Sarah Dunant is a writer, broadcaster and critic. She was born in London and studied history at Cambridge University. Since then she has written eight novels, two screenplays and edited two books of essays. She has worked in television and radio as a presenter and a producer, is a patron of the Orange Prize for women's fiction, sits on the editorial board of the Royal Academy magazine and reviews for , and .
During the 2007 Cambridge Seminar Sarah spoke to writer and editor John Lanchester about her passion for history and how she made the transition from writing psychological thrillers to historical novels in (2003) and (2006).
‘My love affair with literature itself started when I read historical fiction as a young girl. Of course, I could pretend that I only read Thomas Hardy but actually I also enjoyed the works of popular writers of 1950s Britain like Margaret Irwin and Jean Plaidy. I found the books rather romantic – full of kings, queens, battles and great characters. I became completely intoxicated by the mystery of history. Then I went to university to read History and got the romance systematically beaten out of me by academic historians. Along the way I discovered the true story of history: its utter complexity, paradoxical nature, richness, the mixture of culture, economy and politics. It was infinitely more interesting, but how can you write that in a book? So it never occurred to me when I became a writer that I would even dare to try do that to history as I was no longer a historian. However, after I wrote  the thriller form basically fell apart on me and I realised I couldn’t write thrillers any more. So I thought: “Right, Sarah, what are we going to do now, then?”
I had a bit of a personal crisis and spent some time in Italy. While I was staying in Florence I read a lot about the history of the city. That’s when I had a ‘light bulb’ moment: it occurred to me that 500 years ago this city was the cauldron of a cultural revolution for Western Europe, the like of which we’ve never seen since. Historically, the Renaissance in Florence was quite extraordinary: in terms of the birth of humanism; the revolution in art; the beginning of a revolution in religion that led to the reformation; the rebirth of classicism; and the rediscovery of Greek as a language, which opened a whole series of philosophical and political worlds. So I thought to myself: “What if you could write a novel that made you feel as though it was your own modern experience of living in the moment of the revolution rather than the history?”
Initially I didn’t think I could do it as it seemed too big, even though I’d read a lot about the topic and become very intellectually interested in it. But I had an enormous realisation when my two young daughters joined me in Florence for a holiday. Since I’d been doing so much reading about the Renaissance I thought it would be a good idea to take the girls around the city and give them a potted history course. On the first day I told them that we’d be visiting some museums and churches. That’s when my 13-year-old (who was attitude-on-a-stick) turned to me and said: “I think you should know, Mum, that at this moment in my life I don’t do culture. I just do shopping.” My nine-year-old (whose very reason in life was to be in opposition to her sister) said: “Oh that sounds wonderful, Mum. I’ll come with you.” So, as I was walking through the streets with these two incredibly powerful young women, on the edge of becoming themselves, another light bulb turned on in my head. I asked myself: “What’s the one thing I have not read about during my eight weeks of research into the Renaissance?”
Women. I had not read about any women. Not one woman’s name had been mentioned within anything I’d read. Not one female artist, translator, thinker, painter or philosopher. What was going on with an entire gender during this cultural revolution? During a time when the city was pouring out artistic talent, weren’t there women who had the ability to draw? Did women just suddenly become creative at the end of the 19th century? No – women were creative, but there was no social place to allow them to progress in this way.
And in that moment was born. It is the story of Alessandra, a 15-year-old daughter of a rich cloth merchant in Florence, who has an innate ability to draw and wants to get her hand on the wall. But of course she can’t as society won’t allow it. So it was both a visceral and intellectual basis for a book; the combination of a story and the fascinating social and cultural ideas of the time.’
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