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.
Posted by Jess