Bitter Greens: Kate Forsyth

★★★½

Once again, it’s been far too long since I last posted, and I apologise for that. Work continues to be frantic and, since so much of my job involves writing, I can’t quite get my head around handling more words when I come home in the evenings. Plus, I’ve been travelling again. But the good thing about hanging around in airports is that there’s a lot of time to read and so I’ve got several interesting books to share with you in the next few days.

Words. I had always loved them. I collected them like I had collected pretty stones as a child. I liked to roll words over my tongue like a lump of molten honeycomb, savouring the sweetness, the crackle, the crunch. Cerulean, azure, blue. Shadowy, sombre, secret. Voluptuous, sensuous, amorous. Kiss, hiss, abyss…

Charlotte-Rose de la Force has made her reputation with her creative wit and her spiky tongue. Both can be assets at the court of Louis XIV, where she has made a living for herself through her stories, her satire, and the sheer power of her personality. But they can also be liabilities. Obliged to abjure the Huguenot religion of her ancestors, and thwarted in her choice of a husband, the exuberant and irrepressible Charlotte-Rose simply doesn’t know when to stop. One gloomy day in 1697, she finds herself bundled into a carriage and sent off to a miserable exile in a convent: the customary fate for women who have bored the Sun King. Chafing at the harshness of the convent rules, Charlotte-Rose strives with every fibre of her being to find a way out of this imprisonment, for which she doesn’t have the slightest vocation. But even here, in the bleak austerity of the nunnery, she finds an unexpected ally: the serene Soeur Seraphina, who enlists Charlotte-Rose’s help in tending the convent gardens and distracts her from her fate with a magical story of her own about a witch, a bunch of bitter herbs, and a girl with tumbling red hair who is trapped in a tower.

From the opening of the story, I was expecting this to be a ‘rationaliation’ of the Rapunzel fairy tale (rather like Mary Renault did for the Theseus myth in The King Must Die), but that isn’t actually the case. Although Charlotte-Rose has her feet firmly in reality, the tale-within-a-tale of Margherita in her tower retains magical elements which are never explained, even though we are meant to accept it as having happened in our own world. That was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I quite enjoyed the lyrical romance of the fairy-tale sections; but, on the other, these parts felt somehow less complex and original than the chapters dealing with Charlotte-Rose herself. I liked her very much, this sharp-witted woman trying to forge her own path through the intrigues of Versailles, savouring every aspect of her privileged existence and revelling in love affairs.

Margherita and Selena, by contrast, never quite came alive for me in the same way. The Rapunzel fairy-tale requires us to suspend our disbelief and believe in love at first sight, which works perfectly in a fable, but looks rather less convincing when set against Charlotte-Rose’s tumultuous love life. I simply wasn’t persuaded by Margherita’s romance. And, although I was initially swept into Selena’s story, I couldn’t help feeling that it began with promise but moved into predictability. Perhaps it’s just a sign of the books I choose to read, but why does every Venetian courtesan seem to end up modelling for Titian’s Venus of Urbino? Don’t get me wrong: I like Titian. I devoted a year of my life to studying him. But, based on the historical novels I’ve read in which he features, he seems to be like an art-historical version of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies.

Despite all this, however, it’s well-written and cleverly conceived: a smart historically-inspired adaptation of the Rapunzel fairy-tale. As you might expect from a story split between Renaissance Venice and the court of Louis XIV, there is the occasional ripping of bodices, but fortunately there’s also some very strong characterisation in the ‘present day’ sections, which give a wonderful flavour of French court life under the Sun King. What I will take away from the book, however, is my introduction to the historical figure of Charlotte-Rose (1654-1724), whose story Persinette was the source for the Brothers Grimm’s Rapunzel. She seems to have been a wonderful and formidable woman, with a deliciously scandalous life and a will of iron; and in a way I would have been perfectly happy to read a novel entirely based on her own life. Perhaps someone knows of a biography which I could track down?

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8 thoughts on “Bitter Greens: Kate Forsyth

  1. Helen says:

    I’ve been meaning to read this book for about a year, since reading one of Kate Forsyth’s other books, The Wild Girl, which I loved. The Wild Girl is a more straightforward historical fiction novel with no magical elements, so this one sounds a bit different. I’ve never read anything about Charlotte-Rose before but she sounds fascinating and I’m looking forward to learning more about her. I'll have to move this book higher up my list of priorities!

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Ah, I just think she's wonderful! Forsyth herself said, and I agree, that the truth was just irresistible: a woman who actually did dress up as a dancing bear in order to free her lover from his disapproving family. How fantastic is that?! It's the kind of historical gem you dream of stumbling across. I don't have the book here with me now, but I think most of the literature she cited in her author's note was in French. My French is serviceable for articles and notes, but I don't think I would have the motivation to tackle something like that in the language: it would be much more enjoyable to find an English version. I'll let you know if anything turns up… and I hope you'll do the same for me! 🙂

  3. Charlie (The Worm Hole) says:

    I loved this book, but I didn't think of the connection between the fairy tale and the reality. I suppose I overlooked that, seeing the fairy tale as something completely different even when there was a connection. In regards to Charlotte-Rose I looked for books myself but couldn't find any. That said I seem to remember Forsyth mentioned some studies in her notes? I hoped this book would intrigue someone enough to write a non-fiction!

  4. The Idle Woman says:

    Yes, I remember seeing The Wild Girl everywhere about a year ago and it caught my attention at the time, but I never quite got round to it. Having read this, I'd be tempted to go back to it, because it'd be the perfect complement, in telling the story of another woman who is responsible for our canon of fairy tales. I suppose the magical elements here can be rationalised in that they're part of a story within a story. So how can we be sure that they happened as described? How can we know that the storyteller isn't embellishing the truth and already taking that first step from fact to fiction, which Charlotte-Rose herself is going to embellish further in her Persinette? Maybe, looking at it in that way, it becomes a really clever form of meta-narrative 🙂

    And oh yes, Charlotte-Rose is fascinating. The bear episode I mention in my reply to Charlie, below, is just one example. I really got the sense of her as a powerful and real human being – and it's precisely because she leaps off the page that the other women in the tale, for all their magic, felt slightly more anaemic. To me, anyway.

  5. Isi says:

    Ohh I have a crush on this book, just like the one I had with “The snow child”: I'm almost sure I'll love it.
    I actually have no idea about Rapunzel's story, so I think everything will be new to me. Neither did I know it was based on a real character, so I'm not of any help. I just want o read it 😀

  6. The Idle Woman says:

    Isi my dear! Hope you're well. 🙂 This isn't quite as magical as The Snow Child, in my opinion, but it's in a similar spirit and I think you would quite enjoy it. Be sure to let me know what you think if and when you get round to reading it. 🙂

  7. Isi says:

    I will come to tell you my thoughts, you know that!
    I'm well 🙂
    I had some free time today and I thought, 'it's been a while, so let's read my super favourite blog.'
    Hugs!!

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