Red Room Library sat down with Sarah Dunant on Tuesday, July 28 after her lecture at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. This is the last of a two-part interview.
Read Part I
Despite the fact that Dunant’s books are fiction, there is still much to learn from them, and Dunant hopes that her readers will finish the last page having learned something but “without feeling like they have been taught anything.” Her books are not didactic history, but after spending time in the Renaissance world she has created, it is clear that there is much that can be learned about Renaissance society and the lives of women during this period. Some of the vignettes – like the bit in Sacred Hearts about the priest at a convent in Venice who treated the place as a brothel with himself as the only customer – and many of the details are true, but the story and the characters are completely fictional.
The Renaissance captivates her so much because of “its momentous role in history. Here,” she says, “was a time when everything was exploding – art, literature, politics, religion – and people were beginning to stand a little taller. It also was the time for the advent of Humanism, which was a tremendous development.” Dunant’s focus on women during this period allows the reader to view these critical developments from a unique point of view. “Under ‘the Great Narrative’ – that of men and politicians and wars – is another story, one that is just starting to be told, one that I focus on in my novels.”
The notion of there being multiple histories is a recent academic development, borne out of the 1960s when women and other minorities began looking for themselves in the historical record. Their research brought them to documents that historians had traditionally overlooked as not being substantially important to the “main story.” Dunant argues that perhaps these new perspectives on the past have made historical fiction popular over the past few decades. “There are more stories now because we know more. For example, women archivists started doing work on convent necrology and noticed that all the nuns died with the same types of accomplishments: ‘She was pious, a devoted nun, etc.’ This consistency was enough to spark questioning – where was the variety? When the archivists started to dig, they found stories in diaries, letters, about all sorts of interesting things, like two nuns digging a tunnel under the floor of the storehouse for their lovers to get in. It makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, fascinating things always happen in hothouses. Prisons, convents, country houses – all hothouses.”
Dunant’s final installment in her Renaissance trilogy enters the hothouse of a convent in Ferrara, Italy to investigate life under the veil. In total, her three historical fiction novels traverse the standard triptych of female stereotype: whore, virgin, and wife. She says that about half way through Courtesan she "knew she was going to end up in a convent," and Sacred Hearts grew out of her interest in finding out what “one did in a convent.” Much of the notion that life as a nun was closed, quiet, away from the bustle of life is true, Dunant explains, but she is also quick to say that women were often able “to live quite a bit more of life in a convent than in other places.”
For most women in 16th century Italy, life meant marriage to someone they didn’t know beforehand and “almost certainly didn’t like afterwards,” baby after baby and no time to pursue any of their creative passions. Young girls who showed talent as painters or writers or singers were forced to leave these interests aside so that they could take care of their houses, raise their children and be proper wives. However, marriage by the mid-16th century had gotten very expensive, and most families would be unable to marry off more than one of their daughters. For the daughters not sent to marry, there was only the convent. Some women, particularly the widows and women who were older and had led hard lives, entered their vows willingly, while others, particularly the younger ones, entered with little pleasure at the prospect.
Although life for most nuns was rigid with a strict schedule of prayer, work, and fasting, there was also significant time to develop talents that they would have been forced to forget had they been married. Women who were interested in music could sing in the choir or write music for performances. Women who were interested in writing could work in the scriptorium or write plays about the glory of God; they were also able to act in these plays, an activity that was strictly forbidden in the outside world. Much was given up, to be sure, but there were opportunities of another kind if one had the right perspective.
This “right perspective” lies at the root of Dunant’s investigation of life in a convent in her absorbing new release Sacred Hearts.