Nun better: The novelist Sarah Dunant takes to convent life

Sarah Dunant experienced all the rigours of convent life in order to research her new historical novel. It wasn't easy but, as she explains to Joanna Moorhead, being a nun wasn't such a bad option for Renaissance Italian women
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Sarah Dunant is in a fluster. "It's a mad day!" she says, opening the newly painted front door of her north London home. Inside, the hallway glistens copper-gold in the sun. "I've just had it redecorated," she says. "Do you like it?"

The hallway is beautiful – Italianate and earthy – and it seems perfect for Dunant, whose other home is a flat in Florence. But the fluster is because, tomorrow morning, she flies across the Atlantic for a coast-to-coast US tour promoting her new book, Sacred Hearts. It will take her a long way from London, which she loves, and Italy, which one suspects she loves even more, not to mention her two daughters, one at university and the other just through A-levels. But, however disruptive and inconvenient, the tour is essential because, while Dunant's more recent books (this is her 11th novel) have done respectably in the UK market, it is in the US that they have really hit the big time. Her first historical novel, The Birth of Venus, spent 32 weeks in the American bestseller list in 2003; her second, In the Company of the Courtesan, three years later, peaked even higher. With her latest offering, Dunant hopes to make still more of a splash. So she is contemplating several weeks of aeroplane flights to far-flung Midwest towns and dinners alone in hotels. "You wake up in the morning and you're not quite sure which city you're in," she admits. "But I'm used to it now. I know the rhythm of it."

Rhythm is important to Dunant. Sacred Hearts, set in a Benedictine convent in the Italian city of Ferrara in 1570, opens with the list of daily services, or offices, that would have dictated the order of the nuns' day. Lauds was at daybreak, Prime at 6am, Terce at 9am, Sext at noon; Nones followed at 3pm, Vespers at 5pm, Compline before bed and – the most extraordinary office of all – Matins was at 2am, which meant the sisters would be woken from sleep to dress and process to the chapel, before returning to their cells for a couple more hours' rest until dawn.

To imbibe the rhythm of the nuns' lives, Dunant spent a week at a convent south of Milan. "I wasn't allowed to stay inside, but I had a guest room and I followed their habits as much as I could. I went to all the services – I wanted to find out how it feels to live a life that's governed by rhythm and ritual." It was the shock of Matins that left its mark on her. "At the convent where I stayed, Matins wasn't at 2am, it was at 5am. It was wintertime, it was freezing and it was dark, and there's something about being ripped from sleep that leaves all your senses jangling. That combined with being in this stone church, with the cold and the candlelight, is a very potent mix," she says. "The disruption to your senses is immensely powerful."

The convent setting came about because "if you're interested in women's lives 500 years ago, you simply can't avoid nuns. They're everywhere". In fact, she says, she was shocked to discover that in 16th-century Italy, as many as half of all the females born into the equivalent of middle-class households ended up in convents. ("Can you imagine? So that means, of you and me here now, one of us would have been a nun!") And not always, or even often, through choice. "It was to do with economics. This was a time of economic expansion, which meant more children were surviving to adulthood, and that posed a problem for the richer families because marrying your daughters off was expensive – you needed a dowry, often a large one. But the dowry you needed for a convent was a lot lower, so it made sense for noble families to put their extra daughters into a convent. It meant they could concentrate their wealth into the dowries of the one or two they married off, which in turn meant they'd stay more powerful than if their money was dissipated."

So convents were a cheap way of dispensing with surplus daughters, but it's what life was like for those young girls once the convent doors swung closed that most interests Dunant. Some, like Serafina, the 16-year-old heroine of Sacred Hearts, arrived howling with rage and pain at the injustice of it all. But the surprising thing is that Dunant, a 58-year-old feminist graduate of the hardline school of 1960s women's lib, thinks that being forcibly locked up in a 16th-century convent wasn't all that terrible. "We have to see it from their point of view," she says. "The future didn't exist for these women. They knew nothing of feminism or sexual freedom or contraception or of having babies who you could expect to grow up. When you consider a nun's life in the 16th century, you have to set it against how else she could have lived: married to someone she probably didn't much like, having baby after baby and burying a fair proportion of them, or maybe not even surviving childbirth herself."

By contrast, a nun's life offered opportunities way ahead of the time. "I was genuinely surprised to discover that 16th-century women in convents were writing, producing and performing their own plays, while others were arranging music and putting on musical performances for audiences. It makes you realise that convents were places of deep creativity, where women got space to do things that they wouldn't have been able to do in the outside world."

One of the interesting things about meeting Dunant is that, in the flesh, she's much more strident and noisy and opinionated than she is in her fiction. There, in her novels, her voice is softer and gentler; the voice of a reverend mother, perhaps, guiding her novices through a world she'd genuinely love them to engage with and understand. When she tells people she's researching and writing about nuns, she says, she tends to get quite different responses from men than from women. "Straightaway, men often say, 'That sounds naughty! Nuns, eh – what are they getting up to?' Whereas women are much more thoughtful: they say, 'How interesting – a world without men. How do they manage without children? How do they manage without getting out?' And then, more as an afterthought, they might ask how they manage without sex."

Dunant's fascination with Renaissance Italy – her previous two novels were also set there – springs partly from the fact that she was raised as a Catholic, although she left the church in her teens "when my intellect clashed with my faith". Unusually, given her age and Catholic background, she wasn't educated by nuns. It was her novelist's nous that made her realise what a cracking setting for a novel a convent would be. "Some of the best novels are set in an enclosed situation. There's a wonderful claustrophobia about a convent which heightens everything."

Dunant does seem a mite defensive about her new-found role as purveyor of historical potboilers to the American masses, going out of her way to stress the months of serious historical research she did. (There is indeed an impressive-looking bibliography at the end of Sacred Hearts.) Like Kate Mosse, with whom she helped found the Orange Prize for women's fiction, Dunant has come in for a bit of flak from those who say her genre is all about sales with a capital "S". You feel, talking to her, that this isn't something she feels entirely comfortable about. It matters to her that Sacred Hearts is a serious piece of historical research, and it matters to her that she isn't seen as the 21st century's answer to Georgette Heyer. But what matters, too, is that US bestseller list: as the photographer arrives, I am quickly ushered out. Like the nuns in her book, Dunant is focused on what she believes in – and when the bell rings, like her medieval sisters, she moves swiftly on.

The extract

Sacred Hearts, By Sarah Dunant (Virago £11.99)

'... It is always hard, understanding what is being gained in the moment at which something is also being taken away ... How while outside these walls "free" women will live their whole lives dictated by the decisions of others, yet inside, to a remarkable extent, they govern themselves. How here each and every nun has a voice and a vote ... where they discuss and decide together everything from the menu for the next saint's day to the appointment of a new abbess or ... other posts essential to what is, in effect, a business as well as a spiritual refuge'