(Image from Barnes & Noble)
The story Mary Sharratt tells in her newest historical novel, Illuminations, seems like pure fiction. And yet, it's based in fact. Hildegard von Bingen, a young German girl, really was given to the Catholic Church as a tithe in 1106, when she was just eight years old. Even as a very small child, Hildegard reported seeing visions, something that must have confounded her family, surely leading them to push her into a religious life. She began her "career" as the handmaiden of 14-year-old Jutta Von Sponheim. The two girls (and possibly one other) became anchorites at a remote monastery, where they were bricked into a tiny anchorage and "buried with Christ." In essence, they were dead to the world, now living just to exalt Jesus with their silent devotion. Only a small screen looking into the church kept the children from total isolation—through it, they received their meager meals, as well as limited communication with the resident monks, and visits from pilgrims who revered Jutta for her example of extreme piety.
Sharratt imagines the thoughts and feelings that must have accompanied Hildegard through the 30 years she endured in her anchorage prison. As her youth ebbed away, the nun took comfort where she could, most especially in her great visions of God as a warm, embracing Mother. Sharing what she saw, however, often brought trouble. Some regarded Hildegard's visions as heretical, others as profound. As she wrote about her visions in essays, poems and songs, she became known as a seer, a prophetess. After her time in the anchorage came to an end, Hildegard also gained a reputation as an influential abbess, an outspoken defender of women and a prodigious scholar who railed against corruption in the Church and government. Always surrounded by controversy, Hildegard von Bingen was excommunicated near the end of her life, a condemnation that was only lifted a few months before she died. In October 2012, she was finally canonized by the Vatican and honored as Doctor of the Church, "a solmen title reserved for theologians who have significantly impacted Church doctrine" (quote from an interview with Mary Sharratt).
Hildegard von Bingen's fascinating and dramatic story comes to life under Sharratt's skillful rendering. Although the novel's skimpy on plot, the author manages to keep it interesting by examining Hildegard's relationship with Jutta; her beloved brother, Rorich; and even a kindly monk on whom she develops a hopeless crush. Whether these small dramas actually occurred or not doesn't matter—they keep the story from getting too odd or dull. As for Hildegard's religious fanaticism, I found it intriguing, if not wholly convincing. Overall, I enjoyed Illuminations. It's not the kind of book that's going to appeal to everyone, but for those who venture between its pages, expect a reading experience that is, well, illuminating.
(Readalikes: Hm, I can't think of anything. Can you?)
If this were a movie, it would be rated:
for sexual innuendo and references to rape