serafina's arrival is fodder for gossip. Whispers spread that some scandal is the real reason for her arrival. Her disobedience and refusal to sing, only adds to the gossip and disruption in the convent. Of course, there was a scandal, which plays a part in the plot. A life-sentence in prison, that is convent life depicted through Serafina's eyes. The main story involves how she does or doesn't cope and adapt to convent life. She eventually sings, only as part of her plot to escape. Will she succeed?
The story also shows how life within convent walls was indeed just like a city. Each nun had her specific duties. The bigger her dowry and the better her family name, the better "job" she had in the convent. The convent had the same problems, financial issues, jealousies, gossip, cliques, and political maneuvers of any city or state.
Besides Serafina's story, there is a substory which involves three other main characters and a play for power over the convent. There is the Machiavellian abbess, Madonna Chiara, who comes from one of the ruling families of Ferrara. How far will she go to keep her place in charge of the convent and to keep any news of scandal in the convent from getting out past its walls?
There is the fanatic, Suora Umiliana, who wants to purge the convent of all joy, frivolities, and freedoms, including those surrounding the convent's choir. She continually questions the abbess's deciscions and finally openly challenges the abbess's authority. Both she and the abbess use Serafina as a pawn in their power play over the convent. Will Serafina's disruption help Umiliana in her scheme to usurp the abbess?
Then there is Suora Zuana, the dispensary nun. Not of nobility, she was neither raised for marriage nor for the convent. Instead, her apothecary father let her learn his work beside him until he died. If Zuana had been a man, she would have continued her father's work in Ferrara. However, that was strictly forbidden to women. Left with nowhere else to go after her father's death, Zuana took her father's medical books into the convent and practiced medicine there. The abbess had always been a supporter of Zuana's work. Umiliana instead believed that healing should only be done by God.
Serafina becomes Zuana's helper, and they become friends. Only concerned with her potions, herbs and healing, Zuana has little interest in the politics of the convent, and has avoided them during her 16 years there. She is the character most balanced between the extremes represented in the abbess and Suora Umiliana. Although Zuana has always been a friend to and an ally for the abbess, she begins to question the abbess's actions in regards to Serafina. Will she involve herself in the power play and change alliances? Will she help Serafina?
I can't tell you the answers, you'll have to read the book to find out.
This is the fourth book that I've read by Sarah Dunant. (The others being The Birth of Venus, In the Company of a Courtesan, and Mapping the Edge.) I am a fan of her writing and love how she uses even the most subtle details, like chin whiskers or curls peeking out of nuns' headdresses, to develop characters' personalities. It's obvious that she has researched convent life and sympathizes with those who lived that life during those times, especially those forced to against their will. (The author dedicates the novel to these women.) Both the good and bad of convent life are explored in Sacred Hearts.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. I do have to say it wasn't my favorite of hers. Possibly because I'd rather read about a courtesan's life than a nun's, but also because I felt the story dragged a bit in many places. I frequently felt myself tempted to pass over some of the pages, those detailing convent life or Zuana's work in medicine, and fast forward to the action. There is plenty of action with Serafina and her plans to escape and with the power play between the abbess and Umiliana, but it was dulled by the descriptions of convent life. I continued reading through those pages because I wanted to find out what happened to Serafina and Zuana - my favorite character in the novel. The last 200 pages moved along more easily and interestingly than the first. One thing is certain, the book left me grateful that I am free to choose my own path in life.
This post is part of the Italy in Books 2011 Reading Challenge. Check out other reviews on books based in Italy: February's Italy in Books Challenge.
If you'd like to join the reading challenge, it isn't too late: Italy in Books Reading Challenge 2011. There are prizes involved! Each month the reviews are included in a random drawing. Last month, my review was picked, and I won an autographed copy of Ask Me if I'm Happy by Kimbery Menozzi. I will be reading it and reviewing it shortly.
Have you read Sacred Hearts? What did you think of the book? What would you do if your only options were an arranged marriage or convent life? Which option sounds less dreadful to you?