Valentine Week: Fairytale Fantasy #3

Rapunzel fairytale retellings


Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens

If you missed the introduction to this year’s Fairytale Fantasy series of posts, find it HERE. By the way, I just discovered this great blog post on all things Rapunzel. And here‘s a blog that does a comprehensive job with a ton of Rapunzel retellings.

Forsyth’s Bitter Greens, 2014, Macmillan, is a marvel of a book, the third Rapunzel retelling I’m discussing during Valentine Week and my favorite of the three. (A qualification: if you’re a young reader, you can’t go wrong with Morrison’s Grounded. Find my discussion HERE.)

Kate Forsyth Bitter Greens historical novel
See the author’s website to find out more about the book and how to get it.

What an amazing novel this is. I found it started fairly slowly. Don’t let that put you off. You are in for a treat, reader. At the core is Persinette, the French “literary” fairy tale by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force which is the basis for the Grimm Brothers retelling, Rapunzel, that we probably all know best. In Forsyth’s novel, the Rapunzel story is only the core. The author describes her novel as the “braided” account of three women, and “braided” is a good description. I prefer to think of it as a nesting, though–the Rapunzel core, wrapped in a tale of magical realism about the witch in the story, wrapped in a beautifully rendered historical novel. In fact, this novel won the American Library Association prize for best historical novel in the year it was published, among a number of other prestigious literary awards.

As Bitter Greens begins, we learn that the main character, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, a French nobleman from a Huguenot family in reduced circumstances, is being banished to a nunnery from the court of the Sun King, Louis IV of France. A brief preliminary scene shows us Charlotte-Rose’s life in Gascony, where her guardian warns her about her sharp tongue. He is all too right. She stumbles into the kind of trouble that, in Louis XIV’s court, can get a woman locked up for the rest of her life. Charlotte-Rose has scandalized the court with her love affairs, and she has lived a bold life far removed from the decorous, cautious behavior allowed court ladies. She’s a writer in a world where women don’t do such things. Now, because of her talent, her verve, and her boldness, she is in terrible trouble. To make things worse, she is a Huguenot (French Protestant) living in a climate of fear. In the not-too-distant past, French Huguenots were slaughtered wholesale during the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Charlotte-Rose’s own mother has been locked away in a convent, and now the Sun King is tightening the screws on the Protestants once again. Being sent to a Catholic nunnery is not as bad as being burned at the stake, but it’s an ironic and stifling sentence to impose on a Protestant. Worst of all, Charlotte-Rose will no longer be allowed to write.

Throughout this part of Forsyth’s novel, we learn in flashbacks all the ways Charlotte-Rose has scandalized the court. This is the “historical novel” part of the book, and it is accurate, compelling, and beautifully rendered. But in the present time of the novel, locked away, Charlotte-Rose befriends an old nun, Soeur Seraphina, who begins telling her a marvelous tale of another girl locked away–a girl with crazy-long hair locked in a tower. Here is the core of the novel: the Rapunzel fairy tale. Woven in with this retelling is the tale of the witch, a beautiful Renaissance redhead who becomes the artist Titian’s muse, the model for some of his most famous paintings. And so this novel, which appeals to general readers, readers who love fantasy, readers who love fairy tales, readers who love history and historical novels, also has a great appeal for readers who love art and art history.

Titian, Penitent Magdalene, 1533
The Venetian Renaissance artist Titian (Tiziano Vecelli) painted this depiction of a penitent Mary Magdalene in 1531 or perhaps 1533 (and a later version in 1565).

A quick few notes about the painting: Titian became famous for “Titian red,” the color he used to paint Mary Magdalene’s hair–an interesting factoid that figures in Forsyth’s novel. Also: There is a strange medieval legend that Mary Magdalene’s hair became a “suit” that covered her body. It’s pretty clear that Titian must have been influenced by this legend. Although Forsyth’s novel doesn’t bring this in, I also find it ironic that the witch character is based on the model for Titian’s painting. Rapunzel has freakishly long hair, and . . .so does the witch?

Three fascinating women: Margherita, the “Rapunzel” figure. Selena Leonelli, the Venetian Renaissance courtesan who becomes the artist Titian’s muse and lover, and later the powerful sorceress and witch known as La Strega. And Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force herself. A fairy tale (Rapunzel) wrapped in a tale of magical realism (Selena Leonelli and what she becomes) wrapped in an historical novel about Charlotte-Rose and the court of the Sun King. A true tour de Force, if you’ll pardon the pun.

WARNING! Nerding Out Ahead

Okay, there’s one more feature of this book I have to mention, one of the reasons I love it so much. Each major episode is introduced by a snippet of poetry. I happen to love poetry. (I even have a poetry blog.) If you don’t especially love poetry, then you might take these introductory poetic excerpts as decoration and move on. I, on the other hand, had to look up ALL the poets, ALL the poems. I was fascinated by Forsyth’s selections. The poets/poems are: the unfortunately named, tragic Adelaide Crapsey and an excerpt from her poem “Rapunzel“; the fascinating, multifaceted writer Gwen Strauss and an excerpt of her poem “The Prince”; Nicole Cooley and an excerpt from “Rampion” (rampion being another name for the bitter herb that caused all the trouble in Rapunzel); the Pre-Raphaelite poet, artist, and cultural force William Morris and his poem “Rapunzel” (a subject he also depicted in visual art); Anne Sexton‘s “Rapunzel“(Sexton, as you may know, wrote a ton of poems with a modernist, feminist take on fairy tales); contemporary poet Arlene Ang’s “Rapunzel”; the modernist American poet Louis Untermeyer‘s “Rapunzel” (from the SurlaLune blog mentioned at the beginning of this post); a stunningly gorgeous (the rest of the poem, not so much) excerpt from C. K. Chesterton‘s “The Ballad of St. Barbara” (see the introductory post to this blog series for the connection between St. Barbara and Rapunzel); and the fantastic contemporary poet Lisa Russ Spaar‘s “Rapunzel Shorn.” Here you can find an interesting discussion of many Rapunzel poems–unfortunately, the site only gives the introduction (it ceased publication in 2008), but it may be a good way to run down other poems.

NEXT UP! The Cinderella retellings, beginning with JJA Harwood’s The Shadow in the Glass.

One thought on “Valentine Week: Fairytale Fantasy #3

  1. Pingback: Valentine Week: Fairytale Fantasy #2 – Fantastes

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