Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Published on: October 9, 2012
Page Count: 288
Genre: Historical Fiction
My Reading Format: eGalley provided to me by the publicist for consideration.
Available Formats: Hardcover and eBook
Special Note: Come back to the blog tomorrow for a guest post from author Mary Sharratt. She’ll be discussing how life begins at 42. I will also have a copy of the book to give away.
Summary from the Publisher
Offered to the Church at the age of eight, Hildegard was entombed in a small room where she was expected to live out her days in silent submission as the handmaiden of a renowned but disturbed young nun, Jutta von Sponheim. Instead, Hildegard rejected Jutta’s masochistic piety and found comfort and grace in studying books, growing herbs, and rejoicing in her own secret visions of the divine. When Jutta died some thirty years later, Hildegard broke out of her prison with the heavenly calling to speak and write about her visions and to liberate her sisters and herself from the soul-destroying anchorage. Riveting and utterly unforgettable, Illuminations is a deeply moving portrayal of a woman willing to risk everything for what she believed.
I grew up Roman Catholic. We studied the history of the Church and the lives of the saints in Catholic high school. There were some odd, ancient customs that we were taught about, but the concept of being an anchorite was entirely new to me when I read Illuminations. I was terrified for Hildegard when her mother offered her up to be the handmaiden to the daughter of a noblewoman from their area. Her mother was worried that her visions would harm the family. Hildegard loved to explore nature with her brother who had been too young to join their father in the Crusades. She knew she was going to be ripped away from all that she knew and all whom she loved, but she didn’t understand that this might not be the worst of it. Until it was actually happening, she did not know that she was going to be sealed into an anchorite cell with Jutta. How terrifying must it be to be forced to live in a tiny cell with barely any access to the outdoors or other people. Jutta chose this life. Hildegard did not. It is a credit to her character that she found a way, through books and a found love for botany, to make her life her own.
I first heard of Hildegard von Bingen back in the early 2000s when my husband and I were really into Nordic folk music. Our favorite band was Garmarna and they released an album called Hildegard von Bingen. That is when I learned of this holy woman as a musician. When the publicist I was offered the opportunity to take part in this blog tour, I didn’t have to think twice. I wanted to learn more about the woman who inspired such a wonderful album. Illuminations delivered just that. While the first part of her journey was heartbreaking, there was so much more to this novel than her time sealed in the anchorage. There were many fights awaiting her after Jutta’s death. I was compelled to read on and was amazed by her journey.
In Illuminations, Mary Sharratt brought the Middle Age world of Hildegard von Bingen to life. She took time and care to develop Hildegard’s character from her early internment with Jutta. Writing a compelling story about a woman who spent a good portion of the novel incarcerated in a small cell is no small feat. That Hildegard could survive those many years with an increasingly unstable woman with her sanity and a vision for the future was amazing. I also appreciated that she was not perfect and did not always see the error of her ways. Her life, while extraordinary, did not come without a heavy cost. Most importantly, Hildegard is a reminder that corruption in the Catholic Church is not new to us today and that strong, faithful women can and should do battle against the establishment whenever and where ever injustice is found.
I began reading Illuminations accidentally. I had my eGalley loaded on my phone, but I hadn’t planned on reading it until closer to my tour date. Shortly after I received the electronic copy, I found myself stranded without another book. I opened it up intending to get a feel for Mary Sharratt’s writing while I was waiting. I didn’t pick up another book again until I’d finished it. I was hooked from the first page. As I was reading this book, I kept thinking of the quote from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” From her mother to the abbot under whom she served for so many years, Hildegard was certainly seen as a behavior problem. Yet she remained true to herself and the visions she received. In doing so, she has continued to inspire the Church (she was named a Doctor of the Church on October 7, 2012) and artists for nearly a thousand years after her death. Her story is worthy of being told and Mary Sharratt did her proud. If you are looking for a story about a strong, inventive woman, look no farther than Illuminations. You don’t have to be Catholic or religious at all to lose yourself in this novel. You just have to be as open minded as its heroine, Hildegard von Bingen.