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In 17th century Venice, moral lines were significantly blurred. Berwyn Lewis discusses the murky overlap of religion and prostitution in her novel, Venice’s Virgin Mother.
Berwyn, your latest book, Venice’s Virgin Mother, has just been released and available for purchase. What initially inspired you to write the book?
When I was in Venice I found a tourist leaflet about 17th century Venice. It described how prostitutes and nuns, brothels and churches, and religion and other superstitions were all connected. I was attracted to the absurdity and hypocrisy of it all.
One of Venice’s worst-kept secrets was that some 17th century Venetian convents were storehouses for the unmarried daughters of the wealthy nobility, and some men. Men disguised themselves as nuns so they could live with their lusty, young lovers whose veils and vows did nothing to curb their appetites.
Well-endowed convents were infamous or famous for their lavish lifestyles – banquets, balls and freedoms that would have been unimaginable to secular women tied down by domestic drudgery, child bearing and the demands of husbands if they had one.
I have always been interested in issues of female fertility and how, until the introduction of cheap, effective and accessible contraception, women’s lives were dominated by pregnancy.
No wonder some people still tend to say “she fell pregnant”. Yes, the fall is not just biblical, it can be economic and social if not enslaving, and when it’s linked to the power and role of religion and other myths it is primitive, archaic, uninspired and undignified for everyone.
17th century Venice was the epicentre of excess. It was an era of great beauty, wealth and power, but there was also a dark, shadowy and mysterious underbelly. I love these contrasts.
I wanted to write a satire and an absurdist frolic with comic relief about these serious issues and find 21st century resonances. Have things changed? – In 17th century Venice brothels stood on church-owned land and sometimes shared common walls so customers could scurry between houses of Pleasure and houses of God with ease and discretion.
In 17th century Venice prostitutes were organised, regulated, openly advertised their wares in the squares of Venice, and paid taxes which contributed to Venice’s economy and the construction of the Venetian naval fleet of warships and trading vessels.
In 17th century Venice, so-called “fallen women” were sometimes taken in by convents, often with their offspring, so virgins and prostitutes lived side by side. They learned much from each other, experimented with hallucinogenics, exotic foods and extreme fashion.
This is just some of what has inspired me.
Which character in the book did you have the most fun developing?
I had the most fun developing the character of the convent cook, Rosa. She insists she’s not a whore or a witch. She has a good eye for men in satin britches and their cod pieces. She specialises in curing “women’s woes”. She’s famous for her spit-roasted eels, honeyed figs and hare’s hearts mashed up in muslin bags so brides can insert them in the right place and fake their virginity on their wedding nights.
Rosa is a lusty, “salt of the earth” character. Her fame as a cook has spread beyond Venice.
I had a lot of fun researching 17th century Venetian recipes for Rosa and her convent banquets, her contraceptives known as “little man’s raincoats” made of pigs’ intestines, and her herbal concoctions – some were cannabis-based to expel post-natal gases or stop the flow of breastmilk. Others were powerful potions that could knock someone out.
How difficult was it for you to replicate that time in history through storytelling?
It was a very long, slow and time-consuming process but it was always a great pleasure and an incredible journey of exploration through libraries doing research, filling note books, organising my material, reading, studying 17th century Venetian art, fashions, food, drugs, landscapes, architecture, maps, hairstyles and atmospherics.
Sometimes I became so immersed in that world I felt as though I were living in a parallel universe of 17th century Venice.
The storytelling was the hard part – I had to test various formats and techniques on how best to structure and drive the story with a powerful narrative and compelling characters.
What is it about that era that you love so much?
17th century Venice was the epicentre of everything in excess – art, fashion, feasting, music, opera, theatre, wild parties and indulgent behaviour. It was an era of great beauty, wealth and power, but there was also a dark, shadowy and mysterious underbelly to life in Venice.
I love these contrasts and tensions, particularly when the characters in my novel set out to take advantage of the prejudices, ignorance and superstition of the times.
If there is one lesson or message you want the reader to get from the book, what would it be?
Nothing is what it seems.
You took some almost taboo in theory ideas and played with them in the book. What are you hoping the reaction to the book will be?
Positive – with a big dose of surprise at what people will do to win at any cost, even if it means challenging the most basic beliefs.
What is your normal process when writing a book, do you have a clear structured timetable, or is it as the inspiration hits?
No – I have a structure and I try to stick to it – even though it’s not always the way it works.
I don’t wait for inspiration to hit. It can hit at any time, anywhere, so I try to have pen and paper at hand, or it can be hard to get started so I have various techniques to fire up – I aim to write a minimum number words a day and follow a plot plan or chapter breakdown that I have written.
Sometimes I get so involved I have to set an alarm as a reminder to get some lunch, take a break or attend to life. It can be a hard slog or a dream run.
And finally, the book has a climactic ending – what can you let our audience know about your next part of the journey for “Venice’s Virgin Mother”?
Watch out, wait and see, hang onto your hats – Venice’s Virgin Mother is to be continued. She is going to reappear at another time and place.