Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth is a marvelous re-telling of Rapunzel, woven together with historical fiction that gives the reader a glimpse into the life of Charlotte Rose de Caumont de La Force, the French noblewoman who first published the fairy tale. Forsyth, pursuing her doctorate in fairy-tale retellings in Sydney, originally published in this novel in her native Australia. It has just been released in the US.
Bitter Greens begins with the story of Charlotte, exiled from the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and locked in a nunnery. Through her narrative, we learn that she was a vivacious courtier whose passion and wit would not be contained. Early in the novel, her mother tells the young Charlotte that she could have been a troubadour; instead, as an adult, she has left scandal in her wake and written some saucy stories that have gotten her banished from the king’s presence. Charlotte was a real person, and while Forsyth imagines many personal details, conversations, and relationships for her protagonist, the major plot points refer to actual events and historical personages.
Nested into this narrative is the storytelling of Soeur Seraphina, who begins to relate the tale of Margherita (or Persinette, which is French for “parsley,” a bitter green similar to the rapunzel plant) to the captive and captivated La Force as they work together in the nunnery’s garden. Margherita was a prisoner, too, taken from her loving parents and imprisoned in a tower where her fiery red hair is braided together with the hair of the tower’s seven previous inhabitants. She amuses herself by singing, attracting the interest of a young Italian nobleman passing by. This section of the novel differs slightly in tone from the rest, ultimately taking on a more mythical, symbolic quality like a fairy tale:
The panorama of dawn was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Vast and strange, the sky stretched above her, streaked with long clouds like a girl’s hair flying, coloured crimson and rose and blue and gold.
Finally, Bitter Greens tells the story of Selena Lionelli, La Strega Bella, the beautiful witch who captures young red-headed girls for her own nefarious purposes. It is she who kidnaps Margherita, renames her Persinette, and tries to convince her that her parents abandoned her. But despite her cruelty, Lionelli manages to gain our sympathy through the telling of her own story. Her past as an orphan, a Venetian courtesan, and the muse of the painter Titian was, for me, the most interesting part of the novel.
Forsyth’s prose is confident and colorful. The stories of Charlotte and Selena are told in first person, while Margherita’s is told in third person. This contributes to the sense of distance and dreaminess that the fairy-tale retelling demands, while allowing Charlotte and Selena a presence and reality that helps readers to connect with them on an emotional level, despite the difference in customs and cultures.
Each of these stories sheds light on the others and La Force learns about both fortitude and kindness as she listens to Soeur Seraphina’s tales. What I particularly loved about the novel was its focus on the power of storytelling and of women’s voices. Sixteenth-century Italy and seventeenth-century France were not bastions of intellectual or personal freedom for women. Despite this, each of the three protagonists uses her voice to create her own destiny, even when everyone else tries to silence her. Bitter Greens shows the historical consequences and the personal cost of speaking out against power and the dominant ideology while still convincing us to share our own stories.
If Bitter Greens is going to be named after a plant, I’d like to petition to change the title to Catnip, as in “This book was my ___.” I blame Kate Forsyth for my sleep deprivation all last week, because I kept staying up late to read. I have no idea how I never got around to reading this before.
Bitter Greens is a historical novel with some fantasy elements and a retelling of the fairy tale “Rapunzel.” Forsyth tells several stories within stories, starting with that of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, a courtier of Louis XIV who finally wrote one satire too many and has been banished to a convent. Charlotte-Rose does not take easily to convent life, but finds a sympathetic soul in one nun, Soeur Seraphina, a faded beauty who seems, like Charlotte-Rose, to have a worldlier past than the other sisters. Soeur Seraphina comforts Charlotte-Rose with a story: the tale of Margherita, a young Venetian girl who is imprisoned in a tower, and of Selena, the courtesan/witch who is her jailer.
Charlotte-Rose de la Force was a real person; I vaguely remembered reading about her in Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde. In that book, Warner talks about the subversive, proto-feminist French court ladies who strongly influenced the development of the fairy tale as we know it, using fantasy to strike against the limitations placed on their lives. Bitter Greens feels like all of that fascinating information given flesh and blood. Charlotte-Rose is a formidable character, audacious and dynamic — if she weren’t real, we probably wouldn’t believe her! She went on to write “Persinette,” an early version of “Rapunzel,” after the time period depicted in this novel, and it’s fun to imagine she might have gotten the idea this way.
The other aspects of Bitter Greens are just as engrossing. We’ve got Venice at its height, famous artists, bold romantic escapades, tragic religious conflicts, and the French court in all its glitter and its grueling-ness (poor Mlle. de Fontanges). Forsyth jumps back and forth between time periods, and between the frame story and the stories nested within it, and this could be confusing to some readers — though for what it’s worth, I was able to follow it. And it’s a neat little nod at the courtly fairy tales mentioned above, because those tales are full of digressions and backstories, unlike the succinct Grimm versions we might be more accustomed to. There’s a twist at the end, and I’m kicking myself for having guessed it slightly wrong, even though the clues were right there in some of Forsyth’s writing choices.
Bitter Greens has a weird relationship with magic, and is probably more magical realism than fantasy. There’s one plot element that, assuming everybody’s telling the truth, is absolutely, actually, supernatural. However, in other aspects of the story, Forsyth goes out of her way to give rational explanations for fairy-tale events, such as how the witch got furniture into Rapunzel’s tower, and how the prince’s blindness was remedied. And as for the French witch, La Voisin (also a real person), it’s ambiguous to me whether she had any real power, or whether it was all suggestion and plain old human vice.
But whatever it is, Bitter Greens is an addictive fairy tale retelling, as well as (other than the one magical aspect) a believable historical novel that illuminates a little-known but unforgettable figure. I already bought another copy to give as a gift — I’ll be pushing this on everybody!