I first knew Sarah Dunant as a broadcaster on late-night arts shows in the late 1990s. It’s funny how you remember some people – she always had very distinctive glasses. I was conscious that she seemed to disappear off the scene and for a while there I got her mixed up with Sarah Waters…until I saw Sarah W speak at the Manchester Literature Festival a few years ago and realised they were not the same! But Sarah D had in fact reinvented herself as an author, as I was to discover a year or so ago when I saw her speak at a writer’s conference. (I should add that 2000-2012 were lean reading years for me – I was knee-deep in children and totally out of the literary loop).
I’ve read a few historical novels, notably Deborah Moggach and Tracy Chevalier, and loved them, though it’s not a genre I often choose. I decided on this as a theme for my Facebook Reading Challenge 2018, and when I saw The Birth of Venus in my local Oxfam bookshop it seemed an obvious choice. It’s wonderful, I loved it, and it seems to have gone down pretty well with the other participants on the Reading Challenge.
The novel is set in Renaissance Florence; the sense of time and place is profound. You can almost smell the streets wafting from the pages! Dunant is a meticulous researcher and the novel feels very authentic. The central character is Alessandra, the fifteen year-old daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant. Much to the frustration of her family Alessandra is a precociously intelligent young woman, a talented artist, a strong personality and has a deep desire to be out in the world. These are all traits which are highly inconvenient for the family and not compatible with the kind of life she will be expected to lead.
As a mark of their wealth, Alessandro’s parents commission a Flemish artist to paint the chapel in their home, incorporating the family’s portraits. Though she has very limited opportunity to communicate with him, his presence produces a stirring effect in Alessandra. She is attracted both by his artistic ability and his mysterious nocturnal wanderings into the city.
Alessandra is destined to be married off as soon as she starts menstruating and the husband selected for her is an older man, a long-standing family acquaintance. At first it seems the marriage will set Alessandra on the same path that her mother and sister before her have followed – moving from one zone of subjugation to another and endless child-bearing. In fact, Alessandra’s husband, Cristoforo, is the lover of her brother Tomaso and the marriage is merely one of convenience to provide him with the cover of a wife and child. At first, Alessandra is distraught and feels betrayed, but it soon becomes apparent that this frees her more than she could ever have imagined, to pursue some of her own dreams, to be more sexually liberated, and to be mistress of her own time and activity. In the background to the domestic tumult is the political upheaval in the city; first, the invasion of the French, then the rule of Savonarola, a fierce reactionary monk who preaches a severe brand of Christianity. The old certainties of corruption, sleaze and vice in the Church and politics are being brutally flushed out in favour of a strict religious fervour, and a new atmosphere of fear, surveillance, severe torture and punishment for misdemeanours has replaced it.
I will say no more as it’s a cracking story and events unfold dramatically. The plot is so well thought-through and maintains momentum right to the end. The characters are well-rounded and believable, not just Alessandra, but her mother and husband, her brother and sister, the painter and her loyal maid, African slave Erila.
The book is ambitious in scope, in its portrayal of the period and the way it weaves the political upheavals and realities of the era into what is essentially one young woman’s story of coming of age, of emotional and sexual maturing and of finding fulfilment in the most constrained of circumstances.
Highly recommended, great for any holidays you might have coming up and I’ll certainly be looking out for more Sarah Dunant for future reads.
Do you enjoy historical fiction? What are your recommendations?
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