Two nursemaids earn a starring role in this fall’s spin-offs of classic literature

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Want to rekindle interest in the classics? One strategy is to retell familiar stories for modern audiences. Gregory Maguire did so to good effect with his series set in Oz, beginning with Wicked, about the Wicked Witch of the West – later a Broadway hit.

Literary offshoots are nothing new, though; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, playwright Tom Stoppard’s absurdist take on Hamlet, and Jean Rhys’s Jane Eyre prequel, Wide Sargasso Sea, both came out in 1966. Since then, we’ve had retellings of everything from Great Expectations (Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs and Ronald Frame’s Havisham) to medieval chronicle Beowulf (John Gardner’s Grendel).

Lois Leveen
Lois Leveen

A common strategy is to reimagine a well-known story from the perspective of a lesser character. For example, J. M. Coetzee’s Foe presents Robinson Crusoe from a female shipmate’s point-of-view, while Geraldine Brooks’s March is Little Women from the perspective of the girls’ absent father.

Two fall releases from Atria Books adopt this same format, prioritizing the viewpoint of nursemaids who slip into the background of their host fictions, but now earn a starring role.

Juliet’s Nurse

Lois Leveen’s second novel, Juliet’s Nurse (Atria, September 23), imagines a backstory for the Nurse from Romeo and Juliet. As middle age approaches, Angelica and her husband, beekeeper Pietro, are still passionately in love even though they have known much sadness. When their baby daughter, Susanna, dies, she joins their six sons in the local graveyard. “Rich or poor, every loss we suffer is God’s will,” Angelica proclaims, smartly summarizing the medieval viewpoint. Women had no choice over childbearing; rather, “we romp, and we rut, and we leave it to the saints to decide when the babies come.”

Angelica rebounds from tragedy by going to work for Verona’s ‘Cappelletti’ (Capulet) family, as wet-nurse for baby Juliet, in 1360. A fierce bond arises between them: “Juliet is my earth, and I am her moon.” Part II advances to 1374, when Juliet is 14. It is a time of earthquakes and infighting; fear of the plague and street violence are constants. Meanwhile, familiar characters like Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, Mercutio, and Friar Lorenzo grow in importance.

Two-thirds of the way through the story, Shakespearean events begin. The play takes place over just five days, so the action speeds up accordingly: while true to the sense of melodrama, this sudden shift in both pace and language is jarring. Compared to Angelica’s previously earthy language, borrowed Shakespearean dialogue seems out of place. Circumstances take their legendarily tragic turn, but readers learn that Juliet’s loss devastates Angelica for an unexpected reason. “The more you love, the more you have to lose,” she concludes.

Leveen notes that, after Romeo and Juliet themselves, the Nurse gets the largest number of lines, and here she has her full say. Juliet’s Nurse is certainly sumptuously researched; the Easter service at the Duomo and various delectable banquets are particular highlights. Leveen traveled to Verona and consulted a beekeepers’ association to ensure authenticity.

Donald McCaig
Donald McCaig

Ruth’s Journey

Donald McCaig, authorized by Margaret Mitchell’s estate, wrote a Gone With the Wind sequel, Rhett Butler’s People, and this prequel, Ruth’s Journey (October 14th). The novel opens in the early 19th century with French couple Solange and Augustin, who move to Haiti to tend her father’s sugar cane plantation. Four-year-old Ruth, her mother murdered during local warfare, becomes Solange’s servant.

Ruth's JourneyWhen the family relocates to Savannah, Ruth works as nanny to several girls – lastly, Ellen Robillard, who marries Gerald O’Hara and is mother to Scarlett. “Ruth took to child rearing naturally” and before long is known solely as “Mammy.” With Part III the book shifts into the first person, allowing Ruth to narrate in pseudo-Creole dialect: “Master Gerald, he beamin’ like a damfool.”

Echoing Leveen’s Angelica, Ruth declares, “I done lost most them I loved.” That tragic tone intensifies as the South secedes and war threatens. Ruth appears prophet-like, uttering, “War comin’ worse than what Babylon done to Jerusalem. I sees fire and blood.”

New angles

With these nursemaid characters, readers take an eye-opening journey into forgotten corners of upper-class tales. Conditions for women and African-Americans, so different in earlier centuries, are on clear display. After reading these books, you’ll never think about Romeo and Juliet or Gone with the Wind quite the same way again.

An American transplant to England, Rebecca Foster is a former library assistant and full-time freelance writer, focusing on book reviewing. After a first degree in English and Religion, she earned an MA in Victorian Literature from the University of Leeds. She reviews books for a number of print and online publications in the US and UK.

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