BITTER GREENS is, of course, a work of imagination.
However, in weaving a tale of fancy I have used as the immovable pegs the known facts of Charlotte-Rose de la Force’s life, few as they are.
Even the year of her birth is open to argument, ranging from 1650 to 1654. I travelled to Château de Cazeneuve in Gascony and, with the help of her baptismal records, was able to confirm it as the earlier date. I also saw her baby pram and the simple white family chapel where she was baptised.
Chateau de Cazeneuve, in Gascony, France
Of her childhood, we know only that she met King Louis XIV in 1660 at the Château de Cazeneuve, and that two years later her mother was imprisoned against her will in a convent in Bordeaux.
Charlotte-Rose went to court at the age of sixteen, and was maid-of-honour first to the queen and later to the Duchess of Guise.
She had an affair with Moliere’s protégé, the actor Michel Baron, who notoriously left his nightcap in her bedroom one night.
Michel Baron, the 17th century French playright
Later, Charlotte-Rose was engaged to the Marquis de Nesle, the betrothal ending in scandal after a pouch she had given him was found to have toads’ feet and spells in it. As a result, Mme de la Force “came to the attention” of the King during the infamous Affair of the Poisons.
Her love affair with the much younger Charles de Briou caused more scandal, particularly after she dressed up as a dancing bear to gain access to him. They wed, but their marriage was annulled in the courts.
In 1697, she was banished to the abbey of Gercy-en-Brie after writing some satirical Christmas verses and under suspicion of having an affair with the Dauphin.
She wrote ‘Persinette’ and various other fairy tales while imprisoned there, publishing them anonymously the following year.
The mystery of how Charlotte-Rose de la Force came to know of Giambattista Basile’s fairytale ‘Petrosinella’ may have been solved in 2007 by the fairytale scholar Professor Susanna Magnanini. She conjectures, in ‘Postulated Routes from Naples to Paris: The Printer Antonio Bulifon and Giambattista Basile’s Fairy Tales in Seventeenth Century France’, that a copy of his fairytale collection may have been brought to Paris around the time of the explosion of literary fairytales by French writers Charles Perrault, Charlotte-Rose de la Force, Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier and others. If so, these French storytellers would have had to have read Basile in his original Neapolitan dialect, which is strikingly different to both Latin and Italian.
The story ‘La Puissance d’Amour’, told by Charlotte-Rose in the novel on the night she first meets Charles de Briou, is a paraphrasing of one of her actual fairytales, which has never before been translated into English.
Similarly, ‘Bearskin’, the story about a princes turned into a she-bear, is one of Henriette-Julie d’Murat’s most famous fairytales, and she was indeed a cousin of Charlotte-Rose de la Force.
I first heard about Charlotte-Rose de la Force in an essay by Terri Windling, 'Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair', in Endicott Stduio's Spring 2006 Journal of Mythic Arts. This was the first seed that led me on my journey to discovering the life of this extraordinary writer.
My primary source for the facts of Charlotte-Rose's life come from "Mademoiselle de la Force: auteur mèconnu du XVIIͨ siècle", by the French academic Michel Souloumiac, which I had translated into English, again for the first time. My secondary source was "Letters from Liselotte: the collected letters of Elisabeth Charlotte, Princess Palatine and Duchess of Orléans, 'Madame', 1652-1722", in which she recorded the gossip of the Sun King's court. Charlotte-Rose is mentioned a number of times.
Researching and writing the life of Charlotte-Rose de la Force was like assembling and putting together a gigantic jigsaw - it required patience, dedication and persistence. I feel, however, that I have discovered one of the most fascianting women ever forgotten by history.