I recently finished reading Sarah Dunant‘s latest novel entitled Sacred Hearts. Ms. Dunant is the author of eight other novels and three works of non-fiction. Of the novels, I have read four now: Sacred Hearts, In the Company of the Courtesan, Mapping the Edge, and The Birth of Venus. In the Company of the Courtesan and The Birth of Venus are novels set in Italy during the Renaissance in Venice and Florence, respectively. Sacred Hearts is set in Ferrara, near Bologna in northeastern Italy, in 1570.
I enjoy and recommend Ms. Dunant’s novels for a couple of reasons and Sacred Hearts does not disappoint. The first of these reasons is the research and study Ms. Dunant does to provide her novels with a realistic portrayal of the lives and times of the characters. The last three novels of Ms. Dunant’s have required her to do a voluminous amount of research. In Sacred Hearts, the bibliography included at the back of the book contains 55 entries of various books about such topics as medicinal herbs, medieval convents, medieval women, and art history of the Renaissance, all wonderfully reflected in the book. One of the well known art historians Ms. Dunant used as a source is Michael Baxandall and his Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy. You have to respect a writer who does thorough research for his or her work of historical fiction. Research on Italian issues and subjects might be a little easier for Ms. Dunant as she lives in London and Florence.
Another reason I enjoy Ms. Dunant’s novels is that she has such strong female main characters that are put into precarious, life-changing situations through forces beyond their control, and yet these characters somehow overcome these circumstances in some way. In The Birth of Venus, Alessandra is forced to marry one of her father’s good friends at an early age. Fiametta of In the Company of the Courtesan had to use her beauty and body to survive, and now in Sacred Hearts, one of the main characters has to survive life in the convent after her not extremely wealthy but learned father dies but before she has married. As for the other main character, in 16th century Italy, if your nobleman father could not provide a proper dowry, the only alternative for a daughter was the convent, even if it was against your will. This was true especially if the nobleman had more than one daughter. The convents received “donations” from the wealthy families whose daughters were relegated to the convents to support their operations, but this “cost” was less than a normal dowry for that other daughter to wed yet another nobleman’s son.
Sacred Hearts is the story of these two women. One, Serafina, is an unlucky second daughter who was in love with a peasant and whose other arranged intended happened to choose her younger sister. She is then forced into the Santa Caterina Benedictine cloister in Ferrara, away from her true love and family in Milan. The second woman is Zuana, who has been living at Santa Caterina for 16 years when Serafina arrives. Due to her study of medicine under the tutelage of her deceased professorial father, Zuana has risen to the position of dispensary sister, a position requiring her to treat the sick and elderly residents of the convent, as well as the local bishop. This position entitles her to a little more autonomy than some of the other nuns since she tends the gardens to produce the herbs and medicines used to treat the sick and also works and supervises her dispensary and infirmary. The two women become friends and help each other survive their ordeal of being locked forever in a prison not of their choosing. When they are not working or attending services, these nuns are required to be in their “cells,” praying or sleeping.
The only difference I noticed in this novel with the previous two is that there is not even one sympathetic male character of substance that the readers get to know. In the previous two novels the main characters have at least one male friend or family member that the reader becomes familiar with to a great degree. This can be overlooked due to the setting of the novel, a convent. A doddering priest, a bishop with halitosis, and Serafina’s true love have roles, but not ones of great depth. Some of the other sisters and life in the convent were wonderfully portrayed by Ms. Dunant’s writing. For example, the sister who trained the novices was quite strict and disciplined, as you would expect one with her job to be. The abbess, Madonna Chiara, was portrayed as very good at communication and problem-solving, as the leader of a group of eclectic women has to be.
On the book blogs recently a great deal of discussion has been given to book covers. I would give Sacred Hearts a high score in this category, as the cover of the copy I bought shows a portion of William-Adolphe Bouguereau‘s beautiful Study of a Woman’s Head for Charity. The insides of the hardback are imprinted with music taken from the Squarcialupi Codex, found in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenzia (Laurentian Library) in Florence.
Sacred Hearts is another good read by Sarah Dunant and exemplifies her mastery of historical fiction.