Sarah Dunant talks about Renaissance convents

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - What was it like for girls in 16th century Italy to be imprisoned in a convent for the rest of their lives? Writer Sarah Dunant uncovers the lives led by almost half the daughters of noblemen at the time in her novel.

Author Sarah Dunant poses for the photographer at Charter House in London in this undated handout photograph made available August 4, 2009. REUTERS/Charlie Hopkinson/Little, Brown Book Group/Handout

With inflation soaring, aristocratic families could not afford dowries for more than one daughter and so sent any others to the Catholic Church to marry the “ultimate son-in-law” -- Jesus Christ.

“Sacred Hearts”, the last historically accurate novel in Dunant’s Renaissance trilogy, is told through the eyes of a defiant young woman who ends up in a convent because her family disapproves of her illicit love affair.

Dunant’s previous books, “The Birth of Venus” and “In the Company of the Courtesan”, received major acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic and became international bestsellers.

The British author, who is touring North America, spoke about her latest novel:

Q: Why are you fascinated with the Renaissance period?

A: I have been writing novels set in the Italian Renaissance for about the last seven to eight years and they have been asking a very simple question, which is what on earth would it have been like to be a woman during the Renaissance because the role call of the famous are all men.

Q: In your understanding, what was the reasoning for families giving their daughters to the Church?

A: It was considered too sexually dangerous to have young women who might be tempting to others, not owned by somebody, that’s how simple and primitive it was in some way. So if they can’t get married to a local noble they can get married to Christ. So you end up with a hot house of women of all ages particularly a lot in that kind of hormonal rage stage of 14 and 15 right up to 60 or 70, all living together, not able to get out, not able to get married and a number of them go crazy.

Q: What was the inspiration behind choosing the backdrop of a nunnery?

A: I wanted the reader to see what it would feel like to be put into a convent at the age of sixteen -- there are two main characters -- and refuse to buckle down. I also wanted to look at the opposite, which is what happens if you make the most of it. So I wanted to look at both, the spirit of pure rebellion and the spirit of acceptance and compromise.

Q: With all the research you have done, did celibacy work?

A: I absolutely know chastity and celibacy didn’t work... In the period I am writing about, the Pope has illegitimate children and mistresses, everybody accepts that it is a nice idea, as long as you don’t marry them. Courtesans started in Rome because the Curia -- the government of the Catholic Church -- needs women they can’t marry and they don’t want ordinary prostitutes.

The rules did not come out of doctrines but economics. If priests got married at the very early stage in the church then they would have had to feed a great many mouths which were their families, which meant the wealth of the church would dissipate.

Q: Can you describe your experience in the nunnery while writing your book?

A: I got very angry to begin with and I realised you can’t write historical fiction if you keep thinking of the future that they will never know about. That in 500 years time there would be a feminist revolution. So as soon as I stopped thinking -- these poor women didn’t have any of my choices -- and started to think (that) given the choices they had, maybe this wasn’t so terrible.

Q: What were some of the positives of convent life?

A: Inside you did have some freedom, ironically, and you do hear stories of women composing music, singing, writing plays, putting on plays, copying and illustrating manuscripts. So it’s really a double-edged sword: at one level, it might have been unbearable but for some, they managed to find a kind of space and creativity which, deeply ironically, the world outside the convent walls couldn’t have given them.

Q: How is this book different from the other two?

A: There’s no sex in it and that’s quite an important thing to say because very often when people think of nuns, certainly when men think of nuns, they assume it’s going to be naughty.