Most of us are familiar with “Rapunzel” by the Brothers Grimm. In 1698 Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force wrote “Persinette”, an earlier version of this tale. Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens provides both a retelling of the Rapunzel tale and an imagined biography of its author. To read this novel is to dwell in more than one time period and several sites of female imprisonment, from a dark convent to a stone tower to the culture of misogyny itself. The thick braid of narratives running through this novel should be especially pleasing to lovers of historical fiction.
It is impossible not to root for Charlotte-Rose, whose desires are often at odds with the world of Versailles, her home for decades. She is from a noble family but has no money; she is not pretty yet is determined to find love; she aspires to be a writer although the court of Louis XIV is known to punish satire and critique. Her main offense against the France of her times is her Protestant background, which makes her natural rebelliousness even more offensive to her enemies. The threat of exile and imprisonment hangs over the entire novel, which opens with Charlotte-Rose banished to the convent of Gercy-en-Brie for offending the king with her writings. While she is devastated to leave Versailles, at the convent she meets Soeur Seraphina, a nun who shares a tale of passion strong enough to survive imprisonment.
Soeur Seraphina’s story takes us to Venice in the late sixteenth century. A young girl named Margherita is the heroine of this Rapunzel tale, but it is La Strega, the witch, who steals the spotlight. In La Strega Kate Forsyth has created a villain both fascinating and repulsive, one who struggles with issues that have plagued women of all time periods: poverty, illness, violence, rape, and the fleeting nature of love and beauty. La Strega combats the evils of her world with witchcraft, and we find ourselves hoping for her survival until we see her victimizing others. Margherita is the last in a long line of young girls La Strega preys upon to halt the aging process. I will not spoil the chilling tower scenes by disclosing too many details. Suffice it to say that in this novel Rapunzel’s iconic braid is woven from the hair of Margherita’s predecessors.
The novel alternates between Charlotte-Rose’s memories of Versailles and Margherita’s efforts to escape the witch. I was riveted by Charlotte-Rose’s account of disappointment and humiliation as she tries–three times!–to arrange the marriage that will save her from poverty. She is constrained by a world where a woman without a dowry, no matter how witty or nobly born, has no way to win, but she refuses to deny her passions: “Yet would Charles have fallen in love with me if I had been pious and respectable? Would I have had those mad giddy months of dancing at Marly, hunting in the forest at Fontainebleau and sneaking off to make love in the garden at Versailles? . . . I refused to have any regrets. If I had not seen death and been so determined to seize life with both hands, if I had not tried to steer the craft of my own life, if I had not learnt how to give and take pleasure, if I had not been so determined to love with all the force of my being, would Charles have fallen in love with me at all?”
In real life it was her writing that saved Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force from the convent and from obscurity. In this novel it is the determination of each woman–Charlotte-Rose, La Strega, Margherita–to author her own destiny that unites the narrative strands and keeps us holding our breath, anxious to see who will survive.
(A note for the literary historians in the audience: the first published version of “Rapunzel” was Giambattista Basile’s “Petrosinella”, which appeared after his death in 1634.)