Abigail of Venice

Written by Leigh Russell
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

1562: in a Lithuanian ghetto, Abigail’s impoverished parents marry her off at puberty to Reuven, a violent, drunken man many years her senior. When the Jewish community is driven into the river by the soldiers of Ivan the Terrible to drown or be shot, Abigail and her uncle survive, making their way eventually to the Ghetto Nuovo of Venice.

Abigail makes a life for herself as a seamstress in this city within a city, and falls in love with Daniel, a widower with two children, but their marriage is prevented by the unexpected return of Abigail’s husband. When Reuven gets into a drunken brawl and is found in possession of a knife, forbidden to Venetian Jews, he is sentenced to the galleys, a fate from which he is unlikely to return but which will leave Abigail in limbo, never knowing whether she is widowed or not.

Abigail finds an unlikely ally in the enlightened courtesan and poetess Veronica Franco, who is able to warn her community of impending danger from the Inquisition.

There are some character and plot stumbles: leaving aside coincidence, we never learn how Reuven was one of the three thousand souls who survived the pogrom, nor where he went to before Venice. Daniel was for some years a widower before loving Abigail, but it is not clear why he resisted remarriage for so long, as we learn that he esteemed his dead wife, but did not love her. Abigail is a stoical heroine, forced by culture and circumstance to accept what fate throws at her. Russell’s book is thoroughly researched, throwing a light on an aspect of Venetian history that many who know the city well may not be familiar with.