When you think about it, fiction gives birth to many half-formed souls — minor characters who serve as plot device, background color or punch line in stories devoted to others who play the lead.
I’ve always been fascinated with the work of writers who have wrested away the secondary creations of another author, adopted them as their own, and fleshed them out to become protagonists in their own stories. Myriad examples abound — among my favorites are Jean Rhys’s exploration of Jane Eyre’s nemesis in “Wide Sargasso Sea”; Alice Randall’s visionary revisionism of “Gone With the Wind” in “The Wind Done Gone”; likewise Nancy Rawles’ black feminist reworking of “Huckleberry Finn” that resulted in “My Jim”; and of course the sparkling and absurdist “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” Tom Stoppard’s take on “Hamlet.”
Now Portland author and historian Lois Leveen also dares to take on The Bard, and the most famous love story of all time spawns another potent tale of passion and devotion. But instead of focusing on romantic love, “Juliet’s Nurse” centers on the close, lifelong bonds between Shakespeare’s tragic young heroine and her devoted nurse, Angelica.
The nurse is a bawdy and loquacious character in the original play, but the character quickly takes on more dimensionality in this new book’s opening pages.
She has already lost all of her sons to the plague when, years later, she gives birth to a daughter. But this, too, results in heartbreak. The infant is whisked off to be baptized and does not survive to see the next dawn.
To help assuage Angelica’s grief, her beloved husband Pietro arranges with the local friar to have his wife serve as wet-nurse to another female infant who was born the same day. And thus the grieving mother takes up residence in the house of Cappelletti.
The rich and honeyed life behind these walls is an eye-opener for a simple woman who previously has known hardship of one kind or another every day of her life. Yet for all of the opulence, there are jealousies, disappointments and treacherous secrets as well.
In the nursery, however, Angelica nurtures her young charge tenderly, and also draws her master’s young nephew Tybalt into her maternal circle. She and Pietro even contrive a way to have conjugal visits. They create a loving but vulnerable sphere. Leveen, who tells this story in first person from Angelica’s perspective, supplies vivid sensory particulars — sounds, smells, tastes, textures and colors of 14th century Verona swirl across the pages as the characters toil, feast, make love, grieve, brawl, practice healing arts, pray and die.
The book offers rich observations of the era, revelatory insights into human nature and a new interpretation of Shakespeare’s original text.
There may be a few occasions when the reader experiences a twinge of skepticism that any gothic nursemaid — no matter how wise — could articulate her insights with such gorgeously rendered acuity.
But if gorgeous writing is my worst complaint, I guess that tells you that “Juliet’s Nurse” is top notch.