Sarah Dunant's latest novel, Sacred Hearts — the third in her triptych of books set in the Italian Renaissance — delves into the hidden lives of 16th-century Benedictine nuns. Set in 1570, the book takes place at the Santa Caterina convent, a fictional community based on a real convent outside Ferrara.
Dunant describes the period as "a really good cusp moment for politics and the [Catholic] Church," adding that "it's also, probably more powerfully, the moment when most women were going into convents." At the time, the cost of a dowry had risen so astronomically that most noble families could only afford to marry off one daughter respectably. Other female children would be shipped off to convents to be "married to Christ."
The book centers around two nuns. Serafina is a teenage novice whose family has shipped her off for virtual imprisonment at Santa Caterina to put a stop to a romantic affair. The convent — which, like many others at the time, could market its choir as a kind of tourist attraction — values Serafina for her beautiful voice, but she refuses to sing.
Zuana, a middle-aged nun with an extensive education, practices medicine within the convent's walls. Zuana's existence might seem painfully restrictive to modern readers, but, Dunant tells Liane Hansen, "the interesting thing about writing in the past is you cannot enter it with your '21st' mind. Me as a 21st-century woman being angry for them doesn't make for a real understanding of the past."
In context, then, Zuana has more autonomy as a doctor than she could have had anywhere else.
"That's kind of the wonderful irony of studying history," Dunant says.
When she began research for Sacred Hearts, Dunant spent a week living in a Benedictine convent near Milan. She says she found the quiet of the cloister a welcome respite from the pace of modern life, and she was impressed by "the power of ritual and rhythm and routine."
But, Dunant adds, "I think I really, really understood that I had picked the right profession by not being a nun."