Fashion and Fiction at the V & A: Sarah Dunant




Fashion and Fiction Dunant


Journalist and writer Rosie Goldsmith organizes this series of evenings at London’s V&A Museum –and can you imagine anything more Clothes in Books than something called Fashion and Fiction? - see my previous posts on talks there by Linda Grant and Margaret Atwood.

The latest event took place last week, and featured a conversation between Rosie and Sarah Dunant - writer, broadcaster and critic. Maybe you think of her as a presenter of arts shows, or else as a thriller writer. Most recently she has written 4 amazing books set in Renaissance Italy. Each is a standalone, based in a different city at a different time, and each helps to answer the question Where were the women? What were they doing? She looks at the lives of a woman who wanted to paint (Birth of Venus) a prostitute (In the Company of the Courtesan), nuns (Sacred Hearts) and Lucrezia Borgia (Blood and Beauty). They are real proper serious literary novels, but they are also immensely readable – page-turners.

Of course they are very well-researched, and Dunant had brought along a fascinating collection of slides to prove it. She used Italian art from the late 15th century onwards to show the changes in lives, in religion, in clothes over that period. It was a stunning talk, and one that left us wanting to re-read the books, and waiting for her next.

 
FAshion and Fiction nuns

Sacred Hearts is my favourite of her books: Set in Ferrara in the 1570s, it looks at the lives of women in convents, and how everything was changing. She explains the different stories that led women to end up there – and shows that for some it was a very reasonable alternative to what might happen to them outside. We follow the stories of a number of the women, with one particularly compelling and sad story of an unhappy love affair. The book also looks in depth at the music in convents – and you can actually get a CD to go with the book, Sacred Hearts and Secret Music, the kind of pieces the nuns would have sung, by Palestrina and others. I did, of course, get the CD.

The picture above shows two nuns along with the Madonna and Child and St Lucy & St Catherine  - it’s from the workshop of Paolo Veronese at around the right time for the book, and the image comes from the Athenaeum website.

Find out more about Fashion & Fiction if you think you’d be interested – here on Facebook, or Rosie Goldsmith's Twitter. The Victoria and Albert Museum website is here.






Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Moira. Those Dunant books sound really fascinating, whether you're interested in women's lives, fashion, history or art.

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    1. You're so right Margot- great writing on all those topics.

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  2. I am with Margot — thanks for this post, Moira. You have got me interested in the four books set in Renaissance Italy. Is the talk with Sarah Dunant available online?

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    1. The video from the event will be available next week. Check eurolitnetwork.com and Fashion and Fiction FB page for more info.

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    2. Thanks very much, Anna. I will check both.

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    3. Thanks Prashant and Anna. I would like to watch the talk again myself...

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  3. Sounds so interesting, so I went to Amazon and ordered Sacred Hearts.

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    1. Oh good, do hope you enjoy it. I feel responsible now!

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  4. The author does sound very interesting. I have heard the name but don't know much about her writing. The event sounds very good and of course, perfect for you. I admire authors who are enthusiastic about the topics they write about.

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    1. Perhaps you could try one of her detective novels, Tracy, see Gary's comment below. I read a couple years ago and also remember them as being good.

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    2. For some reason, I had the impression the detective novels were more psychological thrillers. What I can find now does not indicate that. The fact that they were written in the early 90s is a plus because of less technology getting in the way of the story. So if I run into one I will give it a try.

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    3. I'm curious to re-read one now - a while since I looked at any of them.

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  5. I've not read any of her historical novels, although I do remember the crime novels that she wrote in the '90s. Private Eye Hannah Wolfe investigated mysteries that involved topics such as cosmetic surgery and animal rights. If I remember correctly (it's a while since I read them!) they were all smart and well written, and very much intended to be the British response to the sudden popularity of US female private eye novels. With the popularity of her historical novels, it's not surprising that she seems to have abandoned Hannah Wolfe, but it's still a shame.

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    1. I read a couple of them and really liked the political engagement. From the way she was talking the other night, she's not going back to them anytime soon - she lives in Italy half the year, and the history has obviously won her over.

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  6. Sounds great (though, yes, first and foremost, she'll always be 'Brains' from THE LATE SHOW to me) - I think my Mum has been dabbling with her historical (never as keen on the crime books actually).

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    1. She is a great speaker as well as a great writer - those years of live presenting paid off. I wish I'd asked her about the crime novels.

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  7. In a minority no doubt - I can't think of too much I'd enjoy less! Bah humbug....

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    1. I have missed your contrary opinions!

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  8. Sarah Dunant, glad to be reminded of her. I read one Hannah Wolfe book set in a spa. And I read Birth of Venus, which was a mystery and starts off with a dead nun with a snake tattoo on her body. It was a fascinating read.

    I suppose I should dig into some of her other historical novels.

    While reading a mystery by Barbara Wilson, The Case of the Orphaned Bassoonist, the protagonist goes to Venice. She tells readers about girl babies who were placed in convents and then later trained to play several instruments. Then there would be concerts for the public.

    So this has fascinated me. Thanks for the reminder about Dunant's books. (If I can drag myself away from murders!)

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    1. I think Dunant is well worth reading, and now I'm looking forward to revisiting the crime novels - I don't remember the spa, but think I would enjoy.
      Yes, I know the Barbara Wilson, that was such a fascinating story for the history...

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