The Secret Life of Nuns – Pietro Aretino

Firstly I just want to say a big thanks for everyone who joined in with the NTTVBG yesterday (follow the links), it was lovely to see the support and discussion there. I am slightly nervous about hosting in just under two weeks, how will I compete with those wonderful scones Lynne laid out for us all? Anyway I just wanted to say a big thanks before life goes back to normal for a week or so. 

Back at the start of January when I made my resolutions I said that I wanted to read some things that were ‘different’ this year. I wasn’t quite expecting what I ended up reading with ‘The Secret Life of Nuns’ by Pietro Aretino. I had picked this up from the library (last year) again in part because of the cover and also because it was a Hesperus book and after Lady Into Fox I have been keen to try and read as many Hesperus Press releases as my library stocks.

I am sure I am not alone in one of my favourite pass times. Eavesdropping! You know if you are on public transport, in a café etc and you simply cannot help but listen in on a certain subject. From the blurb it sounded like the tale of a secret gossipy conversation between two women over a dilemma. Nanna, a seasoned prostitute in roam is in a quandary over her daughter Pippa’s future, should she send her to a nunnery, marry her off or make her a courtesan? For advice on it all who better to talk to than her best friend Antonia?

What I wasn’t expecting was for Nanna to then start telling Antonia of her life in a nunnery and for it to be quite so, well… provocative and explicit (if you are of a delicate mind you might not want to read on). After having read more about Pietro Aretino and his nickname ‘the scourge of princes’ maybe I should have been. I read on however and what followed is a very funny, quite rude and fairly graphic (with hilarious metaphors) tale of how Nanna survived her time after her parents sent her to live in a convent. I won’t lie I really enjoyed it as a read. Back in the 1500’s I am sure this was possibly one of the rudest things one could read (it is claimed that Aretino was the originator of European pornography, who know if this is true or not) however by today’s standards with what we see on the telly this is more a whimsical and highly witty romp. I laughed out loud about three times.

There isn’t really too much that can be said in terms of the plot as the actual tale itself only lasts for sixty five pages. I did like the way its almost written as a script with Nanna going into long monologues and Antonia chipping in every now and again which is great in terms of comic timing. It was the context of the book that did make me wonder as in 1550 writing about sex was bad enough, setting it in a holy place was quite out there. I don’t have any religious beliefs but The Converted One does and I did get frowned upon when I explained what the book was about. Each to their own I say.

The only quibble I had with this is that Nanna doesn’t tell us what happens if you become a wife or a courtesan instead. Having now looked into it the author further I find this is the first in a trilogy of books and that we still have two more of Nana’s enlightening and eye opening tales to go…


I think I will be asking for this ‘The Secret Life of Wives’ and ‘The School of Whoredom’ for my birthday in March mainly for the fact that Nanna is one of the best narrators I have read in ages. I loved her, her frankness and her humour. Possibly not a series for the faint hearted but definitely one for the open minded. Has anyone else read this or the rest of the series?



Filed under Hesperus Press, Pietro Aretino, Review

32 responses to “The Secret Life of Nuns – Pietro Aretino

  1. Oh my! This sounds like a very very interesting book. I have to admit you sold this book to me when you said it’s ‘not for the faint-hearted’. Always up for a challenge. =)

    And when you said the actual tale only lasts 65 pages, do you mean the book is really just that short?

    • It is about 65 pages in total indeed so all three together would be around 300 pages maximum and with those marvellous covers I do think they are a lovely set to collect.

      Maybe faint hearted was a bit extreme, I should have said not for the prudish.

  2. I have had all three of these books on my wishlist since March 2006 when first discovered Hesperus Press! I’ve never got around to buying them so it’s fabulous to read a review as I still intend to read them at some point!

    I find it interesting that the narrator is called Nanna, and Emile Zola’s famous eponymous character is also named Nana and a prostitute three centuries later.

    Recommendation time: since you enjoyed the convent setting and since you loved Dangerous Liaisons, read The Nun by Jean Diderot; it’s a scandalous French Classic based around a convent and concocted letters about the cruelty in it.

    • I shall keep my eyes peeled for the nun as if it mixes the delights of Dangerous Liaisons and convents then I am sure to like it. I didnt quite realise what a slightly scandalous read I had when I got this from the library and now I cannot wait to get my hands on the other two to find out what happens.

  3. This sounds intriguing – I like Convent books. I’ve not heard of Hersperus press so I shall have to go and have a gander.

  4. Erika

    To add to convent books, how about Antonia White’s “Frost in May”? It’s beautifully written and dead on target which I can vouch for, having spent some of my education in a Convent of the Sacred Heart.

    • I don’t think I have Frost in May on the TBR but do definitely have one of Antonia Whites books. What was living in a convent like? I find the idea, though not as in this book maybe, a fascinating one.

  5. How scandalous. I am definitely intrigued – like the above respondents, I am very fond of books set in convents (the more salacious, the better).

  6. gaskella

    This sounds like wonderful raunchy fun. It and the others in the series go straight onto my wishlist.

  7. Deb

    Have you noticed how many cover images feature apples these days? What Twilight hath wrought!

    • Aha, but Deb Twilight must have stolen it from this series as this was published 4 years before Twilight. I hadnt actually linked the apple imagery.

      • Deb

        Well, I stand corrected. Perhaps the apple cover “meme” had started prior to Twilight, but I must say that Twilight has really increased the number of apple-themed covers. I work in a junior high school library and at the book fair last autumn I counted no less than seven YA novels that had various sorts of apples on the covers.

      • I can imagine that red apples are definitely becoming a big imagery in kids and teen books after the success of Twilight, in fact the whole dark broading cover has. I blame snow White frankly haha!

      • Publishers are trying to jump on the bandwagon of Twilight’s success and market books to those readers through free association. However, apples on book covers are not a new concept; it is the logo of Virago Press and has always been a symbol of temptation since biblical times.

  8. I am planning on picking this book up after reading your thoughts, especially since I an so enjoying Sacred Hearts, Dunant, another book about early convent life. Have you read that one?

    • I have been wanting to read Sacred Hearts but my library has all the copies out and I am not allowed to buy a book or it would indeed be one of the books on my radar I have to say.

  9. I love Hesperus Press, too! This book sounds really interesting (such a great cover, too!). Thanks for the heads up.

    • Hesperus Press are fantastic. Have you read Lady into Fox? If you havent then you must must must. This is also looking to be an interesting series. I am very excited as I believe the rest are on the way as an early present… from the publisher!

  10. Your library has Hesperus books?? Envy envy.

    Let’s us know what happens to Pippa.

    • They have loads and loads of them I was very impressed to see such an array and am glad they have had so many as its given me a chance to try and to love something different from what I would normally read.

      The other books are in the post so I will definitley let you know what happens to Pippa!

  11. Boccaccio’s The Decameron predates Aretino by two centuries and is very risque and delightfully disrespectful of religion. I totally recommend it if you loved Aretino.

  12. Oo, oo. Me. I’m not the faint-hearted and these titles alone would be enough to make me look twice. And they would look lovely with my other Hesperus titles. Wishing you luck for those birthday presents. Mine is in March too. What day is yours?

    • I was very lucky as Hesperus emailed me yesterday and offered me the whole series as an early birthday present so am feeling most jammy! I almost asked for Lady into Fox for cheekiness but thought that would be

      My birthday is the 24th, whats yours Frances?

  13. novelinsights

    I’m definitely not faint-hearted so I take that as a challenge! I remember you mentioning this before and would love to read this at some point.

  14. Pingback: Some Rather Early Birthday Presents… « Savidge Reads

  15. Pingback: The Secret Life of Wives – Pietro Aretino « Savidge Reads

  16. Pingback: The School of Whoredom – Pietro Aretino | Savidge Reads

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