On my bedside table:
Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth.
Charlotte-Rose de la Force, exiled from the court of the Sun King Louis XIV, has always been a great teller of tales.
Selena Leonelli, once the exquisite muse of the great Venetian artist Titian, is terrified of time.
Margherita, trapped in a doorless tower and burdened by tangles of her red-gold hair, must find a way to escape.
Three women, three lives, three stories, braided together in a compelling tale of desire, obsession and the redemptive power of love.
The first line:
I had always been a great talker and teller of tales.
Bitter Greens won the 2015 American Library Association (ALA) Award for Best Historical Novel. I first came across it at a literature festival in London last year, or rather, didn’t come across it at all – the festival bookshop sold out of all its copies on the first day. As soon as I was back in Manchester I got myself a copy from a city bookstore. Reading the Foreword is such a tasty aperitif for what follows:
The first known version of the Rapunzel fairytale was ‘Petrosinella’ (‘Little Parsley’), but the Italian writer Giambattista Basile (c.1575-1632), published posthumously in 1634.
Sixty-four years later, in 1698, it was retold under the name ‘Persinette’ by the French writer Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force (1650-1724), written while she was locked away in a nunnery as punishment for her scandalous life. She changed the ending so that her heroine’s tears healed the eyes of the blinded prince and the witch was redeemed.
Fairytale scholars have always been puzzled by how Mademoiselle de la Force could have come to know Basile’s story. His work was not translated from his native Neapolitan dialect for many years after Mademoiselle de la Force’s death, and, although she was unusually well educated for her time, she never travelled to Italy, nor could she speak Neapolitan. It is her version of the tale that we now know as ‘Rapunzel’.
As well as being one of the first writers of literary fairytales, Mademoiselle de la Force was one of the first writers of historical fiction and was known to be a major influence on Sir Walter Scott, who is commonly regarded as the ‘father’ of historical fiction.
Bitter Greens is a retelling of a beloved fairytale, but more than that it is a work of immense research and imagination. Author Kate Forsyth has deftly woven together three luminous story strands, resulting in a rich and enchanting imagining of where Mademoiselle de la Force might have conjured her telling of Rapunzel, and who the women may have been behind the folklore that inspired her. Through these women we love, lose, dream and grieve. Put any childish notions of fairytales aside, the characters in Bitter Greens are dimensional, well-drawn, imperfect, and real – good and evil are not static traits in this story. The research behind the vivid and seemingly-effortless writing thrums inside this story like an ever-constant but never obtrusive heartbeat. It is bewitching, grotesque, and utterly beautiful. I confess to putting off finishing Bitter Greens for as long as I can.
When you want to forget the realism of the world around you and be transported to a different time, place, and life when magic was almost as big a sin as a woman who dared to dream of an independent, creative life.
When you have a hankering for magic, mystery, and history.
For your headphones:
A mixtape of Renaissance and Baroque classics to ease you into 16th and 17th century France and Italy, where Bitter Greens sets its scenes.