There have been a number of classic updates recently: Emma: A Modern Retelling, Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, and The Innocents by Francesca Segal which is a version of The Age of Innocence etc. I’m usually pretty attached to the originals and don’t often take the plunge with these updates. I generally feel like the originals were pretty perfect and are classics for a reason (ie they stand the test of time). They don’t really need updating.
However, I’m intrigued by those books that take an aspect or character of a classic tale and build a new story around that. Things like First Impressions, Death Comes to Pemberly and most recently, Juliet’s Nurse.
Juliet’s Nurse by Lois Leveen is a kind of prequel to the events in Romeo and Juliet but it also tells the same story, with a different spin. It’s been about 15 years since I read Romeo and Juliet. I’ve only read it the one time, never having been a fan of dramatic teenaged love even as a teenager myself. I wondered if there would be aspects of the story that I would miss, not being a diehard when it came to Romeo and Juliet. I assumed that Leveen was a Shakespearean scholar, intimately familiar with all the minutiae of the story, that maybe you’d need a high level understanding of Shakespeare to get it.
If you harbour similar concerns, don’t. In the Afterword, Leveen admits that she hadn’t read the play since it was assigned in highschool either. But the idea of a story about Juliet’s nurse, the character after Romeo and Juliet who has the most lines, came to her out of the blue and she re-read the play in one sitting and that’s how she was sucked back in.
In the novel, Angelica (the nurse) comes to work for Juliet’s family the day after her daughter dies at birth, the same day that Juliet was born. Her husband, eager to help his wife through her grief (their daughter was the 7th child to die after the plague took their six healthy sons), contracts her out to the Cappelleti (Capulets) as a wet nurse to their new baby. Angelica is soon completely enthrall to this tiny girl and treats her as her own.
As the years pass, she comes to think of Juliet as her own daughter. When she is left a widow, caring for Juliet is the only thing that convinces her not to kill herself. Everything Angelica does is motivated out of a love for Juliet. When she is young, Juliet listens to every word her nurse has to say, lets her nurse soothe her when no one else will do, refers to her mother as Madam as her nurse does. But when she is 14 and falls in love, she changes as all teenaged girls do and suddenly she isn’t the same sweet light that she always was.
I was interested to read what Leveen imagined happened to lead Juliet to her tragic conclusion. I liked her characterization of Tybalt and Mercutio, her subtle changes to this classic story, the bones of which even casual Shakespeare scholars are familiar with. I also enjoyed the fact that as Juliet gets older, as she falls in love, she becomes a petulant, lippy young lady which is probably closer to what it would have looked like in real life. And you get a better understanding of the generations worth of hate that existed between the Montagues (Montecche in this version) and the Capulets.
It can be hard to make a historical novel credible when you are using the language of another time. It can come across as stilted and a little false. In some sections, Juliet’s Nurse does suffer from this but mostly I felt that Leveen handled that particular challenge really well. I found myself lost in 14th century Verona and I enjoyed the trip.
Having read Juliet’s Nurse kind of makes me want to give Romeo and Juliet another shot. Think I can polish it off in one sitting like Leveen?
PS Juliet’s Nurse is totally in paperback now!