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.