Sacred Hearts, a novel by Sarah Dunant, takes place in the convent of Santa Caterina during 15th century Ferrara, Italy. In the 15th century, many families placed their daughters in convents because they couldn’t afford the dowries needed in order to marry them into prestigious families. Usually, the prettiest daughter would be chosen to marry while the other daughters would be placed into convents. The girls did not have much choice in these matters, and they were placed into these convents against their wills. They usually did not have a particular calling to the religious life, but instead grew into this religious life out of necessity because they had no chance of escape. Oddly enough, the women in convents found that they had many rights and their voices were heard in convent politics. They were the rulers of their own destinies, and had probably many more privileges than married women who always had to defer to their husbands. Within the walls of the convent, they created their own rules and held important positions. They routinely had meetings where they voted on matters having to do with convent life. The convents were democratic, with the abbess acting as the president. Men were not allowed to make contact with the Sisters, except family members and then always with chaperones. The only man allowed was the priest who would come to hear their confessions on a regular basis, and to say their Masses.
Sacred Hearts centers around two main characters – a woman who has been in the convent for most of her life, and one who was just recently put there because her parents did not approve of a suitor she had taken up with. Suora Zuana takes this young novice, Serafina, under her belt and nurses her back to health after Serafina decides that she doesn’t want to live “in jail” for the rest of her life and tries to fight her way out. The two develop a warm relationship, and they both learn to respect and understand the other. But Serafina is determined that she will get out of the convent one way or another. The story, unfortunately, is not very riveting…it took me a long time to finish this book. It does not grip your attention, and it was, in my opinion, very predictable. I was surprised that this book ended up being the way it was since the author’s other books were actually very good and excellent portrayals of life during Renaissance Italy. This, too, was a good portrayal of life within the convent during the Renaissance….but it was a tad boring 😦 Too bad!