I have been invited to speak at the Penistone Literary festival on Saturday July 19th. It is a new venture, so I wish the organisers all the best and I hope lots of people will support it. The link to view the programme and book tickets www.penlit.co.uk.
Chevalier has a talent for absorbing the reader into the fictional world she has created. Her main tool for doing this is the attention to detail and careful research which she employs. Reading this novel I was convinced that she had been brought up as a Quaker and was an expert at making patchwork quilts. It was only when I read her account at the end of the book of the research she had undertaken that I realised that these matters were as new to her as they were to me.
This is a gentle book which confines itself to a small, local world, though important historical currents run though it. Honor Bright is a Quaker girl who emigrates from England to Ohio in the nineteenth century. Initially she is accompanied by her sister, who is going to marry a man from their community who has set up a business in the small town of Faithwell, but the sister dies before they reach their destination and Honor finds herself cast adrift among strangers. The book centres on her struggle to make a new life for herself and to conform to the conventions of this new society. In the process she becomes involved in the Underground Railroad, an informal organisation which helps runaway slaves to reach safety in Canada. Honor marries, but her husband’s family have good cause to want nothing to do with the Railroad and it is the conflict between her conscience and her wish to conform which propels the plot.
Honor is a sympathetically drawn character and I found myself drawn into her struggle and eager to find out how it would be resolved.
This novel is set in the convent of Santa Caterina in Ferrara in the year 1570. Dunant is a mistress of beautiful prose and in the opening pages she creates for us an image of convent life, apparently serene and ordered; but we are immediately aware of the currents of passion and rivalry that swirl beneath the surface.
In an explanatory note at the beginning of the book Dunant explains that at that time the dowries demanded from noble families for the marriages of their daughters had become so expensive that most could only afford to marry off one. The only acceptable alternative for any others was to become a ‘bride of Christ’ and enter a convent.
There are two principal characters. One is Serafina, a young woman, intelligent, talented and in love, who has been confined to the convent because she failed to marry the man her father had chosen for her. It is her desperate distress and fury that wakes the convent on her first night in her cell. The second is Zuana, the dispensary mistress. Like Serafina, she is not there because she has a vocation but out of necessity. As the orphan daughter of a doctor she has nowhere else to go, but unlike Serafina she understands that for her this is the best solution. At least it gives her the freedom to practise the skills she learnt from her father and to develop some of his ideas, though even here she has to keep certain of his books concealed. It is her sympathy for Serafina and ultimately her efforts to set her free that are the main springs of the plot.
For those reconciled to their fate life in the convent is not unpleasant. The nuns can meet friends and family in the ‘parlatorio’ and play with the children of sisters and cousins – the children they will never have. Santa Caterina is famous for the quality of its music and there are services and concerts to which the public are admitted. It is Serafina’s beautiful singing voice which proves her salvation. But even these limited freedoms are under threat. The catholic church, reeling from the threat of Lutheranism and a series of scandals about the loose living of some of the monks and nuns, is determined to clamp down. The abbess, Sister Magdalena, is well aware that she is treading a tightrope and at the slightest excuse the convent may incur the wrath of the bishop and find their freedoms strictly curtailed. It is her struggle to maintain equilibrium between the various factions in the community that forms a second thread in the story.
I found my emotions deeply engaged in this novel but the most heartbreaking discovery comes in an author’s note at the end of the book. Shortly after the period in which it is set the Council of Trent decreed that all convents must be strictly enclosed. From then on the nuns were only allowed to speak to friends and relatives through a grill; all public performances were forbidden; any windows that might give a glimpse of the outside world were bricked up and walls were raised to prevent any contact. For the young women like Serafina who were sent there it must indeed have seemed like a life sentence without hope of remission.
I read in the paper over the weekend that there is going to be a memorial to Archibald McIndoe, the plastic surgeon who rebuilt the faces of young airmen terribly burned when their aircraft caught fire in WWll. It is not before time! He was a great man, who not only repaired their faces but rebuilt their confidence, encouraging them to go out into the world instead of hiding away. He worked at the hospital in East Grinstead and persuaded the people of the town to accept these disfigured young men as the heroes they were. East Grinstead became known as ‘the town that didn’t stare’.
I feel strongly about this as I researched his work for my novels NOW IS THE HOUR and THEY ALSO SERVE. Anyone who is interested in this remarkable man and his achievements might find those two books illuminating.