Forsyth, Kate. Bitter Greens

Random House, $32.95

“A captivating fairytale for adults”

Kate Forsyth’s studious preoccupation with the Rapunzel fairytale bears juicy fruit in this fictionalised account of life at the court of Louis XIV.

Charlotte-Rose de la Force, a maid of honour in the Sun King’s court, is fashionable and intelligent. She travels betweenVersaillesandParis, attending to the King’s many mistresses. Painted here as an early feminist, her irreverence, her lack of either dowry or great beauty, and her Huguenot heritage make fraught her own path to marriage. Eventually, she does marry, but her young groom’s family intervenes.

Banished from court after a flutter of scandals, Charlotte-Rose is sent to the Abbey of Gercy-en-Brie at the end of the seventeenth century. Here, she remembers, in meticulously researched detail, her life at court. She is befriended by an older nun, Sœur Seraphina, who tells her the tale of Margherita as they tend the abbey’s garden. Taken inVeniceas a six year old by a witch who claimed she was payment for a handful of herbs her father had stolen, Margherita is imprisoned in a tower overlooking a lake. Sewn into her own copper curls is a long hairpiece made from the tresses of six dead virgins who lived, and died, before her.

Bitter Greens intertwines the stories of Charlotte-Rose and Margherita (based on the fairy tale Petrosinella), with that of La Strega, famous courtesan and muse of the artist Tiziano, Selena Leonelli. A sumptuous tale combining lust, witchcraft and history, this thick tome is never heavy-going, rather, it’s delightful escapism rich in detail.

Reviewed April 2012