Transforming “history” into “her-story” a little at a time is historical novelist Mary Sharratt. An American writer, she lives with her Belgian husband in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England — the setting for her acclaimed 2010 novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, which recasts the Pendle Witches of 1612 in their historical context as cunning folk and healers.
Her most recent novel, Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which explores the dramatic life of the 12th century Benedictine abbess, composer, polymath, and powerfrau will be released on Tuesday, October 9 2012.
Who was Hildegard? Hildegard von Bingen composed an entire corpus of sacred music and wrote nine books on subjects as diverse as theology, cosmology, botany, medicine, linguistics, and human sexuality, a prodigious intellectual outpouring that was unprecedented for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine. An outspoken critic of political and ecclesiastical corruption, she courted controversy. Late in her life, she and her nuns were the subject of an interdict (a collective excommunication) that was lifted only a few months before her death. Hildegard nearly died an outcast.
873 years after her death, the Vatican has finally given her the highest recognition for her considerable achievements. On May 10, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI canonized Hildegard. In October 2012, she will be elevated to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title reserved for theologians who have significantly impacted Church doctrine. Presently there are only thirty-three Doctors of the Church, and only three are women.
When Sharratt was asked if there were challenges in writing about the saint, she responded: “Hildegard’s life was so long and eventful, so filled with drama and conflict, tragedy and ecstasy, that it proved mightily difficult to squeeze the essence of her story into a manageable novel. My original draft was forty-thousand words longer than the current book. I also found it quite intimidating to write about such a religious woman. In the end, I found I had to let Hildegard breathe and reveal herself as human.”
And the novel has already received high praise even before the publication date, including a starred review from Kirkus, which stated: “Sharratt brings the elusive Hildegard to vivid life, underscoring her ability to evade or transcend Church censure while espousing a proto-feminist agenda.”
Add Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen to your fall reading list for sure.