Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

'By the second half of the sixteenth century, the price of wedding dowries had risen so sharply within Catholic Europe that most noble families could not afford to marry off more than one daughter. The remaining young women were dispatched – for a much lesser price – into convents. Historians estimate that in the great towns and city states of Italy, up to half of all noble women became nuns.
Not all of them went willingly.......'

The main character in Sacred Hearts is Serafina who is forced into the Italian convent of Santa Caterina at aged 16 to live a life of prayer and solitude. Meanwhile her sister marries into a good family who will also receive a sizeable dowry. Serafina is angry to the point of hysteria and refuses to sing in the choir for which the convent is famed for. As she becomes more determined to refuse her fate so a battle of wills sets in between her and the Mother superior.

This book is set just before huge changes were made to convents. When Serafina joins, the convent runs very much like a small business. The nuns frequently organize concerts and sell produce in order to cover their costs and squirrel away profit. The nuns themselves in the book are like any small community, a mixed bunch. Some have chosen the life of a nun while others like Serafina have not. There are a lot of power struggles within the convent (not surprising perhaps in a community made up of only women) and Serafine herself becomes a pawn in these struggles.

I found reading about life in a convent fascinating. The book did a good job of describing the disadvantages these women had such as a lack of passion, solitude and no children but also highlighted the advantages and freedom compared to other women during that time.

Although convent life was depicted as happy for the most part, there were dark aspects running throughout. The self harm and the fasting which some of the nuns indulged in would be diagnosed as anorexia today. The mother superior places the good of the convent above the welfare of individuals and even when talking about Serafina she declares; ‘She is only a young woman who did not want to become a nun. The world is full of them.' The mother superior is only however trying to preserve the convents way of life and trying to protect the nuns from the changes taking place.

The plot itself although slow in places kept my interest and is cleverly set in amongst the backdrop of the monotonous routine of prayer and work. I kept reading on to see if Serafina will escape or if she, like so many others before her, will finally accept her fate and try to carve out some kind of life for herself within the convent walls.

An interesting story with an even more interesting subject matter.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess


  1. This sounds very interesting! I've never heard of the book or the author before, but I love historical fiction, so I'm sure I'd enjoy it.

  2. I enjoyed this book. I found the detail of convent life fascinating. The plot wasn't that special, but I was amazed at how gripped it kept me throughout. I haven't read any of her other books yet, but I'm tempted to do so.

  3. Zara - I'm sure that any fan of historical fiction would really enjoy this book. I dont read much historical fiction as a rule but the subject matter alone kept me reading.

    Jackie - parts of the history fell into place when I remembered the book Galileo's daughter who was also sent to a convent.I am sure in fact that she may have been an inspiration for the character of Suora Zuana, there are quite a few similarities.

    I might get 'In the company of the courtesan, again because of the subject matter.

  4. I loved In the Company of the Courtesan and The Birth of Venus. Have y'all read Venus...there is something in this description that seems reminiscent of it. Nevertheless, Dunant is two for two in my experience, so I'm sure I'd like this one. Thanks for posting!

  5. On my wish list already, I think I shall push it to the top after that great review.

  6. Elizabeth - I havent read any other books by this auther from I do want to read In the company of the courtesan purely for the Venice setting.

    Petty - as a seasonsed historical fiction reader Id be interested in what you think. I thought it would be a lot more slower and harder to get into but I did really enjoy it.

  7. What a fascinating subject matter! I remember reading once, in a history of feminism, that in the Middle Ages and Renaissance convents were sometimes refuges for women interested in intellectual pursuits, as it allowed them to escape the drudgery of endless childbearing and domestic obligations. But I imagined that they were in the minority, of course, and that most were packed off against their will. Rachel Ferguson's Alas, Poor Lady also touched on this. I'll be adding this book to my wishlist for sure.

  8. I agree with your review and rating. The plot was slow in places, but it was so interesting learning about convent life.

  9. Stopped through on the Book Blog Hop. Great to find another book blogging couple! Have a great weekend!

  10. Nymeth - its true that the alternative to being a nun in those days was not much better, married off by 15 and then having at least 10 children some of which will would die and thats if you didn't. But that was before the changes took place in the convents, once they had then the nuns freedom that they did have were taken from them so there was less creative output.

    Alyce - I think if the book didnt have the subject matter that it did then I wouldn't have liked the book much, it really was fasinating.

  11. What a great blog site.
    Kelly Bookend Diaries

  12. I have read just one Sarah Dunant novel and I loved it. I will have to add this to my list.

    Can't wait to read your review for fingersmith - looks interesting...

    Have a great weekend (new follower via the hop).

  13. Visiting for the blog hop :) Love your blog.

  14. I liked this story a lot. It was my first Dunant book, but I plan to read more now.