Rapunzel is my favourite fairytale of all time, I actually broke the spine of the Ladybird Classic I had of it I read it/was read it so much. Being brought up in the town of Matlock Bath we had a Tower on our hillside, part of the Heights of Abraham where I used to be allowed to play at will as a child as they were our neighbours, which naturally I thought Rapunzel lived in. When I got my first pet, a duck, guess what she was called? Yep, Rapunzel! What did I nearly have tattooed on my arm? Rapunzel letting her hair down, from a tower at the top of my shoulder all the way to my wrist. I settled for Once Upon A Time. So you knowing Bitter Greens was about this tale and even came with the tagline ‘you think you know the story of Rapunzel’ I was both really excited about it and slightly fearful. If possible it has made me love the story of Rapunzel and the story behind the story even more.
Bitter Greens follows the lives and stories of three women. First is Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who has been exiled from the court of the Sun King Louis XIV after a fall from grace too far (which in those times was saying something) and is banished to live in an Abbey with nuns. Second is Selena Leonelli, once one of the most beautiful women in Italy and even the muse of the Venetian artist Titian. Depicted forever in his paintings she has one fear, time, and how it will take her beauty something she will do anything to keep. Thirdly we have Margherita, a young girl trapped in a tower forever unless she finds a way to escape.
These three things were true;
Her name was Margherita.
Her parents had loved her.
One day, she would escape.
At the worst of times, when the walls of the tower seemed to press upon her ribcage, Margherita would repeat these three things over and over again, like sorrowful mysteries muttered over a rosary.
She had been locked away in this one small stone room at the age of twelve. Fifty-one full moons had passed since then, shown by the scars on her wrists. If she did not escape soon, surely she would die.
The question you are probably all wondering, as was I, is how on earth (bar Margherita) do all these stories link to the tale of Rapunzel. Good question and one I will half answer because to know all the ways this tale weaves around that one would be to spoil it. What I can say is that Charlotte-Rose de la Force was a real woman, who really did get expelled from the court of Louis XIV (for all in all being a right naughty minx) and who wrote fairytales including Persinette, which was the first written account of the tale which became Rapunzel, whilst expelled in the Abbey of Gercy-en-Brie. This Kate all found out whilst doing her doctorate in fairytale, I know sign me up for that course right now!
It is interesting because Charlotte-Rose is really the heart of this story and initially I was thinking ‘erm, where is the Rapunzel bit?’ yet within a few chapters I was so enjoying spending time in the court of Louis XIV I was quite happy to just see what happened. What I am saying here is that the Rapunzel story that links Charlotte-Rose, Selena and Margherita was brilliant and fascinating but I wasn’t only wanting that part, if you see what I mean. I was happily reading about a woman who was a flirt, a gossip, a teller of tales and who once dressed up as a bear to rescue a lover. What more could you want from a heroine.
Forsyth also creates a fascinating insight into the time; yes there is the political and religious histories, which I found fascinating, but also the social history too. I loved reading about how the court worked, how the King dealt with his rampant libido (sometimes just with a servant up against a wall if he felt the need) and mistresses and also how the fear of witchcraft spread the land. Forsyth brilliantly fills Bitter Greens sort of historical facts that I find fascinating, who knew that architects had to rebuild doors for dresses and head fashion or that people threw cats at carriages containing fleeing protestants? Fascinating.
The other themes at the heart of Bitter Greens are or course fairytales and storytelling. We don’t get the Ladybird Classic version, or the Tangled one (both I love just to note) we get the dark one that was originally told, the one where Rapunzel endures many horrors in the tower, and the prince sleeps with her and gets her pregnant and all the twists that brings. Disney couldn’t have done that, Forsyth revels in its gothic nature. She also explores the famous tropes of fairytales, what makes a woman a witch or become one, for example.
She also celebrates storytellers and storytelling whilst telling a great story, it would be a bit awkward otherwise wouldn’t it? Through Charlotte-Rose we see both how stories were an important part of the social world of the time historically, think going to a book club only you hear the story told by someone and might get impregnated by the King after, and also how stories and their escapism can help us at our darkest times.
The Marquis de Maulevrier used to lock me in the caves under the Chateau de Cazeneuve. They were as cold as the church, and much darker. A hermit lived there once, many hundreds of years before, and had died there. I wondered if his skeleton was still there, hidden under the stones. I imagined I heard his footsteps shuffling closer and closer, then I felt his cold breath on the back of my neck, the brush of a spectral finger. I screamed, but no one heard me.
Surely he was a good man, that long-ago hermit, I told myself. He would not hurt a little girl. I imagined he was taking my hand because he wanted to show me the way to escape the cave. Perhaps there was a secret door down low in the wall, a door only large enough for a child. If I stepped through that door, I would be in another world, in fairyland perhaps. It would be warm and bright there, and I would have a magical wand to protect myself. I’d ride on the back of a dragonfly, swooping through the forest. I’d battle dragons and talk to birds and have all kinds of adventures.
Kate Forsyth has created quite an incredible piece of work in Bitter Greens. It is the story of Rapunzel that you thought you knew, yet told bare, and it is also so much more. It is the tale of three women in three different time periods that are all fighting for survival and a place, and in some cases stature, in a world dominated by men. It is also a wonderful historical novel that captures the essence of all the time periods it covers in all its glory and all its gothic nasty corners. It is also a romping story that celebrates storytellers and the power of stories. I loved it, you should read it.
As you might have guessed this will be very high on my list of books of the year and may well be in a few lovely lucky peoples stockings, oops spoiler there. It has reminded me how much I love a really good historical chunkster of a novel and how much I love fairytales for adults (not adult fairytales that is quite something else, though this book is brilliantly saucy and salacious). I also need to read much more about the court of Louis the XIV, I have Nancy Mitford’s The Sun King and Jean Teule’s Monsieur Montespan (whose wife features in this book a lot) on my shelves by the bed in readiness. Any other recommendations about that period would be most welcomed. As would thoughts from anyone else who has read Bitter Greens or any of Kate’s other books, and indeed any other great fairytales for grownups. You can also hear Kate and I in conversation about Bitter Greens and fairytales here.