Vulpes Libris

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.

Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant

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

12 comments on “Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant

  1. Anne Brooke
    January 14, 2010

    Great review, Hilary! Like you, I toyed with the religious life at one point (not something I admit often – but ah my secret is out) and was even called for interview at a couple of convents at one stage. It still exerts its pull. So I was hugely looking forward to what you would make of this book – and I think, again like you, I would if I read it feel shortchanged by the fact that the undoubted spirituality and possibility of liberation in these communities is somehow overlooked. Perhaps it needed to have less angst and more balance in the telling?

    Thought-provoking stuff, so thank you!


  2. Rosyb
    January 14, 2010

    Gosh. I don’t know what to make of this. I like a bit of anarchy and rebellion in my novels, myself. But, on the other hand, yes, I imagine that in some ways a convent would have had pros and cons in those days in particular. Some of the other life options: being married off to someone you detested for example, and dying in childbirth may not have been so very attractive either. And the educating aspect is an interesting point. I feel that although not anachronistic as such, you feel the novel is looking at the options with a twenty-first century set of expectations. Is that right?

  3. Hilary
    January 14, 2010

    Thanks very much for these comments, Anne and Rosy.

    Anne, I’ve been thinking about balance, and my conclusion is that this is a cracking story, and the emphasis is on telling it with as much colourful detail as possible. An awful lot happens. There’s a single focus – does Serafina get out or doesn’t she? – against a series of set-pieces (musical performances liturgical and secular; a bravura description of a purging cure, a bit much for my squeamish taste; a crisis in the convent’s government) and that takes up a deal of energy, leaving little left for deeper reflection on the journey that the characters have taken to arrive at this place or for the patient construction of a contemporary context and mindset. (For that I think ‘The Corner That Held Them’ is unrivalled, but then, that novel is picaresque, not plot-driven). We get some back story, but it’s more plot detail, really. All we need to know, it seems, about Serafina and her lover is that he is a gifted musician and she has a wonderful voice – any other character development is rather shadowy.

    Rosy – I think you may be the reader for this that I am not – this is a tour de force of rebellion and battling wills. And you are spot on – the novel for me strongly projects 21st century expectations, while the excellence of the research underpinning the details is not in doubt.

  4. Jackie
    January 15, 2010

    It seems that the author doesn’t believe the convent could be a viable lifestyle, when I think in certain periods, it was actually liberating & offered women an alternative to the marriage/childbearing cycle that wore so many out. If the author started from the premise that a convent was a type of prison, how could she have given a balanced view in the story? perhaps it wasn’t the right choice for Sarafina, but I bet it was for many other women. It also sounds like she listed the other inhabitants as having all of the extreme behaviors & conditions found in monastic life, as if there were no regular folks living there. Would ordinary women going about everyday activities have been too boring for her?
    I’ve read most of Dunants other books & enjoyed them, so this really disappoints me. If I do decide to try it, I’ll report back, but it sounds as if it won’t measure up to her others.

  5. Hilary
    January 15, 2010

    Well, I’ve described a very personal reaction to it, Jackie, so you may well think that it’s too harsh. I’ll be very interested to hear what you think. And as for the inhabitants of the convent, I think my concern was not that are were no regular folks there, but more that the ‘irregular’ aren’t allowed to be ‘regular’, if you like – they are a set of specimens described for our wonder. The descriptions of the daily cycle of worship and work, and the different roles in the community are strong and well-written.

  6. Moira
    January 15, 2010

    It does sound a little as if the author has a bit of an agenda – which is a great pity if it’s impinged upon what would otherwise have been a cracking good read.

    Perhaps she was frightened by a nun when she was a baby.

    Chalk me up as another who can easily see the attractions of a cloistered, contemplative life – which for me is the exact antithesis of unnatural. Some of the most even-keeled and jolly people I’ve known in my life have been nuns.

  7. Teresa
    January 15, 2010

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this review. I keep seeing glowing reviews of this book, but my mixed reaction to Birth of Venus kept me skeptical, and now it appears my skepticism was well grounded as I felt just the same way about Birth of Venus as you did about this book. It too was a rip snorter of a good story, packed with fascinating detail, but preoccupied with 21th century concerns. I can see why people loved it, but I found myself rolling my eyes just a tad too much.

    And I love your “vegan Viking” phrase. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered an actual vegan Viking in my reading, but I knew just what you meant. Hilarious!

  8. Hilary
    January 15, 2010

    Thanks, Teresa – I’m confirmed in my plan not to try her other C16 books!

    Must give credit where it’s due for the Vegan Viking – it’s one of Sandra Newman’s and Howard Mittelmark’s 200 things not to do if you want to get published, from ‘How Not to Write a Novel’. Brilliant book, huge laugh, big, big problems thereafter in reading a novel, as one or more of the 200 things will almost inevitably crawl out of the undergrowth.

  9. Nikki
    January 16, 2010

    Wow, I like the sound of this. I’m quite a claustrophobic person so the idea of a closed convent horrifies me, but it’s the sort of horror that fascinates – it’s so alien to me, I can’t understand why anyone would want that life so I like reading about it. I think Serafina’s reaction would be mine, but I understand your reservations – I know that’s how I’d feel so I’d like to read something that gives me the opposite. I want to understand why someone would feel differently to me. I think you reacted to this the same way I did to Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre – readable, but frustrating!

  10. Pingback: The Corner That Held Them, by Sylvia Townsend Warner. « Vulpes Libris

  11. Nikki
    January 31, 2010

    The TV Book Club on More4 reviewed this today, they all seemed to love it! Maybe you should email your review to them 😉

  12. Hilary
    January 31, 2010

    Yes, and Daisy Goodwin is tweeting her reactions to the longlist for the Orange prize and managed to get as much positivity about Sacred Hearts as she possibly could into 140 characters. I know I’m swimming against the tide here! Will find a rock-pool and hide in it.

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This entry was posted on January 14, 2010 by in Entries by Hilary, Fiction: historical, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , .



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