Today I went to a talk by Lois Leveen, who wrote the novel Juliet’s Nurse. It’s Romeo and Juliet, told from the perspective of Juliet’s nurse. I was drawn to the presentation because, from way back when I last read it, I remember the nurse as being an interesting character.
Leveen was somewhat trapped writing another novel when the phrase Juliet’s Nurse popped into her head. She re-read Romeo and Juliet. She first of all found that the nurse actually has substantial lines. In fact, she has the third most lines in the play, including a couple of lengthy speeches which hints at a complex back story.
That inspired her to dive deeply into the character and the historical background in which she lived.
Leveen is not a historian, but she does do deep research. In fact, she’s made interesting discoveries. Strictly using clues from Shakespeare’s text, she was able to pinpoint the time of the play’s events to somewhere in the mid to the late 14th century (based upon references to plagues and the existence of a prince of Verona).
Once she could tie it down to a location (Verona) and a time (mid 14th century), she could do a significant amount of research to determine what life was really like then. This level of understanding and detail is crucial to historical fiction. As the author you have to be able to transport the reader to that time and place. In fact, she said that one of her challenges writing is having the fortitude to throw out historical facts / anecdotes that are very cool but that just can’t be fit into the story.
An interesting subject that she touched upon was the wet nurse occupation. First of all, she points out the absurdity that Juliet’s nurse is still in the household, considering that Juliet is 14 years old (probably no longer needing a wet nurse, I’m guessing). More interesting, during that time it was considered imperative that a wet nurse have fresh milk. Practically, what that meant was that a wet nurse offering her services could very well have just had a newborn baby herself that has recently died. In one of the nurse’s lines, she mentions the death of her newborn daughter.
Can you imagine that? Your child has just died and then you use that opportunity to suckle another child? Apparently, in that time, the child often left the parent’s house to live with the wet nurse. So, not only, in your grief, you’re having to suckle another woman’s child, but effectively you’re actually raising it? Crazy times.
Another interesting tidbit she discussed was the nurse’s husband. In Romeo and Juliet the husband is only mentioned in a couple of lines. However, from those brief mentions, she was able to extrapolate a fully formed character. That strikes me as an interesting challenge for a writer.
All in all, it seems that the nurse is portrayed as a knowing, bawdy, wise woman of the world that has suffered multiple misfortunes but has emerged from them stronger and resigned to her suffering and to her place. I imagine that she and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath would have many stories to share and would get along famously.