Synopses & Reviews
A triumphant portrait of a resilient and courageous woman and the life she might have lived . . .
Skillfully interweaving historical fact with psychological insight and vivid imagination, Sharratts redemptive novel, Illuminations, brings to life one of the most extraordinary women of the Middle Ages: Hildegard von Bingen, Benedictine abbess, visionary, and polymath.
Offered to the Church at the age of eight, Hildegard was entombed in a small room where she was expected to live out her days in silent submission as the handmaiden of a renowned but disturbed young nun, Jutta von Sponheim. Instead, Hildegard rejected Juttas masochistic piety and found comfort and grace in studying books, growing herbs, and rejoicing in her own secret visions of the divine. When Jutta died some thirty years later, Hildegard broke out of her prison with the heavenly calling to speak and write about her visions and to liberate her sisters and herself from the soul-destroying anchorage. Riveting and utterly unforgettable, Illuminations is a deeply moving portrayal of a woman willing to risk everything for what she believed.
“With elegance and sensitivity, Mary Sharratt rescues Hildegard von Bingen from the obscurity of legend, bringing to life the flesh-and-blood woman in all her conflict, faith, and unwavering tenacity. Illuminations is an astonishing revelation of a visionary leader willing to sacrifice everything to defend her beliefs in a dangerous time of oppression.”
—C. W. Gortner, author of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici
Masterfully blending true events with fiction, this blockbuster historical thriller delivers a page-turning murder mystery set on the sixteenth-century Oxford University campus.
Giordano Bruno was a monk, poet, scientist, and magician on the run from the Roman Inquisition on charges of heresy for his belief that the Earth orbits the sun and that the universe is infinite. This alone could have got him burned at the stake, but he was also a student of occult philosophies and magic.
In S. J. Parris's gripping novel, Bruno's pursuit of this rare knowledge brings him to London, where he is unexpectedly recruited by Queen Elizabeth I and is sent undercover to Oxford University on the pretext of a royal visitation. Officially Bruno is to take part in a debate on the Copernican theory of the universe; unofficially, he is to find out whatever he can about a Catholic plot to overthrow the queen.
His mission is dramatically thrown off course by a series of grisly murders and a spirited and beautiful young woman. As Bruno begins to discover a pattern in these killings, he realizes that no one at Oxford is who he seems to be. Bruno must attempt to outwit a killer who appears obsessed with the boundary between truth and heresy.
Like The Dante Club and The Alienist, this clever, sophisticated, exceptionally enjoyable novel is written with the unstoppable narrative propulsion and stylistic flair of the very best historical thrillers.
Like "The Dante Club," this clever, sophisticated, exceptionally enjoyable thriller is written with unstoppable narrative propulsion and stylistic flair. Follow the monk, poet, and scientist Giordano Bruno on his quest to uncover a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth I.
From critically acclaimed historical fiction author Mary Sharratt, a novel based on the true story of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), who was offered by her parents as a tithe to the Church as a young child and who triumphed to become a powerful abbess, composer, prophet and polymath.
About the Author
MARY SHARRATT is an American writer who has lived in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, for the past seven years. The author of the critically acclaimed novels Summit Avenue, The Real Minerva, and The Vanishing Point, Sharratt is also the coeditor of the subversive fiction anthology Bitch Lit, a celebration of female antiheroes, strong women who break all the rules.
Reading Group Guide
1. 1. When Giordano Bruno is recruited as a spy by Sir Francis Walsingham, he hesitates. Walsingham tells him “whenever you feel the wrench between conscience and duty, your care should always be for the greater good.” Yet Bruno’s conscience remains troubled throughout by the double life he has to lead. Does this make him a more appealing narrator? To what extent is a spy morally compromised by the fact that he must maintain a deception? Is Walsingham right—is the greater good always more important than individuals?
2. Europe in the 1580s is divided by religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. Religious loyalty is often stronger than national or family ties. Walsingham tells Bruno that “faith and politics are now one and the same.” What parallels do you see with our own times? What inspires people to become martyrs?
3. Bruno is seeking a lost book that he believes will reveal the secret of man’s divinity. He believes that with this knowledge he can formulate a philosophy that will overcome religious divisions. Why was this such a radical idea at the time? Four hundred years later, how do we regard Bruno’s optimistic dream of the end of conventional religion, with its conflicts and dogma? Does history show that some people will always turn religion to violent ends?
4. Both Walsingham and Jenkes the book dealer say they find Bruno intriguing because he contains so many contradictions and can’t be easily labeled. Did you find him intriguing/enigmatic as a character? What more would you have liked to find out about him?
5. Sophia Underhill is surprised to hear Bruno say he would appreciate a woman who could form her own opinion and express it. Why is Sophia unusual for a young woman of her time and class? Do you think her attraction to Bruno was genuine? Did your feelings about her change when her secret was revealed?
6. After the first murder, Bruno is sent an anonymous letter that appears to offer a clue about the killing. Who did you first think might have sent it? What was the purpose of the letter? Why did the sender want Bruno involved?
7. Many of the book’s central characters are real historical figures. Why do you think the author chose to use real characters? Does it affect the way you read the novel to know that some of the events really happened? Would it make you want to read more about that period or the people involved?
8. Queen Elizabeth I famously said she had “no desire to make windows into men’s souls”. At the end of the book, Bruno is confronted by a character who says that tolerance in matters of belief is equal to saying there is no truth or untruth, right or wrong. Who is right? Does passionate belief in any cause rule out tolerance of other views? Where do we see this most keenly in our own age?
9. A great deal of the story revolves around lost or forbidden books. Why were books considered so powerful at the time? What other stories have you read where a lost or secret book was at the heart of a mystery? Why does the idea of a forgotten or banned book have such a hold on the imagination?
10. Were you surprised to discover the identity of the killer? Who had you suspected? At the very end, Bruno remains ambivalent about whether justice has been done —do you agree? (For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit: www.readinggroupcenter.com.)