Tuesday, October 09, 2012

An interview with Mary Sharratt, author of Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen

There has been a lot of buzz surrounding Mary Sharratt's new novel, and for good reason.  Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen is biographical fiction at its most lyrical and profound.  With a vivid sense of place and deep insight into the mindset of its time, it reveals the truly inspiring story of a woman whose strength of character helped her endure thirty years in an anchoragea small cell within the monastery at Disibodenberg in Germanybefore emerging as a vital force who not only transformed the Church to which she dedicated her life but also an entire era.  I loved it.

Illuminations is published today by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($25.00, hb, 288pp).  I hope you'll enjoy this interview with Mary, and please read to the end... we have a giveaway opportunity which is open to all blog readers.


To imagine the life of a 12th-century abbess, mystic, and saint for a 21st-century audience would seem like a daunting task for any novelist, but I thought you did a magnificent job relating Hildegard von Bingen's spiritual beliefs and visions as well as her more human feelings. Did you know from the beginning that you would write her story in the first person? How did you capture her voice? 

Illuminations was truly my most daunting novel to write, because I was so in awe of Hildegard and so afraid of getting it wrong. I also felt quite intimidated to be writing about such a religious figure since I fall more comfortably under the "spiritual but not religious" umbrella. For a long time I struggled to find the right narrative voice and actually wrote two narratives--one first person and one third person--in parallel until finally the first person won out. My editor felt it was more intimate and compelling. By then I realized that in order to do justice to Hildegard's incredible story, I would have to let her breathe and reveal herself as human.

Why did you feel this was this the right time in your career for you to write Illuminations?

With four previous novels under my belt, I guess I finally felt I had achieved the right degree of literary maturity to tackle someone as complex as Hildegard. Also the twelve years I lived in Germany and my studies in herbal medicine all went into the novel. I'm glad I didn't attempt this project as a first novel! Unbeknownst to me when I started writing in 2009, the timing was perfect as the novel's publication coincided with Hildegard's elevation to Doctor of the Church--something I could not have predicted.

When we spoke about your previous novel Daughters of the Witching Hill in 2010, you mentioned how much it had meant to "inhabit the same landscape as your characters." How familiar were you with Hildegard's life before you moved to Germany, and how did your time there affect your impressions of her?

I didn't know a whole lot about Hildegard when I first went to Germany back in 1986--I am revealing my old age! But in Germany she had always been a cultural icon, admired by both religious and spiritual people and also by completely nonreligious people. They admired her for her music, for the complexity of her writings in all kinds of different subjects ranging from botany to cosmology to human sexuality. She also developed her own style of holistic medicine that's still practiced in Germany today. The secondary sources written about her in the German language are far more varied and reader friendly without sacrificing depth or accuracy than many of the English language books which can either be oversimplified, or dry as dust, or so complex that you almost need a PhD in theology to understand them.

In your novel, Hildegard has such a complex relationship with Jutta von Sponheim - who is the cause of her enclosure in the anchorage at Disibodenberg, but also her mentor and teacher while growing up. Hildegard also becomes Jutta's caretaker during her more melancholic and ascetic episodes. How did you come to portray the dynamic between them?

Jutta's own Vita, or saintly biography, written shortly after her early death, bears witness to Jutta's extreme asceticism which was at odds with the Benedictine ideal of moderation. Her fasts were so prolonged, for example, that her abbot actually broke down in tears and begged her to eat. The part in the novel where Hildegard finds the spiked penitent's chain wrapped three times around Jutta's wasted corpse is based on Jutta's Vita, as well. Jutta considered herself a living sacrifice and her suffering was meant to be redemptive and an imitation of Christ's passion, but even in the context of her time, her mortification of the flesh was considered very extreme.

It's plain to see that in Hildegard's own writing, she completely rejects this kind of masochism and endorses healthy moderation.

Seeing that Hildegard took a completely different path from Jutta seems to indicate some strain in their relationship. Although Hildegard was very forthcoming describing her life long friendship with Volmar, the monk who would become both her secretary and her confessor, and her beloved protegee, the young nun Richardis von Stade, she is curiously reticent describing her feelings for Jutta, the woman who was her mentor and spiritual mother. Hildegard only came into her powers and started writing and composing after Jutta's premature death. I believe Hildegard had to step free of Jutta's shadow before she could truly begin her life's work.

Given that Hildegard lived such a long life, especially for a medieval woman, how did you decide what to include versus leave out when structuring the novel?

This was so difficult for me and the novel went through many drafts. The original version I submitted to my editor was twice as long as the version that is now published and included a whole subplot about Hildegard's relationship with a Cathar woman whom she exorcised (true story) and the backstory of the apostate monk buried in Hildegard's graveyard. It had so many subplots that it needed quite a bit of pruning.

Although she doesn't have much time on the page, I loved the character of Trutwib, the female hermit whose prediction changes everything for Hildegard. Is she based on a real person?

Yes, she is. Trutwib was a widow who lived as a hermit and she delivered her prophecy just as Jutta and Hildegard first went into the anchorage. To make for more dramatic plotting, I had her announce her prophecy later in the story, when Hildegard was a teenager, no longer a child.

Music plays a large role in Hildegard's spiritual life. Which compositions of hers do you enjoy most, or influenced you the most? 

I love all her music and listened obsessively to it while writing Illuminations. I think my favorite piece is "Caritas Habundat in Omnia," (Divine Love Abounds in All Things), which is one of the most achingly beautiful sacred songs ever written. It also evokes Hildegard's vision of the Feminine Divine in the form of Caritas, Divine Love, whom she envisioned as a beautiful maiden with flowing black hair.

You've written three historical novels about fictional characters, then moved to depicting the inner lives of real-life women whose stories deserve to be rediscovered. I was also excited to read that your next subject will be 16th-century literary figure Aemilia Lanyer. Are there factors to which you attribute this shift in focus for your writing? 

Over the years I discovered that real life history is often quirkier, more bizarre and fascinating than anything I could possibly invent. I love to uncover real stories of historical women and drag them out of the margins and set them center stage. One of my goals as an author is to write women back into history. In Illuminations, I wanted to write a novel that was accessible to a wide secular audience and that could still portray Hildegard in all her complexity. That's the great magic of historical fiction.

Thank you so much, Mary!


For a chance to win a new hardcover copy of Illuminations for yourself, simply fill out the following form.  International entrants welcome!  Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing me with a copy for this giveaway.  Deadline Friday, October 19th.


  1. As always, a thoughtful and interesting review. The book has gone on my wishlist in case I don't win :)

    1. Oops, meant to write 'interview' rather than 'review'!

    2. Good luck! and thanks :)

  2. Thank you for the giveaway. I am in love with this cover!

  3. Thank you so much for the chance in the giveaway.

  4. I can't wait to read this. I was excited to learn about her next title, too! This was a really good interview with a great author-thanks!

  5. Mystica, if you're curious, the jacket mentions that the design comes from Study of Nuns and Applicants by Jean-Francois Claustre. It can be seen in full here. The script font and embroidery design on the bottom really make it stand out, though!

    Good luck to everyone and thanks for your comments on the interview!

  6. Fantastic interview! I just won a copy of this book and I am so excited to read it!

  7. Anonymous4:31 PM

    And now I have to find out who Aemelia Lanyer was . . .

    I love all of the illuminated background on the book cover - such "medieval" colors.

    Sarah OL

    1. Once you read more about her, you'll be wondering why she's been neglected by other historical novelists. (There are some older and obscure British novels about her.) She's also a candidate for Shakespeare's Dark Lady.

  8. Anonymous6:49 PM

    Great interview, Sarah. This novel sounds wonderfully interesting.