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Thursday, October 17, 2013

"Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen" by Mary Sharrat


A triumphant portrait of a resilient and courageous woman and the life she might have lived . . .

Skillfully interweaving historical fact with psychological insight and vivid imagination, Sharratt’s redemptive novel, Illuminations, brings to life one of the most extraordinary women of the Middle Ages: Hildegard von Bingen, Benedictine abbess, visionary, and polymath.

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.

“With elegance and sensitivity, Mary Sharratt rescues Hildegard von Bingen from the obscurity of legend, bringing to life the flesh-and-blood woman in all her conflict, faith, and unwavering tenacity. Illuminations is an astonishing revelation of a visionary leader willing to sacrifice everything to defend her beliefs in a dangerous time of oppression.”—C. W. Gortner, author of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici


Published by:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Hard cover)
Pages:  269
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Author:  Mary Sharrat

Praise for Illuminations"An enchanting beginning to the story of the perennially fascinating 12th-century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen. It is easy to paint a picture of a saint from the outside but much more difficult to show them from the inside. Mary Sharratt has undertaken this with sensitivity and grace."
—Margaret George, author of Mary, Called Magdalene

"I loved Mary Sharratt’s The Daughters of Witching Hill, but she has outdone herself with Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard Von Bingen. She brings one of the most famous and enigmatic women of the Middle Ages to vibrant life in this tour de force, which will captivate the reader from the very first page."
—Sharon Kay Penman, author of the New York Times bestseller Time and Chance

"I love Mary Sharratt. The grace of her writing and the grace of her subject combine seamlessly in this wonderful novel about the amazing, too-little-known saint, Hildegard of Bingen, a mystic and visionary. Sharratt captures both the pain and the beauty such gifts bring, as well as bringing to life a time of vast sins and vast redemptions."
—Karleen Koen, author of Before Versailles and the best-selling Through a Glass Darkly

Buy Links

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0544106539/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=
Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/illuminations-mary-sharratt/1110919627?ean=9780544106536
Books A Million: http://www.booksamillion.com/p/Illuminations/Mary-Sharratt/9780544106536?id=5724163155978
Indiebound: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780544106536


The author of four critically acclaimed historical novels, Mary Sharratt is an American who lives in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, the setting for her acclaimed Daughters of the Witching Hill, which recasts the Pendle Witches of 1612 in their historical context as cunning folk and healers. She also lived for twelve years in Germany, which, along with her interest in sacred music and herbal medicine, inspired her to write Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen. Illuminations won the Nautilus Gold Award for Better Books for a Better World and was selected as a Kirkus Book of the Year.

For more information please visit Mary's website and blog.  You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Video moment capturing the essence of the novel:


As I read this novel late and into the early morning hours I was struck by how genteel the author writes.  There is at once a claustrophobic atmosphere that she cannot help but draw for us with this novel, but also an overwhelming covering of peace along with it.  It's a remarkable feat.  While I sometimes wondered how the children and young women could breathe in such a tiny cell...I also felt the expansiveness of their hearts and spirits through the pen of Mary Sharrat. Here is a generous and gorgeous storytelling ability.  I simply adored this little book.

Previously, I had very little knowledge of Hildegard von Bingen, though I lived many years of my childhood in Germany.  Ms Sharrat does a wonderful job of clearly telling her life story without over-expounding upon the mysteries and spirituality so that we lose sight of her humanity. Hildegard is a very accessible young and older woman throughout the book, and one whom I would have given anything to know.  It is through the portrayal of her humanity that we come to understand the profound implications of her spiritual blessings and messages for all of humanity.

First, I must say that I'm not Catholic, so I don't understand all the canonization laws and recognitions of saintly people, etc.  I believe another way, and that's fine since the purpose of this review is not to expound upon my religious views.  However, I must tell it like it appeared to me...and that was that I thought much of Hildegard's spiritual gifts coming forward from her tomb as an anchorite were having to do with those things she lacked so very much:  fresh air, light, sunlight, interaction with nature, a long view of things in nature or outside her "prison."   It seemed to me in her constricted world she was starved for those things. In addition, I wonder whether she was a pre-teen and young woman who did suffer migraines because of the circles of light so often spoken of.  Perhaps these physical problems manifested as visions, as well as "prophesies."  I have no doubt that Hildegard was a grand genius of a woman, regardless.

Not only was she a genius of a woman, but she was one who had immense courage and fortitude.  And, she was touched by God without a doubt.  Her deep conviction about the well-being and rights of young women/nuns was foremost, and her beautiful writings, songs and other spiritual gifts of strength have made her outstanding among women.  I think Mary Sharrat captured the whole of Hildegard's personality and character in her book.

There are few books I've read on such a subject that have held me rapt the way this one did.  I give all the credit to Mary Sharratt, though her story was an interesting one to tell.  Her style of writing was sensitive and flowing.  Despite the horrors of being walled in for years with a madwoman, Hildegard's grace and sanity was well described to me as a reader.  Ms Sharratt is an author I'll be looking forward to reading again.

A book about a medieval nun, obscure in the day, who has lasted in time... this is an exceptional story.  I highly recommend it.

5 stars                    Deborah/TheBookishDame

*Note:  This review was brought to you in cooperation with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Please follow the rest of the tour by clicking on this link:  http://www.hfvirtualbooktours.com

All thoughts and expressed feelings in the above review are my own.



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Hallo, this afternoon,

I am on the tour as well, and I wanted to seek out the other reviewers along the route, as I was touched deeply by the words of Hilegard's life, and thought it would be lovely to see how each reader who read her story was left afterwards,... in museful thought, or if they perhaps didn't enjoy it either, as I know we all come to like different books.

Thanks for having your "I love comments" badge because when I clicked over I found a nice new badge to welcome people to my blog! Cheers!

I liked how you opened your review, speaking of the Nuns as they were children when they first entered their confining quarters as Anchorites. You gave such a resounding image when you said "expansiveness of their hearts and spirits through the pen of Sharratt",... yes, that attribute is fittingly deserved, I think as well! She brought out their humanity and the courage it took to fit inside such a life as the one they found themselves brought into! I took the story as truth as it was relayed to me in the text, including of her visions, but I can respect and understand that the context of her life is going to be interrupted differently per each reader who finds her story. I, myself grew up Protestant, approaching this outside of a Catholic upbringing as well, but I do study world religions and of course, Catholicism is one of them.

I enjoyed reading your review because it brought back to life of the Hildegard that I was introduced too as well! Your ruminations would serve her proud! I think the fact that we, in the 21st Century are spending time reflecting on her life lived in the 12th Century is enough for her to wish to warrant a conversation! (if such a thing were possible!)


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