This is the second post in our season of folk and fairytale retellings.
‘Novices are not permitted to write letters,’ Sœur Emmanuelle said.
‘But I must write. I must write to the King, and to my friends at court. I must write to my sister so she knows where I am… and my stories. How am I to write my stories?’
‘Stories?’ Sœur Emmanuelle spoke scornfully. ‘You think you may waste your time here writing such frivolous stuff? Think again, mademoiselle.’
When Charlotte-Rose de la Force is banished from the French court to a convent for writing satires mocking the King, she assumes her life is over. Stripped of her wealth, her possessions, and even her clothes, she is forced to endure a life of manual labour and forbidden to write the stories that are her solace.
‘Bitter Greens’ is a novel of three intertwined tales. The first of these follows Charlotte as she adjusts to life in the convent and finds an ally in quiet Sœur Seraphina, who tends the garden and tells her stories. The story of Charlotte becomes the framing device for the other two strands.
At the centre of this book is the story of Margherita, who is seven when she meets the sorceress La Strega and is taken from her parents, after her mother is tricked into exchanging her for some bitter herbs to satisfy her pregnancy cravings. When she is twelve, La Strega locks her in a tower and visits her every month to drink her virgin blood. Gradually Margherita realises she is not the first red-haired girl who has been locked in this tower and tries to find a way to escape. This story of Rapunzel is a pretty straight retelling, I don’t think there will be any surprises here, but the Venetian setting lends a dose of much needed realism, so that the atmosphere feels authentic even if the story is a bit unlikely!
The third strand is the story of Selena Leonelli, who as a child in Venice watches powerless as her mother is brutally killed. Selena is then driven, firstly to exact revenge on her mother’s killers, and then to scrape together some power and self-respect from her devastating circumstances, turning to witchcraft and avoiding the religious authorities to do this. Eventually, because of her beauty she becomes Titian’s muse and the inspiration for his series of paintings of Mary Magdalene. However, she is terrified that he will stop painting her if she starts to grow old, and resorts to drastic measures to maintain her youthful appearance. This is the tale of Rapunzel from the witch’s point of view, which does give a welcome counterpoint to the narrative. You would think this might be rather a hard sell but you do end up rather rooting for Selena despite yourself!
Once I finished the book I was amazed to discover that Charlotte-Rose de la Force really existed — she really was exiled from the court of the Sun King, and became one of the earliest authors of fairy tales, and her novel Persinette was adapted by the Grimm brothers into the story we now know as Rapunzel. In fact, Charlotte’s sections were my favourite in the book, her frustration of being banished to the convent brought home the fate of millions of women throughout history locked up for being a bit inconvenient. You can see why the story of Rapunzel might have resonated with her, and in fact the comparison of Charlotte’s situation with Margherita’s gives the book a satisfying structure.
That the book is also about the history of fairytales, and the oral tradition of telling them amongst women, was one of the main reasons I decided to include it in this series.
For another retelling of Rapunzel, try ‘The Tower Room’ (sometimes published in the colllection ‘Happy Ever After’) by Adele Geras, set in an English girl’s boarding school in the 1960s.
Bitter Greens is available from Amazon.