Bitter Greens is a story within a story. Charlotte de la Force opens the narrative in 1666 after having been exiled to a nunnery for displeasing the King. There she meets an older nun – who was also locked up at the monarch’s displeasure – who helps her pass the time by weaving a magical tale about a girl locked in a tower in long-ago Italy by a witch to whom she was promised.
Full of court intrigue, witchcraft, and the plight of people who live at the whim and mercy of a fickle monarchy, Bitter Greens is a gripping tale – beautifully written and meticulously crafted.
I read this novel during a family holiday to France in July 2017. There’s something quite magical about finishing Kate Forsyth’s wonderful retelling of Rapunzel – Bitter Greens – on the same day as I visited a thousand-year-old French priory, 40 minutes north of Lyon.
During my visit to the French priory, I was thrilled to discover the costume of the nuns was exactly as the author described; I imagined Charlotte de la Force sitting in the parloir (‘the talking room’) – from which our ‘parlour’ is derived – and chatting with relief after yet another day of enforced silence. I really enjoyed the fascinating insight into the harsh life of convent women:
It was the Great Silence of the abbey that I found hardest to bear. It was hard for someone who loved words so much to be forbidden to speak for the greater part of the day. Only in the early evening, as we gathered by the fire in the parlour, were we permitted to talk among ourselves.
I absolutely loved Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, the main narrator. The book opens in Gascony, France in 1666 with a cracker of a character description:
I had always been a great talker and teller of tales.
‘You should put a lock on that tongue of yours. It’s long enough and sharp enough to slit your own throat,’ our guardian warned me, the night before left home to go to the royal court at Versailles.
Charlotte is initially enraged at finding herself exiled from the French court to a nunnery after she displeased the King. Eventually she realises that she should be foreseen it all along – why should she be spared when those with more social standing have not been? It’s a grim picture of what life was like even for the aristocracy in the 17th-century:
I was a fool. Why would the King hesitate to banish me to a nunnery, when he had no problem sending his discarded mistresses, the mothers of his children? Women were locked up in convents all the time. Younger daughters sent as babies, so their parents did not have to pay so rich a dowry as they would for their wedding day. Rebellious young women, cloistered away as punishment for their disobedience. Widows, like my poor mother, banished by the Kind to a convent, even though she was a Huguenot and so feared and hated the Roman Catholic Church with all her heart.
The narrative doesn’t stay with Charlotte. It’s split between Charlotte; the girl of the senior nun’s story – locked in a tower by a witch who wants to steal her youth; and the witch herself.
Not only is Bitter Greens a story within a story, it’s also nestled in the origins of historical fiction itself. As noted in the foreword:
As well as being one of the first writers of literary fairy tales, 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.
If you’re into historical fiction, especially 16th and 17th century Italian and French historical fiction with a dose of witchcraft, I highly recommend Bitter Greens.