by Sarah Dunant
Imagine what it must be like to be a prisoner to your own destiny. Such is the life of Serafina, a young girl who finds herself locked away in the Santa Caterina convent in Ferrara , Italy during the sixteenth century. During that time, with dowries so high, many parents chose to marry off only one daughter, with any other daughters being sent to convents, where the dowries were much lower and the daughters would still be socially accepted. Serafina had hoped to be married to her true love, Jacopo, an aspiring musician, but her parents did not approve of his modest standing and instead chose to send Serafina to the convent while marrying off her younger sister to a nobleman.
While in the convent, Serafina begins working alongside Suora Zuana, the convent’s dispensary sister. They forge a relationship that plagues Suora Zuana throughout the book. Santa Caterina is enmired in political circumstances that the abbess, Madonna Chiara, is attempting to handle, but which Suora Zuana is forced to struggle with as she attempts to help the young novice Serafina. Abbess Madonna Chiara is an interesting character; she is very stoic and, despite the fact that she has grown up in the convent, she has a knowledgeable grasp on the inner-workings of the outside economy and politics. She was a very conflicting character for me because I admired her drive and her fortitude, but it was hard to come to terms with the fact that she was in favor of overlooking individuals for the better of the convent as a whole. In theory, it doesn’t sound too awful, but as the book went on, it seemed that she took it too far. The manner in which she took it upon herself to keep Serafina and Jacopo apart was disturbing and it exposed the contradiction of how Abbess Chiara was forced to juggle her vows to God, and morality in general, against protecting the best interests of the convent.
Suora Zuana was also faced with the same conflictions as her abbess. She finds herself drawn to Serafina, especially seeing as Suora Zuana also entered the convent unwillingly. At first she expects Serafina to accept her fate, as she herself has done, but as Sacred Hearts unfolds, Suora Zuana finds herself in a personal struggle between following the instructions of the abbess or helping Serafina follow her heart. At the same time, Suora Zuana is attempting to disengage herself from her past life. She is still very caught up in her earlier years, before her father passed away and she entered Santa Caterina, and while she doesn’t want to let go of her father, it is made obvious to her by the abbess that she cannot fully accept God and her present life in the convent if she is unwilling to let go of her old life.
As mentioned before, Sacred Hearts is an interesting look in to convent life in the sixteenth century. The politics involved in the running of a convent often clash with the meaning of the convent itself; many times the focus on the Father and Son is overwhelmed by outside sources. One battle that rages on throughout the book is that of Suora Umiliana and Abbess Chiara. While enclosed, the sisters are still able to participate in some of the luxuries of life, such as meeting with their families, singing and performing plays. The Abbess uses these freedoms to her fullest extent and is able to count on income through produce and benefactors. However, Suora Umiliana is of the belief that the convent is given too many luxuries and the sisters are therefore not able to fully focus on the religious aspects of the convent. Due to the circumstances with Rome , and the fact that other convents are being put under massive restraints, Suora Umiliana’s vision could very easily become reality, much to the chagrin of the abbess. Additionally, Suora Umiliana had the chance to become abbess but lost the position to Madonna Chiara; despite that loss, Suora Umiliana has quite a few other nuns that are willing to back her up in her visions for the convent, so the threat to Madonna Chiara is very real.
Although Serafina is the protagonist of the story, the way in which Dunant takes the time to weave an entire picture of convent life is a true gift to the reader. While maybe not the most intriguing subject matter to some, Dunant was able to write a forceful book with all the inner workings of life in a convent. While at times a sad and lonely place, there is a real sense of hope involved. This became one of those books I wouldn’t let myself put down; I would try my hardest to read it as I was geeting ready for work in the morning, because I was so completely drawn in to the storyline. I am now especially convinced that I need to read my copy of In the Company of the Courtesan, not to mention snag a copy of The Birth of Venus as well.
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