|The Sisterhood; April 2013|
Please welcome author Helen Bryan:
It was not until I began a biography of Martha Washington, intending to look at the American Revolution from her perspective and that of other women of the time, that I had something of a Damascene moment about how wide the gaps in history are. Among accounts of battles, military strategy and the views of the Founding Fathers, I had to search long and hard to find information about women’s experiences. “The ladies, God bless ‘em” were mostly invisible. As ever. Too often, we have no idea of history’s impact on women because the record is silent. In this scenario writers of historical fiction become archaeologists, piecing together clues from their research, to reconstruct in fiction something of the reality of women’s lives in the past.
My latest book “The Sisterhood” is a woman’s eye view of Spain in the sixteenth century in the aftermath of the reconquista in 1492. This was a watershed in history, marking the defeat of the Moors who had ruled Spain for nearly seven hundred years by the Reyes Catholicos, Isabella and Ferdinand, who united Spain vowing to establish God’s kingdom on earth. The rise of Spain as a world power and the expansion of the Spanish empire overseas in the Americas followed, while Spain itself became a religious police state, instituting a policy of ethnic cleansing. Muslims and Jews, who had previously co- existed with Christians under the Moors were persecuted, forcibly converted, exiled, and killed. No one was safe from suspicion and denunciation as a heretic or secret Jew or Muslim, and the Inquisition had sweeping powers to investigate individuals, with the help of a network of informers and torture. It must have been terrifying.
And where did women fit into the picture? For women in the higher echelons of society with the necessary dowry, it was often as nuns. A cloistered existence of religious discipline, confinement and celibacy may appear an unnatural choice today, but then it offered intelligent women the possibility of intellectual pursuits, a chance to exercise financial control over the convent’s assets and make a real contribution to the general welfare. Convents ran hospitals, orphanages, school, and nuns enjoyed status in society. In addition, given the high mortality rates of women in childbirth, a nun might well outlive her married sisters. Whether women entered convents willingly or unwillingly, life there offered undeniable benefits, especially as a woman was unlikely to marry where she liked but as her male relatives dictated. Convents proliferated. And it was a visit to a Spanish convent dating from the reconquista that inspired “The Sisterhood.” The unusual feature of this convent was its orphanage for illegitimate daughters of the Spanish aristocracy. After growing up in the convent, the girls progressed from the orphanage to novitiate to the veil. To prepare them for their religious lives, their playthings were a bizarre selection of toys on display: nun dolls, a miniature convent, doll size altars and tiny altar fittings. The presence of these children whose cloistered fate had been fixed at birth, lingered in the old, low-ceilinged rooms with their smell of beeswax, incense and age. The atmosphere was irresistible for a writer.
Beginning with the fictional “What if…”, I first imagined a romance featuring a plucky orphan girl who ran away from the convent, made her way to Spanish America and found love. Once I began to research the necessary background to the story- the lives and orders of sixteenth century nuns, religious diaries of the time, accounts of Inquisition excesses, the Spanish conquest in America, the Incas, the story changed. One orphan girl became five, each in danger of persecution by the authorities. And to explain why the nuns gave them refuge, I drew on one of many early Christian legends, the three Marys of the New Testament who are said to have made their way to the coast of France, where their supposed relics are venerated to this day. I gave the nuns of “The Sisterhood” an equally ancient spiritual tradition dating back to Roman Spain, which explained their courage and determination to uphold humanitarian values at the risk of their lives. Suddenly there was a much bigger story to tell, connecting the past with the present. Staring me in the face was the fact that religious oppression given a political dimension in sixteenth century Spain had a resonance in modern times with the political tensions that exist between Muslims, Jews and Christians across the world. The sixteenth century orphan girls in fear of their lives have their counterparts in young women who are victims of human trafficking and abuse now.
The romantic theme I once imagined was the focus became woven throughout into the individual stories of different characters, stories forgotten until they are recovered and told centuries later by a young woman who makes the unexpected discovery that she herself is a link in a long chain of Sisterhood.
Book summary of The Sisterhood:
With THE SISTERHOOD, Bryan weaves two stories separated by centuries about the resilience of the female spirit. Set in Spain during the sixteenth century and present-day, Bryan tells the story of Los Golondrinas Convent—a place of refuge for women and girls during the Spanish Inquisition regardless of faith or sin, many of whom had desperate reasons to hide from the church and state authorities.
Each girl and woman’s story was recorded in the Convent’s chronicle to bear witness of the cruelty and inhumanity they suffered. The Chronicle helped bind the sisterhood across generations.
Centuries later, Menina Walker, a 19-year-old adopted daughter of a small-town American couple, finds her life in shambles. A despicable incident causes her to call off her wedding, and she finds herself alone and depressed. Her best friend arranges a trip to Spain for her to get away, and Menina takes with her the only links to her birth family: an ancient book and a medal from the convent from which her parents adopted her.
In the process of unlocking the stories of the Chronicle, she learns that nothing less than destiny brought her to the birthplace of her ancestors, and the power to find peace and love had been burning in her blood all along.
Helen Bryan is an American-born writer living in London for many years. Previous books include War Brides and Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty.