This book actually makes a great companion piece to His Last Duchess by Gabrielle Kim. Sacred Hearts takes place 10 years after the events chronicled in His Last Duchess, and presents another side to the life of women in the late 1500s. If you read one of them, I highly recommend you read the other, especially if you have an interest in history and want a more complete picture of the roles of women at the time. While His Last Duchess is about a Medici princess, Sacred Hearts is about a well-born women who was sold to a convent in Ferrara, far away from her old home in Milan.
Sacred Hearts takes place during Alfonso d’Este II’s second marriage in 1570 and deals primarily with the overbearing religious reforms at the time, reforms that were cracking down particularly hard on the nuns. While the characters are fictional, the reforms and the political setting is not, and it really provides a fascinating look into the roles of women today, who are largely still at the mercy of men in whatever profession they choose.
Serafina was a lady who had the misfortune of falling in love with her music teacher. As punishment, her father sold her to a convent in Ferrara, to separate her from her love and making his younger daughter the marriageable one. Serafina rages against her new imprisonment and almost immediately plans on a way to make her escape before her year is up. (At the end of the year, young women were given the choice to either stay in the convent or to take their chances in the larger world.) Despite her efforts, she manages to make a friend in Suora Zuana, dispensary mistress who is also an accomplished physician. Only the convent doesn’t want Serafina to leave. They need to prove their worth to the nobility so the harsh laws encroaching on other convents will leave them be as they are. And Serafina happens to be an extremely talented musician.
This book deals with the issues of faith versus science, and perhaps more importantly, faith versus a rapidly changing world. The position of the women in the convent remains true to the positions of many women in the world today. This is a beautifully executed book that will leave you longing for Serafina to find any sort of peace.
As I earlier compared this book to His Last Duchess, there is one last similarity that needs to be addressed. The lover in both novels is named Jacopo. I hope it is not the same one, or else Madonna Chiara’s fears about men will have proven to be well-founded.
Hey there, dear Jacopo/
what’s it like in dear Ferrara?/
You’re five hundred years away from me/
and yet I never want to see your name again/
oh no, I don’t