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The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth


Paperback, 538 pages
Published March 18th 2013 by Random House Australia (first published March 13th 2013)

Kate Forsyth, that modern bard spinning and reweaving the old, old tales so they regain relevance in the world as we know it has applied her magic once again.  Although the parallel to Dortchen’s life is cast as “The Singing Springing Lark, to my mind, the tale of Dortchen Wild is a retelling of Cinderella; Dortchen grows up under the heel of her tyrannical father, and her situation becomes worse and worse until it seems utterly hopeless. However, her love for her neighbour, Wilhelm Grimm is the light in her darkness, even if at times it is a light from a guttering candle. It is a frustrated and frustrating love story – the two are destined, but my lord it takes them an age to overcome the hurdles and finally, finally get together!

The personal story is set against the history of the region, at the times of the Napoleonic invasions and the fall of the old Kingdoms. Forsyth does a terrific job of conveying what it might have been like to live through those times in those circumstances; the town of Hessen-Cassel is steeped in the old ways, some of which aren’t so marvellous, and the ‘modern’ thinking of the invaders is shocking to some, welcome to others such as the newly liberated serfs.  It was of course hard, frightening and replete with loss and grief as the country’s resources are depleted and plundered to fund the war and the unchecked royal extravagances.

“In the meantime, the town was full of French soldiers. They drank and gambled and danced, taking what they wanted forth shops and houses, and paying with paper assignments that were virtually worthless.” …

… “The Grimm family was suffering even more. Jakob had quit his job at the War Office, exhausted by the demands upon him and unable to bear working for the French. He had applied for a job as the librarian at the palace, but had been passed over for someone with fewer credentials but nobler blood.”

Both the Wilds and the Grimms were ‘good’ families, something akin to our middle class I imagine,  but even so, they were poor and hungry most of the time, and the girls had to hitch up their petticoats and get on with the endless rounds of chores and hard work. Next door, in the Grimm household things are indeed grim, and only get grimmer – Wilhelm and Dortchen cannot marry because he is too poor to seek her hand, and her hard, pragmatist father will not release her without ‘prospects’. Besides, he wants her home for more sinister reasons.

The portrayal of family life is richly detailed and educational – day to day life is made accessible and we readers get a vicarious taste of life back then. Forysthe has done her homework particularly well int his respect. . Each Wild sister is a finely rendered individual, although I did find them a touch stereotypical – the spoilt, materialistic Gretchen who marries a rich man as early as she can; the pious, religious, pain-in-the-proverbial Rose, who, when the sickly, opiate-addicted mother needs tending, says she wants to “immolate myself on the altar of filial duty” (she’s the most eye-roll inducing sister. Burn away Rosie!), the rebellious Hanne who throws over the mores of the time to defiantly fall in love with an unsuitable boy and elope; the ever naive and vulnerable younger sister, Mia, who Dortchen protects at great cost to herself.

Dortchen ends up being the only one left at home, working like a navvy  and fending off her increasingly drunk and abusive father. Once it’s just her in the house, she suddenly finds a backbone she totally lacked up to that point. Perhaps it has to do with a sudden telescoping of time in this later part of the novel.  Father finally dies (three cheers!), perhaps unwittingly helped along by Dortchen’s sleeping potions that keep him out of her bed. Eventually, after further tribulations –  it takes nearly two decades altogether to get to the altar, with plenty of misunderstandings and unspoken feelings -she finally marries Wilhelm. The end.  This unrequited love thread was just a bit too overdrawn for me. I found myself wanting to give Dortchen a good shove Wilhelm-ward every now and then. Of course, the ever-glowering father didn’t help, but really the years spent not talking to each other could have been avoided! Forsyth has obviously created a reality from a few scant bits of information about these two, and has added a goodly measure of artistic interpretation to bring it to life. It seems it may well have happened like this, so when they DO finally get together I was most relieved.  Anyway, everyone ends up more or less where they deserve to be, and that’s the least likely aspect of the book, but very true to fairy tales as we know them. That Dortchen ends up with the life she wanted is what it makes me think of Cinderella – grinding harshness, endless work, an unattainable prince, a fairy god’mother’ (ok, brother in law) and in the end all is redeemed by love. She even gets a new dress for the ball.

Within this overarching story, Dortchen tells the folk stories of the region to the brothers Grimm for their new book. It seems the writers life has changed little in the intervening centuries; the brothers Grimm lack money to live on, and lack a publisher or the means to publish their work themselves, so the project stalls repeatedly for the want of a benefactor or champion. Dortchen carries on anyway, telling Wilhelm all the old tales and stories she knows, just to keep talking with him. Of course, in the telling she tells us too – it’s very interesting to see these well known fairy tales in their original forms – they have barely a fairytale ending between them, and are very dark and dire, for the most part being cautionary tales, moral principles, a how-to behave-or-else.  The darkness of those old tales is paralleled in the dark turn in Dortchen’s life – there are parts of the story that some people may well find highly confronting, but Forsyth handles it well, using a russian doll technique to tell us about Dortchen telling Wilhelm the old tale ‘All Kinds of Fur’ to try to signal to him what is happening to her at home.

This is a big book, some 530 pages of rich immersive reading. Forsyth is a proficient and efficient storyteller and a master at story-structure, so it’s a pleasurable read, not an unwieldy or overly weighty one. As in Bitter Greens she brings a woman story teller out of the thick fog of obscurity laid down by history, and makes it clear that the Brothers Grimm owed a hell of a lot to the Sisters Wild, particularly Dortchen. At the end, Forsyth draws on the tale of Sweet Roland and The True Bride – and has Wilhelm propose to Dortchen on Christmas  Day. Thank God. And, in splendid fairy tale mode, the book ends with “I told you love works magic.”

And, so it does.


Bitter Greens – Review

Review:  Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Bitter Greens

Bitter Greens (Paperback)

  Published March 20th 2012 by Vintage Australia
  Paperback, 576 pages
  ISBN: 174166845X  (ISBN13: 9781741668452)

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!