Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

The year is 1570, and in the convent of Santa Caterina, in the Italian city of Ferrara, noblewomen find space to pursue their lives under God’s protection. But any community, however smoothly run, suffers tremors when it takes in someone by force. And the arrival of Santa Caterina’s new novice sets in motion a chain of events that will shake the convent to its core.

Ripped by her family from an illicit love affair, sixteen-year-old Serafina is willful, emotional, sharp, and defiant–young enough to have a life to look forward to and old enough to know when that life is being cut short. Her first night inside the walls is spent in an incandescent rage so violent that the dispensary mistress, Suora Zuana, is dispatched to the girl’s cell to sedate her.

As Serafina rails against her incarceration, others are drawn into the drama: the ancient, mysterious Suora Magdalena–with her history of visions and ecstasies–locked in her cell; the ferociously devout novice mistress Suora Umiliana, who comes to see in the postulant a way to extend her influence; and, watching it all, the abbess, Madonna Chiara, a woman as fluent in politics as she is in prayer.

Thoughts

Sacred Hearts is an extraordinary tale about the young women who were forced into convents because their families could not afford to pay the extortionate dowries required for marriage. As the author explains at the outset, a woman was expected to make an influential marriage to improve her family’s prospects, however a good marriage came with a price. Dowries, consisting of clothing, jewellery, money and even property, were a major expense for families and the problem was exacerbated if there were many daughters. As the cost of dowries soared, many daughters of the noble class suddenly found themselves incarcerated inside convents for the rest of their lives.

The convent of Santa Caterina is full of women who have found themselves in such a situation and their latest novice is sixteen-year-old Serafina who has been sent there for falling in love with her music teacher. However, the spirited young woman isn’t about to surrender quietly and her nightly howling sessions result in her being sedated by the convent dispensary sister, Suora Zuana. Zuana, one of our narrators, is actually a more interesting character than Serafina and she is a little different form the other sisters in that she was never forced into the convent by family but rather than by circumstance. After the death of her father left her with nowhere to go, Zuana knew the only way she could continue her work as a healer was to do so in a convent where her skills would be utilised.

Aged around forty years, Zuana has been at the convent for a number of years so she is an expert into the characters of the various women under its roof and the reasons they have ended up there. Not all the sisters are mentioned regularly as you would expect with a large convent so it does get a little confusing at times when a particular sister reappears at a later stage in the novel. The hierarchy in the convent is a complex one and there are indications of a power struggle going on between the abbess and the sister in charge of the novices which may have consequences for the future of the convent.

Although the circumstances of Serafina’s arrival are not new ones, her subsequent rebellion acts as a catalyst for change which begins to swell slowly through the convent and contributes to the political machinations going on within. The austere life endured by these sisters leads to many idiosyncrasies in their behaviour and it is interesting to see the effect Serafina has on individual people. Even Zuana, while one of the more sensible and practical minded of the sisters, feels a sense of unease about Serafina’s situation and finds herself questioning a lot of things.

While all of this was going on inside the convent, there was a whole lot happening in the world outside which threatens the few luxuries they are able to enjoy, such as music and books. The Council of Trent was held between 1545 and 1563 in Trento, Italy, and was established to counter the widespread changes being instigated the Reformation sweeping though Europe. As well as condemning Protestantism, the Council proposed a series of strict reforms around the use of sacred music, religious art and moral behaviour. For the sisters at Santa Catarina, the reforms would spell the end of the music festivals they put on for the local community and their sponsors. For Zuana, it would be the loss of her precious medical books which she brought from her father’s house.

The overlying theme is one of repression, something these women have had to endure their entire lives as every aspect is controlled by a man, whether it be a father, brother, husband or even the church. Inside the convent, it may seem like everything is run by the abbess but even she is answerable to someone, although she had become quite adept at playing the necessary political games. Robbed of a chance to choose their own futures, these women have to make the most of their situation and it is painful to contemplate just how much austere their lives are about to become.

Sacred Hearts is actually the last in a trilogy set in Renaissance Italy, however you don’t have to have read the previous books as they are stand alone.

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