“Shakespeare is a drunken savage with some imagination whose plays please only in London and Canada.”
~ Voltaire (1694-1778)
This is the time of year when we are inundated with book lists. After the holiday “Must Buy/Read/Give” lists, the “Cozy Up This Winter” lists appear. Generally those books are mysteries. On those frigid winter days here in Southwest Florida when it dips down into the 50s, I am happy to recommend this marvelous memoir. It will warm the cockles of your heart and engage your mind.
In addition to his fulltime gig as a high school English teacher, Canadian Glenn Dixon, although barely middle aged, is a very experienced traveler, musician and filmmaker. His curriculum vitae includes many years as a travel writer for National Geographic and other publications, film making, musical gigs, and 20 years as an educator. Many of those 20 years were spent teaching Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to tenth graders. His intimacy with that play enriches “Juliet’s Answer” in many ways.
I found the book appealing on many levels. The author’s writing style is engaging with excellent vocabulary, impeccable grammar and a completely unpretentious style. While reading it I felt that I was getting an update from a favorite nephew in answer to my query, “What have you been up to?” Dixon managed to tell his personal story of heartbreak in the quest for love without getting maudlin. To my mind this takes a certain strength and honesty of character.
The title, “Juliet’s Answer,” refers to the letters addressed to Juliet and sent to Verona, Italy, the setting of “Romeo and Juliet,” one of ten Shakespearean plays set in Italy. Apparently, the first letters to Juliet arrived in Verona in 1937 and the mailbags were put in a cemetery since no one knew what to do with them. The groundskeeper there started answering them, then a poet took over the task, and in 1989 a baker named Giulio assumed the duties and when he retired, opened the first official office dedicated to answering the letters. After he had spent 25 years responding to those seeking love, his daughter Giovanna took over the job of running “Club di Giulietta.” She was the author’s contact person when he decided to spend part of his summer vacation in Verona as a “Juliet’s secretary.”
His first visit to Verona was spurred by his own failure at love, which he poignantly chronicles in the book. By the time he decided to volunteer as a Juliet’s secretary, he realized that he was no longer young and was not sure he understood much about love at all. A true academic, he researched the topic of love according to the fields of psychology and biochemistry and shared his findings in chapter two. He wonders if the letters might help him understand this mysterious human need and emotion. Mostly he just wanted to create some distance from home, the site of his own dreary quest for love. But he was also wondering about writing his own letter to Juliet. Glenn actually took to answering the letters rather quickly, using some of the lines of the play “Romeo and Juliet,” which he knew well from years of teaching it.
The letters number about ten thousand a year, coming from the lovelorn of all ages and both genders around the globe and are sorted into boxes by language. After their answers are posted, the originals are cataloged. Dixon was assigned to answer those in English, which freed up some of the multilingual secretaries to attend to the other letters. His presence there in summer was welcome since many other volunteers took vacation.
There is quite a lot of humor in the book, much of it takes place in the classroom passages when Glenn is introducing Romeo and Juliet to his tenth graders, but it is infused throughout the story. Giovanna is reading a letter in which a woman refers to her husband as a “doofus,” and despite her excellent English is stumped as to the word’s meaning. After failing to clarify the nuance, Glenn swaps letters with her.
A highlight of the book for me involved the originalmanuscript of “Romeo and Juliet.” On his way to Verona on his first trip, Glenn stopped at the British Library in London for a private viewing of the script. The second quarto was printed in 1599. Glenn knew enough to ask for the second quarto as the original quarto was considered “bad” and has many missing lines. He went through quite a rigorous process to get that viewing. He had to join the British Library, which required a series of clearances, etc., and even after all that his request to view the script was denied. Then just a few days before the start of his trip he was notified by email that Tanya Kirk would usher him in a viewing of the manuscript.
As it happens this old manuscript has quite a history of its own including prior ownership by King George III, the Mad King who reigned during the American Revolution. When George IV decided to transform Buckingham House into Buckingham Palace, he cleared out all of the collections and George III’s cherished manuscript ended up in the British Library in 1812. To Glenn’s surprise, Tanya did not wear gloves while leafing through the tiny manuscript, which is about the size of a man’s two palms. She explained that they have found that gloves actually cause breakage of the fragile paper pages and human fingers are more responsive and sensitive.
Dixon gives the reader an excellent description of the city of Verona itself, but also the hospitality of its inhabitants, the “take it easy” lifestyle, and the deep respect for their literary, architectural and political history. His account of a nighttime outdoors performance of the opera “Aida” is simply charming, illustrating the reverence Italians have for opera.
I also learned that apparently Shakespeare was not the first author to write about the feuding families of Verona. Historically there were two families who were warring at that time, 1302, Montecchi who apparently lived just outside the city wall (like Romeo Montague) and the Cappelletti (Juliet Capulet) family. The present House of Juliet in Verona is the former house of Cappelletti and their insignia, a beret-like hat, is set in stone above the entrance door. This was about 300 years before Shakespeare. In the second decade of the 14th century, the nobleman of the town, Cangrande della Scala, relayed the story of the two families to Dante Alighieri who was exiled from Florence due to backing the losing side (the Holy Roman Emperor) in a political fight. Alighieri was in Verona working on his “Divine Comedy.” If you look up Purgatorio Canto VI, lines 106-108, you will see Dante refers to the Montagues and Capulets, as well another set of feuding families.
Glenn came back for a second visit to Verona and Club di Giulietta, at the end of his last year of teaching. This visit was sweeter in many ways as he did receive his flesh and blood answer from Juliet. He delves into the local history much more, which I found very satisfying.
Rating: 126.96.36.199. The major vendors have this book available for preorder – the publisher has shrewdly set its release for the week before Valentine’s Day.
Maggie Gust has been an avid reader all her life. Her past includes working as a teacher, as well as various occupations in the healthcare field. She shares a hometown, Springfield, Illinois, with Abraham Lincoln, but Florida has been her home since 1993. Genealogy, reading, movies and writing are among her favorite activities. She is self-employed and works from her Naples home. Contact her at email@example.com or maggiesbookinblog.com.
A Note From Maggie Gust: This is my last Book Remarks article as I am taking an indefinite hiatus to undertake some personal projects. I am grateful to Val Simon for giving me the space to share my thoughts on books and it seems that some of you have enjoyed reading them. I appreciate those of you who took the time to give me feedback. In the words of one my childhood icons, Roy Rogers, I wish you Happy Trails (strewn with great reads)!
Editor’s note: Book Remarks will continue with our new columnnist Marisa Cleveland.