This week I bring the second Historical January guest, Bryony from Re: Read Pages.
Another Side to the Story
Historical fiction is my go-to genre when I want a good read. A good historical fiction can take you to a place far away but familiar or make the past feel more immediate as you immerse yourself in a different time. The details – language, clothing, social customs –that make historical fiction great are difficult to pull off. Doubly so if an author decides to build off of an established, and often beloved, story or character. This literary sub-genre is one of my favourites.
My first brush with historical adaptation came with the reading of Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. First published in 1966, the novel is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and tells the story of the madwoman in the attic, Rochester’s first wife. Rhys gives depth and life to a character that was otherwise just a stumbling block to true love. Brontë is only one of many authors whose works have inspired adaptation.
Understandably, one of the writers frequently hit up for adaptation is Shakespeare. With his memorable characters, layered plotlines, and unforgettable language, Shakespeare provides a strong, well-known foundation on which other writers can build.
Over the holiday, in addition to some great meals, I devoured the novel Juliet’s Nurse by Lois Leveen. As the title indicates, Leveen’s novel takes place in the story of Romeo and Juliet (no pressure) and tells the story Angelica, the bawdy Nurse in the famous tragedy.
Angelica enters the service of Juliet’s house as a wet-nurse after losing her own daughter, stillborn, the same night as Juliet enters the world. The first part of the novel covers the first three years of Juliet’s life and shows the bond forged between woman and child as well as revealing Angelica’s history and love-filled marriage to the kind Pietro.
Shakespeare’s play is a tragedy and so, too, Leveen’s story carries tragedy and by the second part of the novel, Angelica, in one form or another, is left with only Juliet to love and to be loved by. This fierce and desperate love is tested as Romeo enters the story.
Juliet’s Nurse hits all the sweet spots: interesting original story, good use of source material, and wonderfully integrated historical detail. One example of all three of these achievements is Leveen’s use of the plague throughout the novel. The famous line, “A plague a both your houses!,” said by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet after being stabbed by Tybalt, is given full weight in Juliet’s Nurse.
In the first half of the story, it is revealed that Angelica and Pietro lost six sons to the plague years before Juliet (and their surprise last daughter) was born. At one point Leveen writes a beautiful passage about the emotional experience of living, while others do not, through the plague. The full passage is heart-wrenching, but here is a small excerpt:
“I still catch sight of Donato or Enzo or any of my boys, out of the corner of my eye. Sometimes I see them at the age they were when death snatched them, and sometimes as the age they’d be now, every one of them grown tall. Sometimes they’re some age in between, so I’m not certain from the fleeting features which son I saw, those beautiful last faces blending one into another.”
In passages such as the one quoted above, Leveen’s writing and storytelling shines. She makes good use of the snippets of information Shakespeare provided about the Nurse, who, in the play, has the third-largest number of lines behind only the title characters. Seeing Juliet’s life from the one closest to her provides an interesting companion read to the famous play and is a wonderful addition to the genre of historical adaptation.
If you want try more authors who have tackled this genre, you can check out Geraldine Brooks (March), Jo Baker (Longbourn) or John Updike (Gertrude and Claudius). And please come visit my blog, re: read pages, to discuss historical fiction, writing, and more. Happy reading!
***** About the Blogger *****
~ Bryony Lewicki ~
~ Re: Read Pages ~
I can’t remember not having at least one book on the go, whether being read to by my mother when I was little or picking out books on my own as I got older. Reading is part of my lifestyle. Books come with me wherever I go.
Writing is something I do hidden away. I have non-fiction published but fiction, the stuff from my own imagination, that has stayed firmly in my own head.
I studied journalism and English literature with a side of creative writing and film studies. I am currently writing a novel set in 15th century Italy about a young girl who wanted to join a convent rather than get married but gets caught up with Borgia family (the real life papal family) after meeting Lucrezia Borgia, the pope’s daughter.