Saturday, May 01, 2010

An interview with Sarah Dunant, author of Sacred Hearts

At the beginning of our conversation, British novelist Sarah Dunant expresses mixed feelings about the US tour for the paperback release of Sacred Hearts. With a whirlwind of cities to visit, thousands of miles from her London residence, it’s clear she feels more at home in 16th-century Italy than in her Florida hotel room. At the same time, Dunant accustoms herself to the strains of travel in order to speak with readers about subjects that touch her deeply: the lives of women from the Renaissance, the blossoming of artistic creativity, the politics of religion, and the intersections among all of these.

I first picked up Sacred Hearts at last summer’s BookExpo America, where I met Dunant during her signing at the Random House booth. I found myself captivated by her tale about strong-minded women constrained by their time in history and their reactions to the world around them. All of the historical details in Sacred Hearts illuminate the period and bring it to radiant life; they’re also layered seamlessly into an emotionally involving story.

Remaining focused on the subject at hand, Sarah Dunant speaks avidly about Italian Renaissance history. This isn’t a surprise, given that she’s spent the last decade immersed in the era. She throws out names of historians whose work informed hers – Kate Lowe, Guido Ruggiero, Dava Sobel – but what comes through most clearly is her passion for the past and its inhabitants. While many novels focus on the Borgias and the great male painters like Leonardo and Michelangelo, far fewer delve into ordinary women’s lives. This gives her a niche in the market, and a rich vein of material to mine and translate into her acclaimed historical fiction.

To me, used to seeing fiction about Henry VIII and his wives dominating bookstore shelves, it’s refreshing to hear that Dunant, on her tour, has found American readers to be genuinely interested in what fascinates her most: “the tiny triumphs of people in history.” She acknowledges readers’ current obsession with famous names; it would be hard not to. “It’s what I call the historical celebrity version of life,” she says. “It’s very easy [for readers] to go back into history when it’s celebrity-led.” However, while she praises the research skills of novelists like Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel, her own interests lie elsewhere. “I find the most interesting material isn’t about kings and queens. What about the people on the margins? This new research being uncovered by young, smart historians … the fabric of history is being changed, and it ought to be reflected in historical fiction. You can’t always find a famous person to write about.”

The opening pages of Sacred Hearts reveal a startling truth about late 16th-century Catholic Europe. Most noble families could afford to marry off only one daughter due to the high cost of dowries. The remaining women were sent off to convents, willingly or not.

Thus we have her novel’s premise. In the year 1570, Santa Caterina, a Benedictine convent in the northern Italian city of Ferrara, is torn apart by the arrival of sixteen-year-old Serafina. She brings with her two things that the nuns find desirable: an expensive dowry and a glorious soprano voice. Livid at being forced into the convent against her will, after her parents refuse to let her marry her music tutor, Serafina rails against her situation and determines to find a way to free herself. Suora Zuana, Santa Caterina’s infirmarian and dispensary mistress, takes Serafina under her wing, setting in motion a intricate set of alliances and betrayals that destroy the convent’s hard-won tranquility – and at a time when the forces of the Counter-Reformation seek to impose even greater restrictions on convent behavior.

One doesn’t expect a nunnery to be a hotbed of excitement, a belief Dunant admits to holding herself at first, but the claustrophobic setting has the effect of augmenting the novel’s drama. After all, the hundred women of Santa Caterina are forced to live, pray, and die together, interacting with one another constantly, all within a square of three city blocks walled off from central Ferrara. Friendships build, factions develop, and personality clashes ensue. In one memorable scene, Madonna Chiara, the convent’s pragmatic abbess, reveals that newly-arrived nuns fear boredom the most, yet it’s one thing she’s never experienced there.

While doing research for the previous two novels in her Renaissance trilogy, The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan – bestsellers both – Dunant became aware of the large number of convents in Italian cities. Women had a very narrow set of options, and most had no choice in their future. Due to the unique demographic structure in place, she explains, younger sons from aristocratic families became professional bachelors – circumstances out of which, in Venice in particular, the courtesan culture developed – while extraneous daughters became nuns. Convents required smaller dowries than potential husbands did.

Two types of primary sources proved most helpful in her research: church court records involving nuns – which she terms “gold dust” for their content-rich material – as well as words written by the nuns themselves. With noticeable empathy for their situation, Dunant recounts several stories about women who objected to their forced imprisonment and made their feelings known – via polemical protests, in letters to people on the outside, and, in the most dramatic cases, through self-injury and attempted suicide. When I ask how society reacted to the literary protests made by one of these reluctant nuns – Arcangela Tarrabotti of 17th-century Venice, who published a polemic mentioned in her author’s note – Dunant apologizes; she’s not sure. “It’s later than my period,” she says. She remains in her characters’ present, not wanting to be influenced by circumstances they wouldn’t know themselves.

Madonna Chiara’s near-lifetime spent behind convent walls belies a remarkable sophistication. In a discussion with Suora Zuana about Serafina, she offers a devastating but realistic comment: “She is only a young woman who did not want to become a nun. The world is full of them.” How does one approach a topic which would grate against most 21st-century women’s feminist viewpoint? In fact, Dunant identified so closely with Serafina’s fiery rebellion that she found the novel difficult to write at first. “Yes, I was angry. I found myself swimming through treacle for the first couple of months. It was all too foreign, too weird. My 21st-century sensibility, my feeling about equality, was going incandescent with rage on their behalf.”

And then: “I almost fell into my own trap!” she says. She avoided the problem faced by many historical novelists – imposing modern attitudes on the past – by asking herself a new question: what alternatives did the women have? To illustrate her point, Dunant runs down a list of threats faced by married women of the time: “Bearing children for as long as they’re capable – the childbirth statistics were horrendous – VD, including syphilis…” In contrast, convent life offered advantages as well as, perhaps, some perks. Nuns voted in convent elections, doctored patients (as Suora Zuana does), and adapted and performed music for a sequestered public. The scene in which Serafina unleashes her angelic voice for the first time, to immediate and deliberate effect, is especially moving. Dunant names the convent music performed by Musica Secreta as one of her inspirations; in fact, she and the group collaborated on a CD described as the soundtrack to Sacred Hearts.

These were just some of the creative accomplishments of cloistered women not permitted to their counterparts on the outside. Learning this, Dunant found a major breakthrough in her writing, and seen from this new perspective, the convent became a “mysterious, richer, and more interesting place.”

To create period atmosphere, Dunant spent a week in a convent near Milan. While acknowledging that things are very different today, since women now become nuns by choice, she took inspiration from observing and participating: “The silence, the routine, the institutionalization of worship… celebrating mass eight times a day, every day.” Readers experience Serafina’s listlessness as she’s awakened from a sound sleep to participate in religious services. Although the office of Matins is no longer held at 2am, Dunant’s on-site stay forced her to experience sleeplessness – and, perhaps, imagine how these heightened states may have left the 16th-century soul open to ecstasies and visions.

The nuns’ religious faith features greatly in the novel, though not to the point of preachiness, and there are lighter moments, too. Humor is often found in short supply in historical novels. It’s almost as rare, as, say, attractive young men in a Renaissance convent. However, there are exceptions to the rule. (There are no men in Sacred Hearts, alas, although sex scandals involving nunneries, Dunant tells me, turn up in old records and archives.) Suora Zuana’s compassion and quick wit prove surprising to Serafina, who isn’t sure whether to trust either one, but the gossip they share brings them closer in friendship. Like her older heroine, Dunant uses humor as a tool for drawing people in, and it works. Her first three books were detective novels, written à la Raymond Chandler, but with a female detective – and plenty of dry wit. “Humor has always been a part of how I convince as I write,” she says.

I find Chiara, Santa Caterina’s abbess, to be an especially intriguing character. A woman of prominent family who’s a master at balancing town-gown relations, her no-nonsense governance has kept the convent running smoothly for years, at least until Serafina arrives. The notion of convent hierarchies surprised Dunant, particularly how they mirrored the power structure in Italy itself – and the reality that many abbesses chose to put their family before God. “These were smart, astute, well-educated women, women used to being listened to.”

Readers are used to seeing powerful families in Italian-set fiction, and Sacred Hearts is no exception. This is no accident, says Dunant, explaining that city-states in Renaissance Italy were controlled by families. As she relates, “The subtext behind the Council of Trent” – the ecumenical gathering that sought to impose greater restrictions on nunneries, which Chiara guards against – “was to break the power of the family. It sought to grant abbesses their power for only four years, rather than for their lifetime. This was Rome, trying to centralize the power of the convent.”

The complex interplay among family, politics, and faith is threaded throughout Sacred Hearts. In our conversation, as well as in the book, Dunant emphasizes the differences between the 16th-century and our more permissive, secular society. “In the past, people weren’t as bombarded by imagery as we are now. Most of the imagery they saw was religious. This semi-naked body in pain, the Crucifixion, is a powerful image for these women. They talk to it. It was their companion.” In one revealing scene, Suora Zuana reflects on how much Christ has taught her, and not just about religion. She uses her observations of his contorted, injured body to add to her repository of medical knowledge.

Ironically, despite the author’s goal of accurately depicting life in a religion-centered society – something of intense contemporary interest with the advent of radical Islam – the portrait used on the cover of the original Virago (UK) edition was changed for the US market. Random House felt the image too closely resembled a woman in a burqa. Sometimes the present intrudes on the past more than we’d like!

As for what’s next: Sarah Dunant expects to remain in Italy, examining the power of the family, likely during the same 100-year period of history. Whatever she decides on, readers can look forward to her creative, historically-based depictions of human nature: another fictional journey through people’s minds and hearts, both secular and sacred.


Sacred Hearts was published by Random House US in paperback in April at $15.00. Virago is the British publisher. (author photo credit: Charlie Hopkinson)


  1. I love the idea of doing a CD that becomes a sort of soundtrack for the book. Sarah, if I may ask, how did you go about this process? How, or when, did your publisher get involved?

    P.S. I really enjoy the depth that goes into these interviews and reviews. :-)

  2. I've read all three of Ms. Dunant's historical novels, and I've enjoyed each very much. Thank you for sharing your interview with her. I am looking forward to whatever she writes next.

  3. What lovely pictures on this post!

    I hope I may be allowed to go off-topic because I have a good reason: much to my surprise (I'm typing onto the website words I wrote many years ago)I discovered that Episode #215 of my story, although sad, is about....Hays, Kansas! Karma!

  4. A marvelous and insightful interview with one of my favorite authors. Thank you, Sarah, for these insights into Ms Dunant's process and her writing.

  5. Sarah: Loved the interview. One of the book clubs I'm in read Sacred Hearts. I had read Birth of Venus, so was delighted when they chose Sacred Hearts. Now I'm waiting for her next book to come out.

  6. Thank you all for your comments! Sacred Hearts would be an excellent book club pick, as there's so much rich material to discuss. Now I need to catch up by reading her previous two ...

  7. Anonymous10:35 AM

    The Counter-Reformation tightened Catholic rules in many ways, but one of these ways was an attempt - unsuccessful - to prevent families from forcing daughters into convents if there was not enough money to provide them with a dowry. The attempt failed because the social forces that led families to use convents in that way were too powerful for the Church to fight.

    This book sounds much better than The Birth of Venus, where I thought Ms Dunant did fall into the 'trap' of ascribing modern ideas and attitudes to historical characters. It rang very false to me. (I specialized in early modern Catholic devotion among women both in convents and out of them.)


  8. I didn't know that about the Counter-Reformation and convents; thanks for that information!

    It's been nearly eight years since this interview and I still haven't read The Birth of Venus. I enjoyed her novel Blood and Beauty, though. If you've read it, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on the characterization of the women.

  9. Amazing Interview ! liked reading it and knowing the author more.

  10. Anonymous7:32 AM

    I find it helpful when reading, to know the author. This interview gives some great behind the scenes of the story Scared Hearts, which of me, will make the reading more enjoyable. I too share the fascination of the rights of women throughout history.