The Midwife of Venice
A Novel By Roberta Rich
I found this
splendid volume in a book box, and was intrigued by the title, and the time and
place of the action: Venice, beginning in the Jewish ghetto in 1575. The author
is a Canadian who lives in BC, and winters in Mexico.
I rarely read fiction, and expected it to sit on a shelf until my wife Bernie picked it up. However, one day I found myself short of reading material, began reading, and was immediately hooked. About 325 pages long, it took me just over a week to read.
A romantic novel, this book sheds light on a society we can hardly imagine. The main story is that of Jewish midwife Hannah Levi who – against the religious laws of the time – assists the wife of a count (a Catholic) in delivering a child.
Already segregated because of their religion, the lives of Jewish women in Renaissance Venice were concealed from view. I can’t find the place where this occurred in the book, but in one scene the body of a woman is found in a Venetian canal, and she appears to be a Gentile. Catholic men prepare to destroy the ghetto and its occupants until a Jew arrives at the Ghetto gate and cries, “Good news! She was a Jew!”
Roberta Rich delves into the lives of people in that period with this book, which is neither an intense social drama nor an over-the-top adventure. The Midwife of Venice is a blend of both.
The year is 1575. Word about Hannah Levi's expert skills in midwifery has spread even to the Venetian nobility, which prompts a late-night visit to her apartment in the Ghetto Nuovo. The Conte di Padovani's wife, Lucia, lies close to death in childbirth, and he desperately needs Hannah's help.
Hannah agrees to accompany the Conte to his palazzo goes against both her rabbi's wishes and the papal edict of Catholicism, which is the dominant religion. Jews are forbidden to treat Christian patients. If either the mother or the child dies, she could bring down the wrath of Christian Venice upon everyone in the ghetto. And should anyone in the Conte's household discover her birthing spoons – a new technology she had developed to assist with deliveries – she could be charged with witchcraft and tried by the Inquisitors.
In return for this high-risk endeavour, she strikes a bargain: As payment, she asks for enough money to rescue her husband who had been enslaved by mercenaries and languished in Malta, until someone paid his ransom.
So begins a lively tale involving love, blackmail, family, murder, plague, intercultural compassion, dramatic last-minute rescues, and imaginative disguises. There is a lot going on, and the brisk pacing ensures ever-changing action.
Ms. Rich skips back and forth between the couple's stories: Hannah helps Lucia give birth to a healthy son, Matteo, then safeguards the infant from his wicked uncles in his parents' absence. Isaac is sold into slavery, passed from owner to owner, but keeps himself alive through his writing skills and wit. Despite the great risk to themselves, Isaac and Hannah hold fast to their faith and mutual devotion.
There is a great deal of intellectual subtext to this book. For example, she depicts the strength of women and the precariousness of their lives, regardless of status or religion. She also makes clear the plight of the Jews, who survive in a world that views them with suspicion and hatred. This book blends Jewish lore and Mediterranean history into a riveting story.
Something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a novel before occurs on pages 327-329: A list of two dozen academic books, “for further reading.”