I love a good historical novel: the ability to contrast past and present, to be absorbed in a world that’s (mainly) unfamiliar, and to experience vastly different circumstances, pressures, and social customs. Kate Forsyth allows us to taste, smell and feel 16th Century Italy and late 17th Century France in Bitter Greens. What does it feel like, in these eras and places, to sit for an artist, to go hunting, to be locked up with the fleas in the Bastille, to be pregnant? Bitter Greens revolves around three female characters who are, in many ways, restricted, but who celebrate their small freedoms. We have Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, a true historical character—one of the first writers of literary fairy tales and historical fiction (much of it written while she was locked-up in a nunnery). She is known as the author of the story ‘Rapunzel’. Besides giving Charlotte-Rose her own narrative, with plenty of sass, intrigue, romance and danger, Forsyth embeds within it a fleshed-out version of Rapunzel, and within that, the story of the witch in that tale.
The Rapunzel story is about a girl called Margharita, who was promised to the witch during desperate circumstances at her birth. The witch and courtesan Selena Leonelli (or ‘La Strega’) comes for her when she is seven years old, renaming her Petrosinella (meaning ‘little parsley’). She puts her in a home until she is old enough be of use to her.
My favourite story was that of Selena, the witch. How does one become so fearful and desperate that they turn to dark magic? And how do they learn it? The ensuing tale is rich, dark and plausible.
Forsyth has obviously conducted much research and, as mentioned, she brings the senses of history to life, the good and the bad (though the bad is often more fun): the stenches, the cold, the blood. One of the main themes is entrapment, particularly for women, but men also suffer duties to parents, royalty and religion. Margharita, thinking about why her parents might have given her away, wonders if being taken in by La Strega were simply another choice (of few): ‘She could have been sent into service, apprenticed to a craftsman, enclosed in a convent or, in time, married—all of these were different types of imprisonment.’ This theme is echoed throughout the book. Charlotte-Rose, for example, is at different times trapped into roles in the court of the French king (due to a lack of funds, her bloodline and her ‘heretical’ Huguenot background): she is thrown into jail, she becomes involved in courtships because the ‘walls’ of marriage may at least allow her time to write, and she is physically locked up in the nunnery: ‘I had thought I could bend the world to my will. I had thought I could break free of society’s narrow grooves, forging a life of my own desire. I had thought I was the navigator of my soul’s journey. I had been wrong.’
Charlotte-Rose begins to work with Sœur Seraphina in the garden at the convent. In one scene the bees in the garden act as a metaphor for the sexual politics of the time. Seraphina has to explain to Charlotte-Rose that there is no ‘king bee’, but a queen, who spends all her life within the hive. Charlotte-Rose is amused: ‘Why, it is said that the beehive is the best example of how a kingdom should be run, with all the workers serving the king. And we’re always [at court] being preached sermons about how His Majesty the King must rule with sweetness and the sting, just like the king bee’.
There are moments of relief, for the three main characters, from their walls: moments of passion, nature, art, songs, secrets and stories. And a bit of magic.
I enjoyed Bitter Greens. I liked how rich (and also fecund) it was. There were a few moments where I had to suspend disbelief, such as when no one notices a particular character is not just ‘getting fat’… but it didn’t matter too much because the central stories are fantastical anyway. The book reminded me a bit of Angela Carter, but otherwise I haven’t read many more like this. Despite the fairly feminine cover I really think this book would be enjoyed by both men and women, just as Forsyth’s fantasy books are. It’s a juicy book that places you in the mind and bodies of these historical (and fictional) women.
This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.