I’ve read Sarah Dunant’s two previous novels about women in the Italian Renaissance — The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan. Both are good novels, but I found Sacred Hearts brilliant, my favourite of the three by far.
This could be because it’s set in a world that’s always fascinated me: a convent. In medieval and renaissance times, convents were a lot of things — a dumping ground for unwanted or unmarriageable women; a prison for women who didn’t want to be there, but also a haven where at least some women could experience the freedom to exercise skills (artistic, administrative, or other) that they would have no scope for in the outside world.
Both aspects of convent life are clearly presented in Sacred Hearts, the story of an unwilling teenager, Serafina, sent to the convent after she disgraces herself by falling in love with her music master. Serafina longs for freedom, a chance to escape and run away with her beloved, but as she slowly and reluctantly becomes part of convent life she becomes much more than a reluctant novice — she becomes a pawn in power games that are being played out within the convent, reflecting even greater power struggles in the world beyond.
The convent of Santa Caterina in Ferrera, though it seems like a prison to Serafina, is in fact a rich and varied world, home to Madonna Chiara, the brilliant abbess who today would be CEO of a multinational corporation; Suora Umiliania, crusader for greater piety; Suora Magdelena, ancient mystic; home to poets and musicians and even actresses; home to Zuana, daughter of a doctor, who came to the convent as a reluctant novice herself years ago after her father’s death but found there, as apothecary sister, opportunities the outside world would not have afforded her. As Zuana observes, she has never heard of a woman outside the convent who owns her own apothecary shop and treats her own patients.
It is Zuana who befriends the angry and rebellious Serafina, and who as a result finds herself forced to make choices and choose sides in the convent’s power struggles. Santa Caterina, like all convents of its time (1570) is under threat. Outside its walls the Protestant Reformation sweeps across Europe, and in response the Catholic church has launched the counter-Reformation, promising stricter rules and far less freedom for women in religious life. This threat haunts the novel, hanging in the background, influencing all the women’s choices.
Sacred Hearts is written not only with vivid and exacting detail but with beautifully developed characterization. For many years I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a novel set in a convent, but at this point I’m laying the idea aside, unless some brilliant new inspiration strikes. It just can’t be done better than this.