The Big Idea: Madeleine Robins
Anyone who reads fairy tales knows that things happen in the tales for seemingly no reason at all. But just because there’s no reason in then doesn’t mean something interesting can’t happen when reason is added to them. Just ask Madeleine Robins, who mined a classic fairy tale when imagining Sold for Endless Rue.
It started with a conversation. Or rather, an idea about a conversation.
When my kids were small we read a picture book of Rapunzel, gorgeously illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. You know: pregnant wife craves rampion, sends husband out to get it; he steals it from the garden of a witch, who catches him and demands his unborn child in return. The witch locks the child in a tower, where the girl grows her hair long enough for a passing prince to climb up. Merriment ensues.
Zelinsky’s art sets the story in an early Renaissance could-be-Italy, and the central spread, chock full of drama, is of the witch taking the baby. There’s a rumpled bed with the mother, post-partum, lying exhausted among the sheets. There’s the young husband, sitting with his head in his hands, horrified at what he’s given away. And there’s the black clad sorceress, a classic old hag, stealing from the room with the newborn babe in her arms.
Well, that musta been a hell of a conversation. Imagine the husband coming home: Honey, I got you your vegetables, but there’s a catch: the witch gets the kid. What would his wife say to him? And why does the witch want the baby? In fairy tales motivations don’t matter: the witch wants the baby because she’s a witch. But I am contrary and difficult and I want a real motive for taking that child. Sold for Endless Rue is, among other things, my attempt to do that.
As happens with these sorts of bolt-from-the blue notions, it sat around gathering dust-bunnies and stray factoids while I wrote other things. I began cursorily reading up on daily life in the Renaissance, thinking of ways to rehabilitate the witch. Maybe she’s a midwife? At least that would give her a reason to be in the room when the baby was born. But why take the kid?
I had nuthin.
And then I stumbled across a factoid that rewrote my whole idea of the middle ages and, by the way, this story. The first medical school in Europe, the Scuola Medicina Salernitana, not only had women as students, but women instructors. One of the most famous, Trotula di Ruggiero (immortalized in the Jack and Jill rhyme as “old Dame Trot”), specialized in women’s medicine–what we’d call OB/GYN. Her texts on the subject were in use for centuries. Dame Trot was not a damsel or a peasant. She was a professional woman. How cool is that?
One of my secret vices: I love medical history, medical mysteries, medical technology. Now I had an excuse to research the Scuola and dig deeper into medical theory of the time. Boy, did they have theories. Most of them are scary-laughable, but some of them were solidly sensible (for instance, the Scuola recommended a moderate diet, clean living, and lots of sleep). Pretty quickly it was clear to me my witch wasn’t a witch but a doctor, and that her reason for taking the baby was rooted somehow in her ambition.
I hate the sort of historical fiction where the heroine is a 21st century soul in a 13th century houppelande. Unless you show me why that character is an outlier from her own culture, you lose me. How would a peasant girl even think of becoming a physician, a profession overwhelmingly male, occupied by those wealthy enough to have the education required to enter the Scuola? Where would she get, for lack of a better word, the balls?
Then, among the dust-bunnies and factoids I’d been collecting, I got this image of a child running up a hill, trying to escape someone very scary who is as determined to catch her and beat her to death as she is to escape. She reaches the top of the hill and is stopped cold by her first sight of the sea, stretching out from the bay of Salerno. It overwhelms her with its vastness and strangeness, the sight of the city spilling down into the harbor, the newness of things she’d never imagined. And then she hears the sound of her pursuer and runs again.
That’s where Laura’s story begins. Everything she is comes from one moment when even terror can’t stop her curiosity, and when determination is all that keeps her alive. That’s how she can go against the grain of her time and place.
There are things Laura loses in gaining what she wants. There are people she loses. Just like now, devoting yourself to your profession can have very personal cost. Taking that baby, in Laura’s mind, evens old scores.
But of course, taking the baby is only half the story. Babies, even babies raised in the towers of academe, grow up, and make plans of their own…