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
The year is 1570, and in the convent of Santa Caterina, in the Italian city of Ferrara, noblewomen find space to pursue their lives under God's protection. But any community, however smoothly run, suffers tremors when it takes in someone by force. And the arrival of Santa Caterina's new novice sets in motion a chain of events that will shake the convent to its core.
Ripped by her family from an illicit love affair, sixteen-year-old Serafina is willful, emotional, sharp, and defiant-young enough to have a life to look forward to and old enough to know when that life is being cut short. Her first night inside the walls is spent in an incandescent rage so violent that the dispensary mistress, Suora Zuana, is dispatched to the girl's cell to sedate her. Thus begins a complex relationship of trust and betrayal between the young rebel and the clever, scholarly nun, for whom the girl becomes the daughter she will never have.
As Serafina rails against her incarceration, others are drawn into the drama: the ancient, mysterious Suora Magdalena — with her history of visions and ecstasies-locked in her cell; the ferociously devout novice mistress Suora Umiliana, who comes to see in the postulant a way to extend her influence; and, watching it all, the abbess, Madonna Chiara, a woman as fluent in politics as she is in prayer. As disorder and rebellion mount, it is the abbess's job to keep the convent stable while, outside its walls, the dictates of the Counter-Reformation begin to purge the Catholic Church and impose on the nunneries a regime of terrible oppression.
Sarah Dunant, the bestselling author of The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, brings this intricate Renaissance world compellingly to life. Amid Sacred Hearts is a rich, engrossing, multifaceted love story, encompassing the passions of the flesh, the exultation of the spirit, and the deep, enduring power of friendship.
From Sarah Dunant, acclaimed author of The Birth of Venus
and In the Company of the Courtesan
, comes an engrossing new novel set in a convent in Renaissance Italy where a defiant sixeteen-year-old girl has just been confined against her will — for life.
By the second half of the sixteenth century, the price of wedding dowries had risen so high that most Italian aristocratic families could afford to marry off only one daughter. The remaining young women were dispatched into convents, and not all of them went willingly. Santa Caterina's new novice sets in motion a chain of events that will shake the convent to its core.
Serafina, a willful, emotional furious girl, has just been ripped from her proposed marriage and sent by her noble family to Santa Caterina. During her first night inside, such is her violent, incandescent rage that the dispensary mistress, Suora Zuana, is sent to her cell to calm her with a draft of herbs. Thus begins a complex relationship of trust and betrayal. And while outside the convent walls the forces of the Counter-Reformation push for ever more repressive changes, Serafina's rebellious spirit challenges not only Zuana but many other nuns who have made peace with the isolated life.
A rich, captivating, multifaceted love story, Sacred Hearts is a novel about power, creativity, passion — both secular and spiritual — and the indomitable spirit of women in an age when religious, political, and social forces were all stacked against them.
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
Sarah Dunant is the author of the international bestsellers The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, which have received major acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Her earlier novels include three Hannah Wolfe crime thrillers, as well as Snowstorms in a Hot Climate, Transgressions, and Mapping the Edge, all three of which are available as Random House Trade Paperbacks. She has two daughters and lives in London and Florence.
Reading Group Guide
1. Imagine you were Serafina’s father. What would influence your decision to send your daughter to a convent? Do you think he was being cruel or practical?
2. Nuns—from Hildegard of Bingen to Maria in The Sound of Music—have always been the subject of huge fascination to
many people. What do you think makes them so interesting?
3. Do you see the sisters of Santa Caterina as prisoners confined within the convent walls or, given the harsh reality of life outside for women, do you believe they in fact enjoyed more freedom and creativity than women on the outside? If you were a woman living then and could choose to live inside or out, which choice would you make?
4. Serafina suffers from holy anorexia. Many people today think of eating disorders as a product of contemporary fashion,
celebrity, and pop culture, but what can holy anorexia teach us about the modern disease?
5. Which of the characters do you think suffer in the restrictive environment and which of them thrive and learn to manipulate the system? How do you think you would have responded if placed in such an environment?
6. Why do you think Dunant chose to set her story entirely within the convent’s walls? How would the novel have been different had she written more about the world outside them?
7. With Sacred Hearts, Dunant completes what she’s called her Renaissance trilogy, which includes her two previous novels, The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan. As a trilogy, they paint the possible lives of ordinary women in the Renaissance. Why do you think the author set out to do this?
8. The relationship between Suora Zuana and Serafina is an interesting and complex one. What is it about Serafina that attracts Zuana’s attentions and affection? And what is it about Zuana that appeals to Serafina?
9. The convent of Santa Caterina is filled with an intriguing variety of nuns, from the powerful abbess Madonna Chiara, the
ancient visionary Suora Magdalena, dispensary mistress Suora Zuana, and the devout and ambitious novice mistress Suora Umiliana. Which of these sisters interested you the most? Which ones did you think seemed the most contemporary, the most like women you might know yourself ?