Review: Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth
I noticed this book because it is a reworking of the fairy tale Rapunzel and I’m interested in the power of fairy tales. So, I acquired a copy and began to read. When I got the first sexy bit, the “golden explosion” (p 54) had me worried, but the calibre of the writing is such that my fears of it being a lame old bodice ripper were soon put away. There is plenty of sex, but thankfully no steely blue eyes or quivering thighs amongst it pages. Kate Forsyth’s writing is good, sometimes lyrical, always lively and smooth in the telling of this tale of dark and difficult times. There is a good deal of terrible deeds, so it’s definitely not for children, and definitely not for the squeamish. It would make a terrific movie (providing Disney didn’t do it. Tangled, it is not.)
I think this book will please those who like historical fiction, fantasy, and probably romance too, so I’d like to have included it in all three categories for the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge, but I can choose only one, so historical fiction it is.
The story centres around three characters – first we meet Charlotte Rose de Caumont de La Force, a real person who lived from 1654-1724, and who wrote a version of Rapunzel named Le Persinette – “Little Parsley” – in 1698. The Brothers Grimm later adapted it to become the tale we all know as Rapunzel. This book opens with Charlotte Rose having been banished to a nunnery, the Abbey de Gercy-en-Brie, a fate worse than death as far as she is concerned. She has drawn the displeasure of the Sun King, Louis XIV in whose court she has had a place in one role or another since she was sixteen, and where she learns that the King’s favour or lack of it makes the difference between life and death, and your friends change with his moods. She is in her late thirties by the time we meet her and despairing of ever finding security, i.e. a husband. Actually, she did find a husband, but you couldn’t marry whoever you liked in those days, and the families have the marriage annulled. It seems that in those good old days hie thee to the nunnery was a threat to be taken very seriously; it was imprisonment by any other name, and status and wealth provided no immunity and there was no means of escape, but the alternative was death or having to leave the country, if flight was possible or feasible.
There is, as one might expect, a mean old nun who specialises in sadistic treatment of those under her authority, so Charlotte Rose has a miserable time for a while. She meets Soeur Seraphina, a calm and somewhat set apart nun, and we know straight away this woman will be important to the newly arrived Charlotte Rose. We don’t get to meet her again for some time, until eventually Sr Seraphina arranges for her to assist in the garden. There, she tells Charlotte Rose the tale of Margherita, a Venetian girl from a century earlier who is the Rapunzel proper of the story. Three versions of the fairy tale – Le Persinette by Charlotte Rose, Petrosinella (by Giambattista Basile, published in 1634) and Rapunzel (by the Bros Grimm, published in 1812) – are woven together filled out, filled in and brought to life all over again by Kate Forsyth. Each of the three fairytales relates in some way to one of the three women – Charlotte Rose who writes the tale; Maria who is given the new, powerful name of Selena Leonelli when taken in by a witch, and who later becomes La Strega Bella (beautiful witch); and of course, Margherita or Petrosinella or Persinette or Rapunzel. In this version all three have long red or gold hair and they are all Rapunzels in their different ways, imprisoned by fate, culture, gender and general powerlessness excepting their one gift, be it words, magic or voice. All three are strong and fiery too – so, of course they get out of their towers, though not without a good measure of suffering, pain and loss.
We also get a lot of history – of the Sun King and life at his court; the politics and culture of the time and the trials and tribulations of being a woman in those times. As is usually the case when I read historical fiction, I end up feeling fortunate to be alive now, in Australia, in a relatively gender equal culture (I know, I know, we aren’t there yet, but compared to then, I’ll have now!). The Sun King comes across as a massively self-indulgent, casually cruel, narcissistic monster, and the jostlings and backstabbings of the court make my head spin. I guess our current day version might be celebrity culture (I Want To Marry Harry comes to mind), where the same jockeying for fame and fortune goes on, just with fewer clothes and more surgery. Which brings me to the observation that I love the details of life-back-then – how the placement of patches or ‘beauty spots’ meant particular things, the height of the heels of one’s chopines were socially delineated (richer = higher), one had to bring one’s own chamber pot to royal events, and the fragility of the all important social standing according to the grace and favours of those in power and so on. It brings the whole tale to vivid life, and renders it believable.
Which is pretty good going given the historically accurate details of Charlotte Rose de Caumont de La Force’s life, Louis XIV, the history relating to court life, political machinations, religious persecutions and so on are nestled in a rich brew of conjecture and even better, within straight up fantasy – La Strega Bella has some pretty witchy powers that are not explained away or recast as clever medicinal knowledge or whatever. It’s magic, and its part of the fairy tale that is woven through the stories of the three characters with equal weight to the ‘facts’. This story also has the very best explanation ever of how the famous braid comes to be – as a kid I always wondered why Rapunzel was locked away, and how her hair got to be so ridiculously long. Now, I know.
I loved the backstory to La Strega Bella – even the wicked witch gets a fair hearing in this tale, and it’s entirely believable that someone who came from such harsh and traumatic a background as Maria would be a little … affected, and wish for a power so great that fear is held at bay. But, as we all know, we don’t always get what we want, and even she learns a thing or two along the way.
Kate Forsyth has let down Rapunzel’s hair for us; we all get to climb into the tower to have a good look at what’s up there and to see what it’s like to be there, to feel the longing, the despair, the thrill of escape, the cleverness of these women. The story has an ending that is very satisfactory – it’s true to the Rapunzel tale as we know it, but told in a way that is rich and ‘real’. We know what happens to Rapunzel; in this telling La Strega Bella and Charlotte Rose are left with the consequences of their actions, but not without hope, and ultimately – they are survivors.
That’s a good ending!