Monday, July 13, 2009

Nuns & Charles Dickens & Warm Woollen Mittens

Hi Flower!

Nuns and Charles Dickens and warm woollen mittens. These are a few of my favorite things. Whiskers on kittens? Not so much. But that's okay because there are some new books that will fulfill my nuns and Dickens needs. The mittens? I am currently knitting a pair seeing as it's going to be a cold summer.

This is a nice on sale week for Random House. They have one of their established bestselling authors, Sarah Dunant's new novel, "Sacred Hearts" going on sale as well as a first time author's debut novel, "Girl in a Blue Dress" which was long listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize and got a lot of publicity in the UK. And... I imagine they have a lot of other nice things happening this week as well, but those I don't know about.

Just as Phillipa Gregory has a lock on the backstairs lives of English royalty so Sarah Dunant has with Renaissance Italy. Dunant is your go to girl for the annuls of antipasto. She's got the research done, gotten all the facts and we get to enjoy. In "Sacred Hearts" we are enjoying the many mysteries and rites of convent life in 1570 Ferrara, Italy. Sound a little tame? Not at all. This is a strong, engaging book about very interesting individuals.

The lives and history of nuns has always held interest for me. I'm not entirely sure why. I have no personal religious background. Until I was in college all I knew about the Bible or any religion really was what I had learned from watching Cecil B. de Mille movies and to the best of my recollection Cecil B. never made a movie about nuns. Maybe it's the disappearance of the individual into a communal life whose goal is to serve a common good. Maybe it's Belief which I've never had. Maybe it's the outfits. I envy women who can wear a hat and black is so New York and hip. Maybe it's that their regimented, shut in lives under the rule of men is a microcosm of the history of women for the last few thousand years. Maybe it's just that they exist. I don't know.

In "Sacred Hearts" the convent of Santa Caterina is a repository for the unmarriable of Ferrara's wealthiest families. Some know from childhood that the Church will be their lives, some are what's left when dowries have been stretched to nothing for a sibling's advantageous marriage and some are the end of their families and it's either the nunnery or... what? Once under God's protection at Santa Caterina each woman must come to terms with what they have lost and the life they will live from the moment of entrance until death.

The politics and complex relationships of "Sacred Hearts" are not wholly confined to the convent itself. There are pressures for change within the Church that cannot be ignored. These changes could turn the relatively liberal Santa Caterina into a completely isolated and devotional house. Also, the noble and wealthy families of the nuns and Ferrara must be kept happy to keep their patronage and thereby protect the convent. Into this cloistered but not unworldly community Dunant brings character, intense period and religious detail and good, strong storytelling.

When the novel started out I immediately fell into deep fascination with the details of life and religion in 1570, but I felt as though the plot was going to be as new and intricate as a communion wafer. I was wrong. The plot unfolded in surprising ways and is exceptionally well served by the fully drawn secondary characters in the book. The women in the book are of all ages and at all levels of devotion. In fact one of the strongest elements of the book was how accurate and true all of the characters felt. No small achievement in historical fiction where passionate and powerful women characters too often come across as contemporary.

Flower, how much do I love Charles Dickens? A lot. He's my all time favorite writer. He's my desert island choice. I fell in love with his books at 12 for three reasons: I loved all the words, the books are chubby and here were books that had more main characters than I had siblings--a first! But. Can I accept that he was human and a far from perfect one? Sometimes a far from nice one? I couldn't have at 12 but at 12+ I can.

Good thing or I would have missed an excellent novel.

"The Girl in the Blue Dress" is a fictionalized account of the life of Charles Dickens from the viewpoint of his wife Catherine. For years Catherine was viewed as sort of a 'Shakespeare's Wife'. A shadow of no real interest except for the number of children she gave birth to. A dull footnote in a brilliant man's career. In "Girl" Dickens is Alfred Gibson and Catherine is his wife Dorothea. In this Alfred is the It Boy of Victorian letters, magnetic, representing the values of home and hearth, popularly viewed as a social reformer and successful beyond belief. Dorothea is the quiet wife once loved and pursued now humiliated and left behind.

When "Girl" opens, Alfred is dead. The world is mourning his passing. He is being remembered as 'The Great One' and 'The One and Only'. He and Catherine have been separated for 10 years. Alfred had grown tired of his dutiful, ever pregnant wife. He cast her out, publicly painted her as mad, installed her in a barely decent apartment and kept all but one of their eight children from seeing her--just as Dickens did to Catherine. Dorothea humbled by the estrangement, did as she was told and moved on to a nun-like life. Spending her days reading and re-reading Alfred's novels and brooding over what had been and what it had become. An invitation from another widow, Queen Victoria pulls Dorothea back into the world and compels her to try and reclaim her life.

The events of Alfred and Dorothea's lives so faithfully follow those of Charles and Catherine that you might wonder why write a novel? Why not write a biography of the Dickens' marriage? A novel gives Catherine/Dorothea a voice that history can not. The subject matter is at the level of you-can't-make-up-this-stuff but the author's insights and handling of it all is made credible and consistent with the time period and her descriptions of Victorian life would have made Dickens jealous. The research is impeccable.

There never seems to be any middle ground with first novels. They fall into one of two categories: better luck next time or wham, a homer. First timer Gaynor Arnold has put this one out of the park and I'm thrilled. A new author to look forward to! Because after all it really is all about me.

Now I worry that I won't have a new nun or Dickens book for years to come. I'll find other lovely reads to fill the time but I'll always have one eye open for my favorite things.


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