Roberta Rich, a former family law lawyer who has been writing since high school, has written her first novel, The Midwife of Venice (Doubleday Canada), which was published recently. A historical novel taking place in 16th-century Venice and Malta and focusing on a Jewish woman who risks execution by delivering a Christian woman’s baby, it was inspired by a trip to Italy.
Four years ago, she and her husband, Ken, were touring Venice when inspiration struck. “We were on a walking tour of the Jewish ghetto, which, if you haven’t seen it for yourself, is like a movie set of narrow, dark buildings and several synagogues, tucked away on second and third floors, out of view,” she said.
“Walking up the staircases and through musty passages and narrow streets strung with drying laundry, I began to wonder what life must have been for Jews who flocked to the ghetto as one of the few safe havens available at the time,” she added. With these ideas racing through her mind, Rich thought she had the makings of a novel. “I started thinking about my characters and a plot almost immediately after visiting the ghetto,” she recalled. “Within a few weeks, I had a pretty good sense of the character and how I wanted the plot to progress.” Hannah Levi, the character of her imagination, is an extremely skilled midwife whose services are desperately required by a Catholic nobleman, Paolo de Padovani. His wife has been in la bour for two days and three nights, yet the child will not be born. He is at his wit’s end.
Levi, a compassionate person, is touched, but she knows it is illegal and punishable by death for a Jew to render medical assistance to a Christian. Nonetheless, she decides to as sist the count. Her altruism is skin-deep. She wants to help her husband, Isaac, a captive slave on the island of Malta. Before writing her first novel, Rich, not much of a his tory buff until then, immersed herself in that era by read ing. “An historical novelist needs to know the people of a particular per iod,” she explained. “What they ate. How they entertained themselves. How they had sex. How they lit their homes. All of this is fairly easy to find in books.” Harder to ascertain, she added, was how “ordinary people” related to the world and themselves, and how they regarded marriage and children. To find out, she read books such as Private Lives in Renaissance Venice, The Ghetto of Venice, Women and Men in Renaissance Venice and Venice: Lion City. “I also read Justine, Court Mid wife, a very gruesome book about midwifery in the 1700s, and Cecil Roth’s History of the Jews in Venice, which is wonderful.”
A friend, Rhoda Friedricks, a professor of early modern history, was helpful, too. “She set me straight on a number of things,” said Rich. In delving into 16th-century Venice, she was especially fascinated by its development as a mercantile hub. “It was a commercial centre par excellence, thanks in part to the role that Jewish merchants played in opening Venice to Middle East trade routes. City fathers often protected Venetian Jews, while the Vatican wanted to ex pel them. It was an interesting and
delicate dynamic.” As well, Rich was drawn to the theme of Jewish captives in Malta. “Jews were highly prized as captives because it was well-known that even if a Jew was poor,there was a Jewish community somewhere that would pay handsomely for his re lease.”
And as she noted, there was yet another element in the mix. “Jewish traders in Venice levied a cargo tax on all ships leaving the port carrying goods belonging to Jewish merchants. The tax was designed to ransom Jews who had been captured by the Knights of Jerusalem or pirates.”
Having completed her research, Rich sat down to write. “Plotting was always the greatest challenge. The story unfolds from two points of views, Hannah in Venice and
Isaac in Malta. But in early drafts, I had a much stronger plot revolving around Hannah. It was not until I came up with Isaac as a character that his portion of the book started to take shape.” Having once been riveted by a speech on the creative process deliv- ered by the American novelist Barbara Kingsolver, she likened the genesis of
“A variety of acorns, pine cones and maple seedlings drop to the ground,” she said. “Some are carried away in a stream, some are eaten by wild pigs, some never sprout, some grow into saplings, and some mature into trees.” Much to her fortune, Rich’s manuscript was immediately accepted by a publisher. “Despite the unhappy state of the publishing industry today, my editor fell in love with it and help ed me immeasurably to revise it into a publishable state.”
Rich, born in Buffalo, N.Y., began writing when she was a student in high school. “I wrote what I considered very witty plays about two-dimensional girls.”
After taking a BA degree in English and anthropology, she studied law at the University of British Columbia. In 1976, she opened a family law practice with a friend in Vancouver. She enjoyed it, but sold her share in 1999.“Practising law taught me nothing about good writing, although a few judges said that my legal briefs sounded more like novels than legal arguments.” In retrospect, she said, her days as a lawyer proved to be of value when she turned to writing. As she put it, “Family law is replete with interesting stories and teaches you a lot about the relationship between men and women and the frailties of the human heart.” Rich, who divides her time bet ween Vancouver and the town of Co lima in Mexico, is already working on a sequel. “I’m very excited about it. My Venetian characters, Hannah and Isaac, are living happily in Constantinople when Isaac’s sister-in-law ar rives and shatters their lives in an unexpected way.”