Book Review: Illuminations by Mary Sharratt

I was first introduced to Mary Sharratt’s writing when I read her novel Daughters of the Witching Hill and loved it. So of course I was excited to read her newest novel Illuminations and I was once again impressed by the writing style and story telling ability of Mary Sharratt. Illuminations by Mary Sharratt is the story of Hildegard von Bingen, who was an amazing woman who lived during the Middle Ages. She is a woman I knew nothing about before reading this novel and I found her story completely enthralling. Mary Sharratt has perfectly weaved together fact and fiction to bring alive a woman from long ago who led an extraordinary life.

Hildegard was offered to the church at eight years old and was to be an handmaiden to a more noble girl than herself called Jutta who wanted nothing more than to give herself over to the church for life. The girls weren’t just going to be nuns; they were put in a small room and actually bricked in. They had no freedom to go in and out and while this was what Jutta had wanted, it was never really a life that Hildegard desired. She missed running free, being able to see wide open spaces. All she had was a small courtyard where she grew herbs and such and she loved to study books that thankfully a young monk who became one of her best friends always brought to her.

Jutta ended up becoming saintly because of her beauty and piety. She refused to eat or sleep as she believed that sacrifice was her duty. Over time she became thinner and thinner and more and more disturbed. When a heretic tells her that Hildegard will outshine her in the years to come she decides that she no longer wants her as her handmaiden and demands to get a younger, more malleable girl. However as Hildegard took vows in the church she was not turned out and instead ending up being pretty much a mother to the two young girls are later entombed with them in the room.

When Jutta finally passes on Hildegard manages to get herself and the other two women whom she calls her daughters released from their prison where she has spent thirty some years of her life. She begins to be recognized for her visions although not everyone is happy about it and she makes a few enemies in the church. She also starts writing a book about her visions which is another thing that wasn’t looked upon to favorably by many in the church thinking that she was a heretic. Eventually she leads the other nuns away from the monks and builds one of the very first religious houses and becomes a very respected visionary although that doesn’t come without it’s own tragedies as over the years she loses many people who had become important to her.

Illuminations is one of those books that grabs you from the very first page. What makes it even more amazing to me is that it is based on historical fact. Hildegard existed at a time when women didn’t have many rights at all and yet she was willing to stand up for what or who she believed in. It’s hard to believe that there was ever a time that such young children were offered to the church and then literally kept in prisons to lead such secluded lives. In truth many families felt that they didn’t have any other options and also a life in the church was often better than what may have happened to a young girl otherwise.

I can’t possibly review Illuminations in such a way to showcase how good it is. Anybody interested in historical fiction would most definitely enjoy reading it or those interested in the workings of the church of the past. Mary Sharratt is such a talented writer who so vividly brought to life this world that Hildegard changed in her own way through her visions. Once again I will be left anxiously awaiting the next book that Mary writes for us!

Please be sure to pop by the blog tomorrow as Mary will be joining us with a guest post and a chance to enter to win a copy of her very wonderful novel Illuminations!

Source: Review copy provided by Saima Agency via NetGalley. No compensation was received for this review and all thoughts and opinions are my own.


  1. says

    I can’t imagine the horror of being bricked in! You make this one sound so good, and I would love to read it. I have a weird fascination for nuns and monks that I can’t satiate, no matter how much I read about them. Fantastic review today, Dar!

  2. techeditor says

    A few weeks ago Mary Sharratt told me she would send me this book. I hope she remembered. I wonder if I should be entering contests for this book. I don’t want to if she really is going to send it.

    • techeditor says

      She did remember. I read it.

      ILLUMINATIONS by Mary Sharratt tells the story of Hildegard von Bingen, recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches and as a prophet by the Lutheran Church.

      Hildegard’s divine visions were likely the reason her mother gave her to a Catholic monastery when she was a child, where she was forced into a tomb-like existence for 30 years. Her visions continued her entire life. When she was sure they came from God, she saw the importance of writing a book about them. Further synopsis is in the reviews above.

      ILLUMINATIONS is based on documented fact, but it is not a biography. Here, Hildegard’s story is told as a novel. In so doing, Sharratt interjects Hildegard’s thoughts, psychological insights, and dialog and keeps the reader’s interest more than a biography would. For readers like me, that makes this book more readable, and that is why I rate the book so highly.

      Like all good novels that are based on fact, ILLUMINATIONS will have you needing to know exactly what really happened and what is Sharratt’s fiction. She talks about this in the “Afterward,” which I thought should have begun the book rather than ended it.

      I wondered most about Hildegard’s special relationship with Sister Richardis. So I did some digging, searching the Internet. And that made me want to learn even more, and that made me want to search Netflix. Sure enough, they have a couple DVDs about Hildegard, and now one of them is on its way to me.

  3. Robyn says

    This sounds like a terribly sad book. Fascinating, but sad. I think I will have to put this on my list of books to read soon. Another great historical fiction book I recently read is called, ” Up From Corinth: Book 2 of Journey Into Darkness” by author J. Arthur Moore. Up From Corinth is a story of human compassion in which 11-year-old Duane Kinkade is searching to find his father in one of America’s greatest crises – working to save lives, not take them, but also to keep from loosing his own, if it does require the taking of one who would take his.

  4. says

    Okay, let me just say that I used to make up bedtime stories for my niece and daughter and their favorite story had a character I named Hildegard. I simply must read a book with a character by that name, especially since it also sounds so good!

    I’ve been out of the loop, lately, Dar. How’s your dad doing?


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