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I first read the Rapunzel fairytale when I was a young girl in hospital, suffering a series of treatments and operations for a damaged tear duct. I was given a copy of the Grimm fairy tales and the stories in that little, red, leather-bound book have been my favourite fairytales ever since – among them, of course, Rapunzel. I felt a great affinity with that other young girl, locked away alone in a tower as I was confined alone in my hospital ward. I loved the fact that her tears had the power to heal the Prince’s blindness and wished that my own tears, weeping constantly from the damaged tear duct, would heal mine.
I was as haunted by the story as the prince was by Rapunzel’s singing, but I was puzzled too. Why did the witch lock Rapunzel away? Why didn’t the prince fetch some rope? What happened to the witch? Did Rapunzel ever find her true parents?
Growing up, I always loved fairytale retellings. ‘The Glass Slipper’ by Eleanor Farjeon was an absolute favourite, as was ‘The Stone Cage’ by Nicholas Stuart Cage which retold the Rapunzel fairytale from the point of view of the witch’s cat. Much as I loved his version, I was disappointed by the character of Rapunzel who was sweet and rather stupid. I thought about what I’d have done if I’d been Rapunzel – I’d have fought back, I’d have plotted to escape, I’d have tricked the witch somehow.
When I went to university for my first degree, a BA in Literature, I studied all the courses that interested me and which I thought would help me achieve my long-held dream of being a writer. One of the courses I studied was Children’s Literature and we spent some time on fairytales and their meanings. I discovered that the version of Rapunzel I knew was different from the original version published in the first 1812 collection by the Grimm brothers.
In the first edition, Rapunzel and the prince fall in love and “she arranged for him to come every day and be pulled up. Thus they lived in joy and pleasure for a long time.” Their love affair is only discovered when Rapunzel asks the witch why her clothes are too tight and no longer fit her. Realising Rapunzel is pregnant, the witch casts Rapunzel out into the wilderness where she gives birth to twin children, a boy and a girl. I much preferred this version to Andrew Lang’s, where Rapunzel foolishly betrays the prince by asking the witch why she is so much harder to pull up. I began to think about writing a novel based on the tale, but one in which the darker, sexier elements of the original tale were included.
Knowing that most of the tales in the 1812 edition were oral stories written down as they were told to the Grimm brothers by various local storytellers, I began to wonder who first told the story. I began to research the Grimm Brothers’ sources for Rapunzel, and discovered one day in a second-hand bookshop a book called ‘The Great Fairy Tale Tradition’, edited by the fairytale scholar Jack Zipes.
This book showed the earliest version of Rapunzel was ‘Petrosinella’ (1636), written by Giambattista Basile, a Neapolitan soldier who fought for Venice at the end of the 17th century. Most of the key motifs are present – the theft of parsley, the tower in the forest, the impossibly long hair used as a ladder – with one significant difference: the heroine Petrosinella escapes by making a rope ladder and running away with the prince, but the witch pursues them. Petrosinella overcomes the witch by casting three magical gallnuts over her shoulder, which transform into a dog, a lion, and a wolf, which devours the witch.
The second version was written in 1697 by a French writer, Charlotte Rose de la Force, and this story contains all the motifs of the final story – the parsley, the tower, the hair – as well as the addition of Persinette being cast out into the wilderness, the birth of the twins, the prince’s blindness and the healing of his eyes by Persinette’s tears, the resolution which I personally found most magical and redemptive. Significantly, in Mademoiselle de la Force’s version, the witch is moved by their love and repents of her actions.
A German writer, Friedrich Schulz, translated this story into German, changing the heroine’s name to Rapunzel, and the Grimms then drew upon his translation for their collection of fairy tales.
I began to think about writing my retelling of the fairytale as a historical novel set in and around Venice at the turn of the sixteenth century, which is when Giambattista Basile was employed by the Venetian Republic. I began to collect books on fairytales and on Venice, and began to scribble down a few notes and ideas. One problem which I pondered over for a long time was how to make the story fresh, original, and unpredictable. The Rapunzel fairytale is so well-known that it would be difficult to startle and surprise the reader, and build suspense, and make the story feel real.
I decided to write a frame narrative, in which the fairytale retelling was ‘framed’ by another story, one which help add these elements of suspense, mystery, surprise, and relevance. For a while, I thought of using the period of the Grimm Brothers’ collection of the tales as my frame narrative, until my research had shown the story was much older than that and had originated in Italy. Then I thought about having a parallel narrative set in contemporary times, in which a modern-day girl is locked away in an attic. It didn’t feel right, though. Part of the problem of retelling Rapunzel is that the heroine spends years locked up in a tower, which makes it difficult to create a story filled with action, movement, and drama.
One day I stumbled upon an essay by the writer and editor, Terri Windling, called ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair’, first published in the Endicott Studio's Spring 2006 Journal of Mythic Arts. Ms. Windling recounted the history of the fairytale, but added a single detail which caught my attention at once.
She wrote: ‘La Force herself was an independently–minded woman from a noble family who caused several scandals in her quest to live a life that was self–determined. She fell in love and attempted to marry a young man without parental permission. When his family locked him up to prevent an elopement, she snuck into his room dressed as a bear with a travelling theatre troupe!’
At once I was completely smitten with the character of Charlotte-Rose de la Force. A woman who disguised herself as a dancing bear to see her lover was exactly my kind of woman! I read more about her and discovered that Charlotte-Rose’s life story was filled with scandal, drama, intrigue and romance. She struggled against the strictures of her time to be free to write and love and live as she pleased. I felt a very strong kinship with her, imagining what it must have been like to have lived at a time when women were powerless.
I knew that I had found my parallel narrative, and also that a huge task lay ahead of me. I knew little about the court of the Sun King, and what life was like in France in the 17th century, and I had only a few scraps of information about Charlotte-Rose de la Force herself.
‘History and fairytale are richly entwined in this spellbinding fairytale. Unputdownable!’ Juliet Marillier
‘A must for all lovers of historical fiction. Philippa Gregory, watch out!’ Pamela Freeman
‘Skilfully weaving a delicious, disturbing, multi-coloured story, Kate Forsyth's Bitter Greens grippingly brings to life a world of magic, corruption, cruelty, and love.’ Sophie Masson
‘Bitter Greens ... a rich and lively story, presenting historical realities that seem fantastical, and fantastical elements that feel real.’ Margo Lanagan
‘A magnificent reworking of the fairytale, Rapunzel ... Forsyth has an extraordinary imagination and has created something deliciously new out of an old favourite.’ Bec Kavanagh, Australian Bookseller & Publisher