One of the difficulties of writing historical fiction is the recreation of a world so far removed from modern society that it can be difficult to picture the world as it was.
Sarah Dunant, however, achieves this masterfully. Serafina is a sixteen year old woman born into a society where a woman’s worth is based solely on her value as a commodity. Dunant takes this historical fact and moves it behind convent walls, where it is women who give themselves worth outside of the patriarchal community in which they are surrounded.
Love in Sacred Hearts
This is, of course, the prevailing theme. The Romeo and Juliet type love of Serafina and her poor love interest. They find one another even over the protestations of her father, the distance that separates them, and the difficulty of convent life. And it is love that makes them believe they can overcome the obstacles in their way, regardless of how large those obstacles are.
But it is also about the love of women who are forced into an existence the vast majority would never have chosen. Crippled, poor, unattractive, or simply too smart, these women are dropped in a place that serves as a cage where they can be forgotten, where their only virtue to their community is as vessels of prayer to those outside. These women learn to love one another, mostly in platonic, although not always, ways, since they are to be denied any other form of love for the rest of their lives.
Religion in the Sacred Hearts Convent
This is perhaps the most disturbing and delicate part of this intricate novel. Because so many of the women in the convent have been forced to be there, while they perform the duties of being a nun, they also bring as much of the outside world into the convent as they can get away with. Religion is a duty rather than a calling, and for those who have chosen to be there, this creates a solid tension throughout the convent.
The religious figures are not terribly attractive figures in the story; they are often overzealous, calculating and blinded by the strange desire to suffer for their belief in Christ. One character in particular takes this to every extreme, causing incredible damage to her own body, even as she kills other nuns while trying to free them from their own sinful natures. She is truly deranged, and a perfect example of what living without love and a desire only to be the ultimate sacrifice for God can become.
Sarah Dunant did an exceptional amount of research for this book. She even went to a convent and lived among the nuns for a time, performing the offices of the day (including the 2 am wake up) with the nuns to experience the life of her main character. She has also written the highly acclaimed The Birth of Venus and In the Company of a Courtesan.