Easy read Bon-Bon with surprisingly satisfying dark, tough centre. And a feminist, and erotic tale, to boot!
This is a clever page turner, kind of easy, kind of straight forward. Absorbing, almost compulsively engaging until you realise that there’s a lot more going on, including neat and clever games with plot – a story being told within the central story which is also yet another story. Yet Kate Forsyth manages this without confusion or artifice, and the reader can easily hold the braided threads together
Bitter Greens is both a historical novel, a romance, and a fantasy, a fairy story – and at the centre of it all, are 3 strong female characters, fighting the powerlessness of a woman’s lot, in their differing ways. (And, of course, twining 3 stories together is a kind of plait of stories, to mirror the plait of hair – more of which, later)
The central character is a real character, who lived in Versailles, the King’s Court, during the reign of the autocratic Louis XIVth, the Sun King, to whom she was related, This was the time when the Catholic ruling elite were moving towards the eventual stifling of ‘dissenting’ Protestant religion. Louis XIVth’s reign saw the degree of religious toleration brought in by his grandfather, Henri of Navarre, being rapidly eroded. Louis was very far from being a tolerant king, and in 1685 revoked the freedom of worship act, The Edict of Nantes, which had been passed in Henri of Navarre’s reign. Huguenots were forced to ‘convert’, and to try to leave the country in order to avoid this, was punishable in some cases, by death.
Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, the main character, (whose childhood nickname in the book is Bon-Bon) was a relatively plain, highly intelligent woman, one of Louis’ cousins, who became a well regarded writer. She had several lovers, but did not marry (scandalously) till she was middle-aged. Her family were Huguenot, and she ‘converted’ to Catholicism, around the time when such conversions were enforced. She was exiled by Louis to a convent (a fate imposed on many women who displeased men, and particularly, a fate meted out to Huguenot women) So, ‘Bitter Greens’ is her first person narrated story, mainly taking place at the end of the seventeenth century, in that convent, as she looks back on her life. However, Charlotte-Rose is the writer who is known as the author of the fairy-tale initially known as Persinette – (a kind of variant on Parsley,which features in the story) ‘Persinette’ later was retold by the Brothers Grimm as ‘Rapunzel’ – or, to give it a similarly herbal flavour, a variant on ‘rampion’
Rapunzel is of course the story of the powerlessness of a young girl, who falls foul of a powerful witch, and is imprisoned in a tower (or convent, in Charlotte-Rose’s case, after she fell foul of a powerful despotic monarch) It is also a deeply erotic story, though the eroticism is covert in the children’s version. Rapunzel is rescued by (who else) a prince who climbs her outrageously snaky, ever-growing, shimmering ladder of hair.
However, an earlier version of the story exists, from the pen of an Italian writer, Giambattista Basile, published some 60 years earlier, as Forsyth relates, but scholars have puzzled how (or if) Charlotte-Rose might have read it as the story was written in Neapolitan, and was not translated out of Neapolitan till many years after Charlotte-Rose’s death. As she never went to Italy, and did not speak Neapolitan, it is something of a mystery. One which Forsyth wonderfully disentangles, explores, invents, surmises.
So, the second story is that of ‘Marguerite’ a fairy story told by a wise nun, who is the convent’s infirmarian and herbalist, Soeur Seraphina. Marguerite, (another plant, name ‘Daisy’) of course, is the girl who becomes ‘Persinette’ and she too, like Charlotte-Rose, will transcend the powerlessness imposed on her by the witch.
Where do malevolent witches come from, however – in this story, we get to understand, and see a further story about the powerlessness and lack of choices available to women.
It is a marvellous tale within a tale within a tale – and, moreover, Forsyth upends the ‘victim’ status of her imprisoned female, – though there are some attractive princes, even princes may be imprisoned by those more powerful than they – kings, fathers opposed to rebellious sons.
Interspersed are also various poems by other writers on the ‘Rapunzel’ theme.
Hopefully, the fact that I’ve unpicked some of the rich substance to the story will not put potential readers off – this is a wonderfully told tale, with 3 extremely interesting major characters, one of whom (Charlotte-Rose) is wonderfully witty, sardonic, amused – and a remarkably sensual woman as well as a highly intelligent one. So the book has its degree of raunch as well!
Highly recommended, and I shall certainly investigate her second book for adults, which again mixes history and fairy story as it is about one of the Brothers Grimm.