Friday, 18 June 2010

Sarah Dunant: Sacred Hearts

Sarah Dunant: Sacred Hearts
Virago, 2010
£7.99



I first heard this book - quite literally - on Radio 4, when it was done as a daily serial. I have the radio on while I'm working, so tend to dip in and out of what's going on and don't always fully take on board what's going on. Alas I didn't wake up out of my dream until this series was nearly over, but was intrigued, and when I found a copy in a charity shop, pounced.

It has been the most gripping read: there are rare books when you are so immersed in the world the author creates that it takes you a while to swing back into your own once you have finished the book, and this book was one of those. It is the story of a convent in the Italian city, Ferrara, in 1570. It is set just after the Council of Trent, when what were seen as Protestant heresies were condemned, and the lack of discipline in convents was addressed. As a result, many bishops cracked down on what were seen as lax practices. This process took several years, depending on how zealous local bishops were, and how strong the influence of local families was in protecting the convent.

Ferrara's convent of Santa Caterina was under the protection of the d'Este family. It is an enclosed order: once a nun was admitted, she was there for life, unless she could prove her unsuitability after a year's service. Some contact with the outside world was allowed: the congregation could see the nuns at service, and families could visit. Many of the convent's inhabitants were noble women who were shunted into nunneries when their families could not afford to provide dowries for all their daughters. When the story opens, Santa Caterina has just received a new novice: Serafina, who is virulently opposed to what she sees as her incarceration. Zuana, the sister in charge of the convent's infirmary, does not see Serafina's future as a simple case of her learning to live with her changed situation. Serafina's future becomes the symbol of the tension in the convent between the relatively relaxed rule of Madonna Chiara, the abbess, and the reformist elements who want a stricter discipline.

I loved the subtlety of this novel: in some circumstances, the reformists have a point, but so too do those wanting to preserve the status quo. I found this book completely fascinating, and have ordered one of her Florentine trilogy from the library (which reminds me - it is now there and I must trot down the road and pick it up).

A postscript to the novel notes that change did come to Santa Caterina. Convent chapels were altered so that the congregation could no longer see the nuns, and parlatori were screened with grilles so that there was no direct contact between nuns and families. This I found doubly sad, both from the point of view of the women whose lives were changed then, and from the point of view of some orders now. One of my sisters-in-law is in an enclosed order, and the chapel is still arranged so that you cannot see the nuns, and the parlour has a grille. Although the nuns in her convent are absolutely delightful, and obviously thoroughly happy and satisfied with their lives, the grille, although it has an opening in it so that you can reach across and hug, is still there. It still seems to me a potent symbol of separation: if you have already taken the decision to remain in an enclosed order, is that not separation enough?

I may be over-simplifying the matter by thinking that the grille was instituted in part through the desire to prevent Protestant contamination: if that was some of the reason for its existence, I wonder if the evidence of centuries since ought not to have shown that nuns could be trusted not to desert if the grille were removed.

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