I’m delighted to be one of those closing the blogtour today for this thought-provoking take on the forgotten character of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, for Natasha Solomons has done a very clever thing in giving Juliet’s cousin Rosaline her own voice. I’m looking forward to now going back to visit as many of the others on the tour as I can to compare notes.
I’d not seen R&J on stage for decades, and it just so happened that last month, I and a friend went to see a production by the Wild Goose Theatre Company in the open air in Oxford Castle’s courtyard – a great small venue – and we were lucky with a glorious sunny evening, although it got a bit chilly by the end. It was a super show and knowing I’d be reading this book shortly afterwards, it was good to be reminded of Rosaline’s origins in the play. Hers is an off-stage role, only referred to by Romeo and his friends in the beginning where they are ribbing him about his girlfriend. Romeo is depressed by her chastity, saying “She hath forsworn to love, and in that vow / Do I live dead that live to tell it now.” Mercutio and Benvolio essentially call her a prick-tease and encourage Romeo to sneak into the Capulet ball where there will be more beautiful women – and we all know what happened next. But enough of Shakespeare!
Fair Rosaline begins with a funeral, that of fifteen-year-old Rosaline’s mother, Madonna Emilia Capulet, who died of the pestilence, running rife in Verona. Twenty days of quarantine locked in their house follow before they could head for the hills to the family villa there. It was there that Rosaline’s strict father revealed his plans for her to enter a nunnery, cheaper than her dowry; he insists that her mother had agreed. Rosaline isn’t so sure, and it drives the wedge further between them. She will bargain for a year’s reprieve, but ends up with her father giving her just twelve nights of freedom before she has to enter the convent. No wonder she takes the opportunity to gatecrash the Montague party at their nearby villa where masked, she meets Romeo.
The next night, she is surprised by Romeo, who has climbed his way into her chamber, where she willingly gives up her maidenhead for him and the next night too. He suggests that if they can pull together some money, that they can elope to Padua and be married by the Friar. It is her orphaned cousin Tybalt, who is like a brother to her, that will be the first fly in the ointment when Rosaline can’t keep her plans to herself. Yet it is after Romeo urges Rosaline to rob her father’s money casket of some of her dowry / the money that could be paid to the convent that we really begin to sense something fishy going on with this young man, who will shortly drop Rosaline for the even younger Juliet who is only thirteen.
With just days to go before she is due to be cloistered, Rosaline will do everything in her power to prevent a relationship from being consumed between Romeo and Juliet, and she will uncover unsavory secrets too. Tybalt comes to her aid but we know what happens to him.
I don’t want to spoil Solomon’s compelling version of Rosaline’s story any further. As the initial stages meet the play, she blends the two together expertly, while continuing to say new things about the characters, notably Friar Lawrence who becomes another sleazy villain, not helper.
The sleaze and the advantage of these young women taken on the part of these men made for uncomfortable shocking reading. As Solomons says in her afterword, Shakespeare never tells us the age of Romeo, she implies that the age difference between Rosaline, Juliet and their Romeo could be larger than that of usual Shakespeare castings, he is a real lothario, and the issue of underage sex and consent can’t be ignored.
Retellings and novels inspired by Shakespeare are relatively few and far between compared with the current vogue for the ancient Greeks. I can think of a few, but the only one I’ve read is Marina Fiorato’s Beatrice & Benedick (reviewed here) which fills in the gaps between the sparring lovers’ histories in Much Ado About Nothing admirably. Natasha Solomons has likewise built a back story to R&J and the feud between the two famiilies that works, but also gives a different interpretation, which was quite a revelation! I shall say no more.
The 16th Century Veneto is brought to life, especially in the sections relating to the pestilence and the cemetery where the Capulet family tomb is. You can almost smell the rotting bodies in the mausoleum. By contrast you can feel the OTT opulence of the Montague villa gardens which gave a slightly carnivalesque and grotesgue feel to the party. This novel is dripping with atmosphere.
I had been slightly nervous reading this novel that it would colour my future experience of the play – I’m glad I saw it before rather than after I read the book. There is obviously room for both, but in a world where young women had a difficult life being treated as possessions to be married off – or sent to the nunnery – it is good to meet a strong young woman with a mind of her own, who with help from an unexpected quarter, will attempt to sort things out.
You don’t have to be a Shakespeare buff to totally enjoy this novel as much as I did. I think most of us are familiar enough with the basics of R&J, esepcially after Baz Luhrmann’s wonderful adaptation, to get maximum enjoyment without needing any more. An excellent summer read – I loved it.
Source: Review copy – thank you! Manilla Press hardback, 336 pages.
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