Illuminations by Mary Sharratt
Author: Mary Sharratt
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 12th Century / Medieval / Monastic Life / Catholic Mythology / Saints / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Germany / Convents / Religious Conspiracy)
Publisher/Publication Date: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (10/9/2012)
Source: NetGalley / Saima Agency Blog Tour
Did I finish?: Another book I zoomed through.
Reading Challenges: E-books, Historical Fiction, NetGalley
Do I like the cover?: I adore it -- feels right to the mood/time of the novel and I love the crackliness of the image.
I'm reminded of...: Nancy Bilyeau, Lynn Cullen, Sandra Gulland
First line: The most ancient and enduring power of women is prophecy, my gift and my curse.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is fabulous hist fic (non royal!) that is a perfect time travel armchair escape with a captivating heroine.
Why did I get this book?: I'm a life long Hildegard fangirl and I really liked Sharratt's novel Summit Avenue
Review: Another book I just loved from the first line. While I was predisposed to love this novel since I adore all things Hildegard, Sharratt's articulation of the woman behind the legend is what made me unable to put this book down. (That, and the reality of what religious monastic life meant for Hildegard. Horrifying!)
Growing up Catholic, I'm still pretty enamored of saints even if I've shed most everything else of that faith tradition. The dramatic saints -- women like Hildegard -- were and still are my favorite. Those radical women, with their shocking theology and passionate worship, made me go through a brief phase of wanting to become a nun myself in hopes of having the same dramatic experiences. (These days, I'm taken with Sister Simone Campbell and those nuns on the bus, but I digress.) I love authors who take on making saints human (like Debra Dean's look at St. Xenia) and I really relish when authors make saints -- those who are ostensibly holier-than-the-rest-of-us -- feel real and human.
Sharratt created a woman I loved immediately -- an unusual young woman from a huge family who craved only her mother's love, Hildegard instead finds herself tithe-d to the church as the handmaiden to Jutta, a wealthy noblewoman's pious daughter. To her horror (and mine), being wrested from her family isn't the worst Hildegard faces, as young Jutta has entered as an anchorite. At eight years old, Hildegard is literally walled in into a two room cell with just a screen to allow food and meager communication with her spiritual adviser. Jutta wears a hair shirt and indulges in self mortification, while Hildegard is blessed with amazing visions and crippling illnesses.
She lives like that for twenty years.
The novel doesn't end there, for after Jutta dies, Hildegard really gets radical. She founds her own convent, gains fame (and infamy) for her writings and music, challenges the clergy and world around her. She is amazing and awful, sinful and soulful, progressive and proud. In short, just awesome.
Sharratt's writing style is clean and clear, and manages to evoke Hildegard's visions in a way that doesn't feel too obscure or cartoon-y. Hildegard herself felt reasonable and historically centered (I can't say whether she was 'accurate' since I know nothing of medieval life) but she responded and behaved in a way that resonated with me and didn't feel anachronistic.
I think even if you're not normally drawn to 'religiously' inspired fiction, consider this, as it is a look at a woman who shaped Christian/Catholic mysticism and lived to her values in a time when women's power was feared and quashed. And also, more people need to see how amazing Hildegard was (the Catholic Church has finally made her a Doctor of the Church!).