Appropriating (F)acts in Feminist Fiction II: Juliet’s Nurse
11th Mar 2015
I became a novelist so that I could use fiction to share multicultural feminist history with an audience beyond academia. So how did I end up writing a novel inspired by the most canonical of dead white male authors?
I’d assumed I’d always write about intersections of gender and race in US history. But in making the transition from writing non-fiction to writing fiction, I’ve had to accept that serendipity plays a significant role in the creative process. After my first novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, was published, I struggled for months on a book that just wouldn’t come together. And then the title Juliet’s Nurse suddenly came into my head, leading me to do something I hadn’t done since high school: re-read Romeo and Juliet.
Like many people, I’d remembered the nurse as a minor comic character. In fact, she has the largest number of lines after the title characters, and Juliet actually speaks more lines to her than to Romeo.
She even has a name: Angelica, although it’s mentioned only once in the play—so much easier just to refer to a servant by the labor she provides to the wealthy family! Angelica also has an amazing but often forgotten backstory. In the very first scene of the play in which she appears (Act I, scene iii, which is also Juliet’s first scene), she reveals that she had a daughter, born at the same time as Juliet, who died.
This struck me as an incredibly compelling seed for a novel. What would it be like to lose your own infant, and then be given another child to nurture in the most physically and emotionally intimate way possible, yet always know you are only a servant in her home?
I considered giving my novel a contemporary setting. After all, huge numbers of women from poor countries and poor communities routinely “lose” their own children to the economic necessity of migrating to wealthy countries and wealthy communities, where they raise other people’s children (often for oppressively low wages). But the historian in me wanted to understand what women’s lives were like in the late 14th century, the period in which Shakespeare’s play is set. What could I, as a feminist, learn and teach others about how gender shaped people’s experiences in this era—by using the most canonical dead white guy as my hook?
Comparing my two novels—one about slavery, the other about suicide—I realised I put the women I write about up against hard situations, in order to explore what it reveals about them.
In imagining Angelica’s story, I incorporated research on everything from breastfeeding, childbirth, and marriage contracts, to the aftermath of the plague (which killed 40% of Italy’s population in the years just before the novel is set). But good historical fiction is always about the moment in which it is written as well as the era about which it’s written, and as a feminist writer, I want my work to engage with contemporary social issues.
As I drafted Juliet’s Nurse, I realised that Romeo and Juliet is (spoiler alert!) the most famous literary work about suicide, and in telling Angelica’s story, I was writing a book about what it’s like to survive the suicide of a child you love. With suicide rates, especially youth suicide rates, on the rise globally, this is an all too relevant topic.
Comparing my two novels—one about slavery, the other about suicide—I realised I put the women I write about up against hard situations, in order to explore what it reveals about them. Although Shakespeare’s play is a tragedy, I wanted Angelica to have a more hopeful story, one in which she, and the reader, learn about how to survive suffering rather than succumbing to it. In the months since the novel has been out, I’ve heard from parents of teenagers, from people who’ve lost loved ones to suicide, and from many other readers about how powerful that message has been.
It’s not clear to me why Shakespeare imbued the nurse with such a complex and compelling backstory. It renders her one of the most deeply drawn female characters in his oeuvre. And yet, in many of his scenes she’s an object of derision, speaking at best in sexual innuendo and at worst in malapropisms. The play’s treatment of Angelica suggests that there is something laughable about the female body, the working-class body.
I gave Angelica a different relationship to language, to physicality, to sexuality, to mothering. She may not be educated, but she is outspoken. She is not young or thin, but she is comfortable in her physicality, able to enjoy both love and lust. Her capacity for caretaking leads her to nurture children who are not her biological offspring—what African American feminists refer to as “other mothering”—but she ultimately refuses to sacrifice herself to them. I’m not sure I would call my Angelica a feminist, because the term seems too anachronistic for that era. But she is keenly aware of what we call intersectionality, the way gender and class combine to shape women’s live, and she is never shy about challenging those who seem to have power over her. She is, in some ways, a role model for me, and a reminder that feminist authors need to keep ourselves open to the many stories there are for us to tell.
For more on women’s lives in this era:
Not surprisingly, I relied heavily on works by women historians, including Jacqueline Musacchio’s The Art and Ritual of Childbirth in Renaissance Italy (which documents the spaces occupied by and objects used by nurses, infants, and new mothers); Iris Origo’s The Merchant of Prato (which draws on letters between Margherita Datini and her husband Francesco to detail family life in late fourteenth-century Italy); Christiane Klapisch-Zuber’s Women, Family, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy (which includes a quantitative analysis of wet-nurse contracts); and especially Monica Green’s research on The Trotula, a group of medical treatises that incorporates work by a woman healer who lived in Salerno, Italy, in the twelfth century.
ICYMI: Read the first half of this series (Approproating (F)acts in Feminist Fiction: Excavating The Life of Mary Bowser) here.
– Lois Leveen
Lois Leveen is the author of Juliet’s Nurse and The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the LA Review of Books, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic. You can find out more about her work on her website, Twitter and Facebook.