A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I picked up Sarah Dunant’s ‘Sacred Hearts’ this Christmas, thinking it would be a perfect holiday read. It is the first of her novels that I have read; the reviews on the cover were a huge recommendation – they are glowing – and, the clincher, it is about nuns.
The plot revolves around a young novice in the convent of Santa Caterina, Ferrara, in 1570. She has been shut up there by her angry father, parted from her lover, a poor musician. It is a great love they have for one another, but unsanctioned, and a disgrace to her family. The novice Serafina has a wonderful voice, and her lover has promised to follow her to Ferrara and rescue her, so that they can both escape and live the life they crave as artists together. She is beside herself with the anguish of separation. Ferociously rebellious, she refuses to submit to the discipline of the convent, and to bring her beautiful voice to the cycle of worship and celebration. Sister Zuana, the skilled herbalist who is in charge of the convent’s infirmary, tries to befriend her and open the way for her to accept her new life, and Serafina seems to respond to her kindly wisdom, and to the fascination of learning healing skills from her. But Serafina’s unswerving ambition is to communicate her plight to her lover and to escape, so her seeming acceptance of her lot (including beginning to sing again) masks her constant search for a way out.
From being a wild, passionate rebel, she swings to an intense campaign to please, delighting Sister Benedicta, in charge of the convent’s music and worship, with her voice and musical gifts, and the fanatical novice mistress, Sister Umiliana, with her intense self-abasement and piety. But all the time, she is seeking to turn her new-found position of approval to play various competing factions off against one another, and find the weak places in the convent’s physical and perceptual walls. Does her astonishing sense of purpose prevail, does she escape, or does the strength of the community bear her spirit down in the end and bend her to its discipline? That’s the plot.
I love reading about the female religious life. I remember reading Monica Baldwin’s ‘The Called and the Chosen’ when I was young, and being fascinated by the structure and order – and dangerously attracted by the prospect (as I saw it then) of a retreat from everything that made teenage life difficult and stressful – boys, decisions, competitiveness, change, risk of failure. It took me a long time to find out that there is nothing unusual in feeling the allure of becoming a religious at a certain stage in one’s life. At the time, I soon got over it, but by that time had read and enjoyed enough, fiction and non-fiction, about the religious life of women to seek out more. So, this novel was going head to head with such favourites of mine as Sylvia Townsend Warner’s ‘The Corner That Held Them’, Rumer Godden’s ‘Black Narcissus’ – and the wonderful, the indispensable ‘What Nuns Read’ by David N Bell (my nerdy choice of a paradigm-changing bibliographical study). So did it measure up?
Sadly, not for me. It is an accomplished novel, quite obviously underpinned by an affinity with the time and place, 16th century Northern Italy, and dedicated research into the historical context of the real convent on which Sta Caterina is based. There is even unusually a bibliography, the choices in which, though, to me indicate the novel’s agenda
I devoured every word, as it is skilfully constructed and compellingly written. But it failed to move me. I think, in fact I’m pretty sure, I am the wrong reader for it. I think my (completely) personal issue with the novel is summed up by one of the reviews quoted on the flyleaf (I should have been warned): “Dunant heartbreakingly imparts the dread claustrophobia of a life sentence for girls who’ve barely begun to live. Terrific.” Hmmm. Yes – this is a novel about the superhuman struggle of a particular girl to retain her sense of self, who is there against her will, and whose removal to Sta Caterina is an appalling act of family tyranny. But the individual seems too generic to me, and all this anger, revulsion and rebellion seems to leak a sort of poison over the whole concept of this community of women. Who would be here by choice? seems to be a question that underpins the whole novel. Isn’t there something slightly, or seriously, wrong with everyone here? Is this really an acceptable way to live?
Perhaps I’m oversensitive. But it is so full-on, all the time. We have anorexia, self-harm, hysteria, domestic abuse and the convent as prototype women’s refuge (all a bit 21st century for me – the author expertly steers round the ‘Vegan Viking’ effect of adducing modern mental furniture to 16th century characters, but missing it by a mere whisker). We have masochistic religious practices, ecstasy and stigmata, the battle of art and beauty vs. austerity, political power-play, and, okay, intellectual endeavour and musical inspiration and creativity, but very little sincere, joyful spirituality, freely embraced. There seemed to be an underpinning assumption that this cannot be a haven or a freely chosen place for a woman to grow and thrive. And yet we know that it could be – women learnt to read there, and escaped from incarceration in appalling, unloving families.
And it’s long. Although it stayed readable to the end, I wondered why it had to be so long – is it essential these days? Let’s start a movement – a celebration of Lapidary novels. The two rediscoveries I’ve recently reviewed here, by Margaret Irwin and Simon Raven, were gems of around 200 pages apiece, and yet I felt they were perfectly crafted – I didn’t feel short-changed in any way. Sometimes, more is just more. Especially when this reader was faced with yet another manifestation of noisy angst and wild rebellion, or another wildly implausible attempt to scheme her way out, by the novice Serafina, a young girl who was seriously trying my patience.
Oh dear – this was not the book for me, was it! I hope I have been fair to this very well-written and skilfully plotted novel: I’ve listed aspects of it that were not to my taste, but I hope, I really do, that they are the same aspects that will intrigue and pique the curiosity of its potential readers. And if you do read (or have read) it, please come back and take issue with me!
Sarah Dunant: Sacred Hearts. Virago, 2010.
ISBN-13: 978-1844083305 480pp