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BITTER GREENS: The Facts behind the Fiction of Charlotte-Rose de la Force's life

Monday, March 06, 2017


To celebrate International Women's Day, I thought I would spotlight the real (and unjustly forgotten) historical women whose lives I have drawn upon in my fiction.

First off the rank is Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, the 17th century fairy-tale writer who is best known for having written the best known version of 'Rapunzel'. I drew upon the true events of her dramatic and tempestuous life to write my novel Bitter Greens . 

This blog was first published in September 2014.


My novel 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.

 

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 fascinating women ever forgotten by history.

Read more about BITTER GREENS or BUY IT HERE!

THE 50/50 PROJECT: Finishing my Doctorate & Publishing my Exegesis

Monday, November 28, 2016

THE 50/50 PROJECT: Finishing my Doctorate & Publishing my Exegesis

 


My novel BITTER GREENS was written as the creative component of a Doctorate in Creative Arts at the University of Technology, Sydney.

It retells ‘Rapunzel’ in a Renaissance Venice setting, entwining the fairy tale with the dramatic true-life story of the 17th century French noblewoman who wrote the tale as it is best known, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force. She was second cousin to Louis XIV, the Sun King, and a maid-of-honour at the royal court in Versailles. She wrote her story ‘Persinette’ while locked away in an impoverished convent by the king, as punishment for her wild and wicked ways (which included dressing up as a dancing bear to try and rescue her much younger lover). 




BITTER GREENS  took me seven long years to research and write, including the four years that it took complete my doctorate. 

As the theoretical component of the degree, I also wrote a 30,000-word dissertation on the history of the Maiden in the Tower tale, examining why this tale haunted my imagination above all others, and why it has continued to be told and re-told for so many hundreds of years.



I am very glad and proud to announce that my doctoral dissertation is to be published in book form by the wonderful people at FableCroft.


THE REBIRTH OF RAPUNZEL: A MYTHIC BIOGRAPHY OF THE MAIDEN IN THE TOWER will also include a number of essays and articles on fairy tales and folklore. 

FableCroft said, in their press release: “This unique collection will include Kate’s research on the Rapunzel story that underpinned her stunning, award-winning novel, BITTER GREENS … The book is not your usual reference work, but an wonderful exploration of the subject matter, written in Kate’s clever and engaging style.” 


FableCroft have released both a hardcover print edition as well as an accessible ebook version, with cover art by Kathleen Jennings.



A SKETCH OF KATE FORSYTH BY KATHLEEN JENNINGS


You can buy the book now! I hope that you  find the book a fascinating companion book to BITTER GREENS




FURTHER READING:

MY HAND-WRITTEN NOTEBOOKS FOR BITTER GREENS 

THE 50/50 PROJECT: Winning the ALA Award for Best Historical Fiction

BITTER GREENS: The story behind my fascination with 'Rapunzel'

BITTER GREENS: The facts Behind the Fiction of the Sun King & his Court 

My Rapunzel Pinterest page 



PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT – I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!



SPOTLIGHT: A Brief History of Fairy Tales

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A BRIEF HISTORY OF FAIRY TALES

For your enjoyment ...  a brief history of fairy tales!



Myth, Legend & Fairy Tale

The differences between myth, legend, fairy tale & fable can be can simply described as:

Myths: narratives about immortal or supernatural protagonists
Legends: narratives about extraordinary protagonists
Fairy Tales: narratives about ordinary protagonists
Fables: narratives with animal protagonists which convey a moral


History of Fairy Tales

Fairy Tales have their roots in ancient oral storytelling traditions.
 
All cultures have their own myths & legends. Many fairy tales wear ‘the easy doublet’ of myth.
 
A.D. 100-200, Ancient Greece – “Cupid and Psyche” written by Apuleius 

A.D. 850-860, China - The first known version of “Cinderella” is written


C. 1300 – Troubadours and travelling storytellers spread tales throughout medieval Europe 

C. 1500 - One Thousand and One Arabian Nights is first recorded 

1550 & 1553, Italy - Gianfrancesco Straparola publishes The Pleasant Nights - he has been called the 'grandfather of fairy tales'

1600s, Italy - Giambattista Basile writes The Tale of Tales – published posthumously in 1634. This contains 'Petrosinella', the earliest known version of 'Rapunzel' 



1690-1710  - The French Salons invented and played with fairy tales - Marie-Catherine D'Aulnoy invented the term 'conte de fées'

1697 France - Charles Perrault's Mother Goose Tales is published in Paris 

1697 – Charlotte-Rose de la Force publishes her collection which includes the tale we now know of as “Rapunzel”

1740 France - Gabrielle de Villeneuve writes a 362 page version of “Beauty and the Beast”

 1756 France – Jean-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont publishes much shorter version of “Beauty and the Beast” - first tale written specifically for children.



1812 Germany - Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm publish Vol 1 of Childhood and Household Tales

1823 Great Britain - Edgar Taylor publishes the first English translation of the Grimms' tales in German Popular Stories. The book is illustrated by George Cruikshank

1825 Germany – Grimms’ first edition for children - known as The Small Edition - illustrated by Ludwig Grimm

1835 Denmark - Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales Told for Children

1889 England - Andrew Lang publishes The Blue Fairy Book -  the first multicultural fairy tale collection 


1890 Russia - Tchaikovsky's “The Sleeping Beauty” premieres in St Petersburg 

1893 Great Britain - Marian Roalfe Cox publishes her book, Cinderella: Three Hundred and Forty-five Variants of Cinderella, Catskin, and Cap O' Rushes’- the first fairy tale scholarship



1910 Finland - Antti Aarne publishes ‘The Types of the Folktale’. Later, Stith Thompson translates and expands it into English in 1961


1937 United States - Walt Disney's first feature length animated film is released, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs



Now – fairy tales have never been hotter! They dominate our TV and movie screens, and influence advertising, music, and fashion. Plus of course ... fairy tale retellings ...



Fairy Tale Tropes
Pure distillation of plot

Setting is anywhere and nowhere

Traditional sentences & archaic language: Once upon a time ... Long long ago … Once, twice, thrice …. 
‘Abstract style’  - dark forest, brave youth, golden bird

Fairy tale numbers and patterns: the numbers 3 & 7 & 13 i.e. the third sister, the thirteenth fairy

Magic & metamorphosis – talking mirror, prince into frog, girl into bear

Binary oppositions i.e. good & evil, rich & poor, beautiful & ugly, strong & weak

Memorable language i.e. rhythm, rhyme, repetition, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia 

Motifs & metaphors: ‘the language of the night’

Structure – a series of trials & tribulations (often three)

The Fairy Tale ‘happy ending’ .. 

(Though not all fairy tales end happily. Many of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales are very sad, for example) 



FURTHER READING




SPOTLIGHT: My notebooks for my novel BITTER GREENS

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

My novel BITTER GREENS (a retelling of Rapunzel interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first told the tale) is being studied this semester at the University of Queensland. The class tutor (and one of my all-time favourite writers) Kim Wilkins asked me if it was possible to show the students some of the pages from my notebooks. 

I realised I had never posted about my working techniques for BITTER GREENS, and so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so. 

            


I buy a new notebook whenever I begin a new book. Normally, I try and buy something really beautiful and special, but for BITTER GREENS I had been given a pile of plain black notebooks and I thought I had better use those first. 

To make them pretty and special, I stuck images on the front:


       


These are the covers for the notebook devoted to the story of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, set in 17th century Paris and Versailles and the abbey of Gercy-en-Brie in the French countryside. The paintings are not of Charlotte-Rose herself, but of anonymous 17th century French ladies that spoke to me somehow. This is the only image I was able to find of Charlotte-Rose de la Force:



This is the cover of my notebook for the scenes set in Renaissance Venice, which tell the story of Margherita (my maiden) and Selena Leonelli (my witch). The image is one of Titian's most famous paintings of the mysterious women who was his muse. It is called 'Woman with a Mirror' and you can see the original in the Louvre (I did!) 

       

The opening pages of my notebook - the pink stick-it note was from a dinner party where I met some Germans who told me the perfect place to set my Rapunzel scenes in the tower - Sirmione in Lake Garda.  I ended up setting this scenes a few miles away at Rocca del Manerba:


       

Some early pages from my notebook.


It is always very important to me that I plan my key turning points as early as possible in the writing process. I try and find the underlying pattern in the story, which is a process I find very exciting and liberating - it helps me know my key emotional beats, and the scenes which I wish to foreshadow early in the story. BITTER GREENS was a complicated story, so I created a graph like this for each of my major characters - seeing where their stories intersected and how many words each section should be. I often change my graph as the story develops and I learn more about my story - in which case, I draw this diagram again and again, as I try to understand the key underpinnings of the story's architecture.  

These are the opening lines of BITTER GREENS, written longhand in my notebook. I often write key scenes longhand first, to slow myself down and think through what I want to say. Typing is an amazing technological breakthrough for writers, but it can lead to quick and facile writing. I like to write slow and deep and thoughtful at times - usually for my most important scenes or when a line or paragraph is causing me trouble and always, always, always, when I am writing poetry.

         

I have a very visual imagination, so I like to be able to "see" things before I describe them. Consequently I am always sticking in maps, diagrams, and photos into my notebooks, or drawing little maps for myself (this sketch is of Margherita's tower)

An early chapter outline

  

Lists of characters

              

Random pages I thought you might find interesting

     

My notebooks are not particularly pretty - my handwriting is awful and my drawings even worse. They are, however, a record of the creative process from the earliest ideas through to the finished product. I date my pages, keep a record of my word counts, and say where I am when I am working on that page (Paris, Venice, Florence and the south of France all feature in these pages.) 

Writing BITTER GREENS was an extraordinary experience for me. No book I have written has ever dug so deeply into who I truly am. 

 I have written a lot on my blog about Bitter Greens - I hope you will go and explore further! Or take a look at my Pinterest pages on Titian's paintings of his muse, Rapunzel  or my inspirational pinboard for BITTER GREENS

But - most of all - I hope you love the book!

BITTER GREENS: Charlotte-Rose de la Force in her own words

Thursday, February 26, 2015

To celebrate BITTER GREENS being awarded the American Library Association prize for Best Historical Fiction 2015, I thought I'd run some vintage blog posts about the writing, research and inspirations of the novel. 

When I was researching the life of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the real life heroine of my novel 'Bitter Greens', my translator Sylvie Poupard-Gould found a description she had written of herself, one of the few pieces left of her own writing.

Here it is:

“If I wished to create a flattering self portrait, as one ordinarily does, and that I wished to infuse it with as much wit as possible, [I would say]

Never would the much celebrated Helen have had such sweet attributes,
Nor the glory of Niquee caused such a stir.

How many lovers would I have defeated by my charms!
I would renew all our old Paladins - I alone would remake their destinies,
And there would be such a display of arms!

You have to admit, my dear Prince, that things only have the value which we believe them to have, and that I could say, for instance, that I have the loveliest height in the world, that height with which poets often endow their Venus.

It seems to me that I have read somewhere in Homer that She had black eyebrows and eyes - I am in possession of these very same ones. Eyes that we ascribe to the Mother of Love must surely be beautiful: Mine are as such- they say that they are touching, and that never a gaze was so full of charm... I have small and well made feet; my legs, my chest and my hands are rather beautiful. My hair is plentiful, and of the same shade as my eyes. My mouth is red, my teeth fair and I look youthful,

A rose complexion,
Hiding other secret delights,
Which are made of such things that we know but of which we cannot speak...

Isn’t it true then, my Prince, that I have just described the most pleasant beauty conceivable?

All that I have just said is true, and so we must stop here in order to delight those who have not yet laid eyes on me- send this portrait to foreigners, enchant nations and sing my future glory!

However, if I am to remain loyal to this austere sense of truth that rules me, I must confess that, far from being beautiful, I am only just pretty in the eyes of those who love me- who knows what I must look like to those who are indifferent!

All that I have said is true, but there are unpleasant consequences. My nose is not beautiful, my cheeks are high, I have a large mouth and facial features that could do with being more regular. It is almost certain that I am not attractive at first sight, but that with time, one gets used to me. So, to come back to my original point, I look cold, which may give me a distinguished air. I do not seek to attract, because it so happens that very few new people attract me; in this, I am different from other ladies, and like to concentrate my energies on that which pleases me:

To see him, to love him and to remember him
To look after only him
Of the object of my affections
My soul will never tire

I am absolutely the enemy of all constraints, even though my life is one perpetual constraint.
Although I am the mistress of my words and of my actions, of my appearance I am not. I change faces frequently, depending on the mood I am in. Sadness leaves a horrible impression, pride and contempt show too much and do not sit well, languor seems touching, but it is happiness and gaiety which open me up and suit me best. All passions are clearly reflected in my eyes (...) they have a beautiful language for those who wish to listen.

I was born independent and haughty, craving glory to excess. It is also from this trait that I have drawn the strength not to be defeated by adversity. The greatness of my courage allows me to defeat all that I find ill; it allows for a display of resolve that is above my gender and that counters the most outrageous attacks of fortune.

My life is an ongoing philosophy, a living morality. I am extremely fair; I know neither resentment nor the satisfaction of revenge. The misfortune of my enemy triumphs over my anger, and therefore, there is no duty that does not benefit from my generosity.

Whilst I fear malicious gossip, I do not dread fair criticism. True to my virtue, I would much less forgive myself a misdemeanour than others. I am hard on myself and so always look to correct myself- I look for my own approval and do not give it lightly.

 


Read more about BITTER GREENS or BUY THE BOOK!

 

BITTER GREENS: some recipes from the feasts described in 'Bitter Greens'

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Gourmet Delights from Gascony

My books are filled with feasts. 

From larks’ tongue pies to gypsy stew, the food in my books is always carefully researched and vividly described. Part of my research always involves cooking, as far as possible, the meals I describe. (Larks’ tongue pie was a little difficult to achieve, I must admit).

My novel Bitter Greens has a feast scene set in the Chateau de Cazeneuve in Gascony, in which the baroness of the chateau rather reluctantly puts on a meal for the Sun King, Louis XIV, and his corrupt and decadent court.

Gascony is located east and south of Bordeaux, and is a beautiful, rolling, green landscape of orchards and vineyards and tumbledown chateaux, with the snow-capped Pyrenees floating high on the horizon.   

It is famous for its duck dishes – there are far more ducks than people in Gascony – creating the most delicious foie gras, confit and rillettes. Gascony is also the land of the cassoulet, a hearty peasant dish made with duck, sausage and white beans. Pigs hunt for truffles in the forest, and in spring the chestnut trees are in glorious flower along every road. 


Its other most famous invention is the delicious and heady Armagnac brandy.

I tried my hand at a few of the more famous Gascon dishes, with the most delicious results. Here are my favourites: 

Chestnut soup (Soupe aux Chataignes)
Soupe aux Chataignes is a very popular Gascon soup due to the abundance of sweet chestnuts which are grown here.
The primary problem of cooking with chestnuts is peeling them. The old-fashioned way is to score the chestnuts with a knife then bring to the boil in a large pan and simmer for about 10 mins, drain a few at a time and peel off the inner and outer skins while still hot. 
I find it easier to boil a few days in advance and leave– the skins seem easy to remove then. 
Easier still, buy a can of chestnut pureé from your best local delicatessen (cheating, I know, but infinitely easier). 
Serves 6
1 kg of peeled chestnuts or can of chestnut pureé
whites of 4 leeks, washed and chopped
55g of butter
3 potatoes peeled and chopped
4 carrots peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons of crème fraiche
salt and pepper
thin slices of French bread, brushed with oil and toasted
Melt your butter in a large pan with a lid, add leeks and sweat gently for 10 minutes. Add the rest of the vegetables and chestnuts, 2 litres of water and salt and pepper, then bring to the boil. Cover and simmer for 45 mins.
Pureé with a blender and season to taste, stir in the crème fraiche, add the French bread and serve.


Gascon Cassoulet with Duck Confit and White Beans
I travelled to Gascony with my three children, and spent a week staying near Saint-Émilion. We ate this cassoulet  in a tiny stone cafe overlooking the Romanesque church, on a chilly spring evening. I’ve done my best to recreate the dish at home
Serves 4
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
250g pancetta, diced 
1 medium onion, cut coarsely
1 pound dried flageolets or Great Northern beans, rinsed and picked over, then soaked for 2 hours and drained
4 fresh thyme sprigs from the garden
2 litre chicken stock
1 large garlic, broken into cloves and peeled 
salt to taste
4 pieces of duck leg confit, trimmed of excess fat
½ kg of French sausage – duck, pork, garlic – whatever you can get - sliced crosswise 
100g bacon, cut into cubes
2 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
In a large saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the pancetta and cook over moderate heat until the fat has been rendered, about 5 minutes. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the beans, thyme sprigs and stock and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat, stirring and skimming occasionally, until the beans are al dente, about 1 hour.
Add the garlic cloves to the beans and simmer until the garlic and beans are tender, about 15 minutes. Discard the thyme sprigs. Season the beans with salt and let cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate the saucepan overnight.
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Rewarm the beans over moderate heat. Transfer the beans to a large, deep baking dish. Nestle the duck legs, sausage and bacon into the beans. Bake for about 40 minutes, until the cassoulet is bubbling and all of the meats are hot. Remove from the oven and let rest for 15 minutes.
In a skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the bread crumbs and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, until browned and crisp, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle the bread crumbs and the parsley over the cassoulet and serve.


Apple and Armagnac Croustade (Croustade à l’Armagnac aux Pommes)
This looks and tastes amazing! It’s a little fiddly to make, but well worth the effort.
around 10 tablespoons butter 
6-8 large apples, peeled, cored and sliced as thin as you can
1 vanilla bean
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup Armagnac (use brandy or Calvados if you can’t find it)
8 sheets filo dough
1/2 cup caster sugar (or more, as needed)
1/3 cup sliced almonds, divided


For this recipe, I like to use a soft-sided silicon cake pan so you can remove the cake more easily. Spray with cooking oil.
Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Place the apple slices in a bowl. Cut the vanilla bean lengthwise in half and, using the tip of a small knife, scrape the seeds over the apples and drop the pod on top. When the butter is foamy, add the apples with the vanilla and the sugar and cook, stirring very gently but frequently, until the apples are soft and caramelized, about 20 minutes. Transfer the apples to a bowl and allow them to cool to room temperature.


Heat oven to 180°C. Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons butter and set it aside. 
Unfold the filo dough on your work surface and cover it with a damp towel.
Remove the top sheet of filo (re-cover the remaining sheets), brush it lightly with butter, and dust it with sugar. Gently and loosely crumple the dough into a circle and lay it into the cake pan. Sprinkle it with about one-fifth of the almonds. Repeat this procedure three more times, until you have four buttered, sugared and almond-sprinkled sheets of filo lightly layered in the cake pan. 
Spoon the apples into the centre of the croustade, leaving a border of a few centimetres depth. Working as you did before, butter, sugar and crumple a sheet of filo, fitting it over the apples. Sprinkle this layer with the remaining almonds, and cover this with another crumpled sheet of buttered and sugared filo. Do a little styling and draping; arrange the filo so it looks good.


Slide the croustade into the oven and bake for about 10 to 12 minutes, watching the top of the tart carefully to make certain it doesn't brown too much. The top should be just lightly browned. Remove the croustade from the oven.


Increase the oven temperature to 200°C. Butter and sugar another sheet of filo, loosely crumple it and place it on the last layer to make a light, airy crown. Bake the croustade for 5 to 10 minutes, or until lightly browned, then remove it from the oven again.


Butter the last sheet of filo and, once again, crumple it to make a crown. Place it on top of the croustade and dust it heavily with the remaining powdered sugar. Return the tart to the oven and bake until the top layer caramelizes evenly, about 5 to 10 minutes. Check the progress of the sugar frequently because it can go from brown to burned in a flash.

Read more about BITTER GREENS or BUY IT HERE!




BITTER GREENS: The story behind my fascination with Rapunzel

Monday, February 23, 2015

BITTER GREENS has won the American Library Association Award for Best Historical Fiction 2015. 


BITTER GREENS is a retelling of Rapunzel and so I thought I would share with you the story behind my fascination with that particular fairy tale.

Rapunzel is one of the most mysterious and enduring of all fairy tales, telling the story of a young girl sold to a witch by her parents for a handful of bitter green herbs. 


I have been fascinated by the Rapunzel tale ever since I was a child myself.

When I was two years old, I was savaged by a dog and ended up with terrible head injuries that resulted in meningitis (infection of the membranes that surround the brain) and encephalitis (a life-threatening inflammation of the brain). I was very ill for months, spending most of that year in hospital and ending with dreadful scars all over my head (thankfully most of them are hidden by my hair). I had half of one ear torn off and my left tear duct was destroyed, and with it my ability to control my tears. My eye wept all the time. 



As a result, I was in and out of hospital for the next six or seven years, half-blind and racked with fever. I used to lie in my hospital bed, all alone in an empty children’s ward at the Sydney Eye Hospital, staring with my one good eye out the window. All I could see was a high green hill, crowned with an ancient Moreton Bay fig tree and the sandstone wall of the Art Gallery of NSW. It looked like a castle. I used to imagine myself galloping away over the hill, on my way to marvellous adventures. 


I think my fascination with Rapunzel began with my own entrapment in that lonely hospital ward. Again and again I write about people imprisoned in towers and dungeons, longing to be rescued. It is a recurring motif in my novels, most recently in my fantasy adventure for children, The Wildkin’s Curse, which tells the story of a wildkin princess kept captive in an impossibly tall crystal tower, telling stories to try and free herself. 

I love the story of Rapunzel because of the ardent love affair between the imprisoned girl and the prince who rescues her, and because of the miraculous healing of the prince’s eyes by Rapunzel’s tears. Rapunzel begins as a powerless child-like victim but by the end of the story she has become a magical agent of healing and redemption. 

Most people think that Rapunzel was first told by the Grimm Brothers in the early 19th century, but in fact it is a much older story than that. 

There are numerous Maiden in Tower stories in cultures all around the world, so many it has its own classification in the Aarne-Thompson fairytale motif index, Type 310. The first may well be from Christian iconography, with the story of Saint Barbara, a virtuous young girl locked in a tower by her father in the 3rd century. She was tortured for her beliefs, but all her wounds were miraculously healed overnight and in the end she was beheaded by her own father, who was then struck by lightning and killed. 

The very first time the motif of the ‘hair ladder’ appeared in a fairy story was in a 10th century Persian tale told by Ferdowsi (932-1025 AD), in which a woman in a harem offers to lower her hair to her lover, Zal, so he can climb up to her. He is afraid he might hurt her and so throws up a rope instead. 

The ‘hair ladder’ reappears in the story, Petrosinella, in the mid 17th century, as part of a collection of literary fairy tales told by a Florentine writer, Giambattista Basile. His collection, Lo cunto de li cunti (The Tale of Tales), was first published in 1634-36 and told the story of a princess who could not laugh. Various storytellers gathered to tell her stories in the hope they can amuse her, including one who tells the story of a girl, Petrosinella (Little Parsley), who is given up to an ogress after her mother steals parsley from the ogress’s garden. The ogress locks Petrosinella up in a tower in the forest, using her hair as a ladder to access the building. Petrosinella escapes with the help of a prince who heard her singing, overcoming the ogress by casting three magical acorns behind her that turn into obstacles that impede the witch and ultimately devour her. 

Sixty years later, the story appears again, this time in France. It is told by a woman writer, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, who has been banished to a convent after displeasing the king, Louis XIV, at his glittering court in Versailles. Locked away in a cloister, much like Rapunzel is in her tower, Charlotte-Rose was among the first writers to pen a collection of literary fairy tales and one of the world’s first historical novelists. Published under a pseudonym, Madame X, Charlotte-Rose’s tales became bestsellers and she was eventually able to buy her release.



In Persinette, her version of the tale, the mother conceives an insatiable longing for parsley which her husband steals for her from a sorceress’s garden. Caught by the sorceress, he promises her his unborn daughter who the sorceress collects at the age of seven. Persinette is raised by the sorceress until she is twelve and then locked away in her tower (though the sorceress treats her gently and brings the child everything she could possibly want.) In time she becomes a woman; the prince hears her singing and chants the rhyme so he can climb up the ladder of hair to her room, where he seduces her (“he became bolder and proposed to marry her right then and there, and she consented without hardly knowing what she was doing. Even so, she was able to complete the ceremony” is how Charlotte-Rose rather coyly describes his seduction.)

Persinette becomes pregnant as a result, and in her naivety betrays herself to the sorceress when she complains about her dress growing tighter. The Grimm brothers later changed this to Rapunzel complaining about how much heavier the witch is than her prince, which at a single stroke makes Rapunzel seem extremely stupid. 

Then Charlotte-Rose changes the ending so that the prince is blinded, Persinette bears twins in the wilderness, and then heals her lover’s eyes with her redemptive tears. The sorceress continues to torment them, until the young couple’s courage and tender love for each other move her to mercy and she magically returns them to the prince’s loving family.

This story was then retold in Germany by the German author Friedrich Schulz, which is almost identical to Charlotte-Rose’s story except that he changed the girl’s name to Rapunzel, perhaps because it is prettier than parsley. A rapunzel plant is a type of wild rampion. It was then retold by the Grimm Brothers in their 1812 fairytale collection, becoming less powerful, dark and sexy with each edition until we have the tale that most children know today.


It is Charlotte-Rose and her version which provide the inspiration for my book. She was a fascinating woman – strong-willed, intelligent and fiercely independent – who once rescued her lover from imprisonment by going into his parent’s castle with a travelling troupe of performers disguised as a dancing bear! How could I not write a book about her?

This blog was originally published, in a longer form, at the fabulous fairy tale and folklore blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles

Read more about BITTER GREENS or BUY THE BOOK HERE!

BITTER GREENS: Juliet Marillier interviews me about the writing of my novel 'Bitter Greens'

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Today I am appearing at the PERTH WRITERS FESTIVAL with Juliet Marillier, Joe Abercrombie and Robyn Cadwaller and so to celebrate, I thought I'd run an interview I did with Juliet about my ALA Award winning novel BITTER GREENS, a retelling of Rapunzel interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first wrote the tale.



When BITTER GREENS was first published, Juliet Marillier interviewed me on Writers Unboxed - here is that interview for your reading pleasure:  

JULIET: 
Kate, congratulations on this wonderful new novel and thanks so much for agreeing to talk to Writer Unboxed. Bitter Greens is one of those books that breaks out of recognised genre moulds – it’s part historical novel, part fairy tale, and part serious examination of gender roles, power and cruelty in 16th and 17th century France and Italy. What would you like our readers to know about the story ?

KATE:
I began wanting to retell the Rapunzel fairy tale, which has fascinated and puzzled me ever since I first read it as a child. I’ve always loved both fairy tales and retellings of fairy tales, but it seemed to me that most reworkings of the Rapunzel story sidestepped the biggest problems in it. For example, why did the witch want to lock her in a tower. Why was Rapunzel’s hair so impossibly long? Why didn’t Rapunzel ask the prince to bring a rope so she could climb down and escape? 

The other big problem with fairy tale retellings, I think, is that they can lack surprise and suspense, the two ingredients I consider the most important in creating a compelling narrative. The stories are so well-known that it’s difficult to build suspense, or create switches and reversals, when the reader knows the story so well. Most writers solve this problem by subverting the tale, but this usually fails to surprise as well. I wanted to be faithful to the haunting, beautiful feel of the familiar tale, while still writing a gripping, unputdownable novel. 

JULIET: I loved the complexity of the novel, especially the way you intertwined the stories of three very different women.  Each thread is told in a different voice and each is distinctive in style. Did you plan from the first to structure the book that way? How did you go about putting the three threads together ?

KATE
I am a fervent believer in the importance of planning the internal architecture of a story. I think structure is the invisible underpinnings of the narrative, and any book which fails usually does so because of a poor internal structure. So I always think very carefully about how I’m going to build my narrative. 
My initial plan was to have the three narrative threads being equal in length, and braided together like a plait, so that the structure of the novel symbolically reflected the key motif of the Rapunzel fairy tale, the impossibly long plait. 

Usually I write in third person multiple POV, but I felt very strongly that the frame narrative, the story of Charlotte-Rose and how she came to write her fairy tale, should be told in first person. I had never written in first person before, but I really enjoyed it, and I found Charlotte-Rose’s voice came to me strongly right away. I wrote the entirety of Charlotte-Rose’s story, from the beginning to the end, indicating where I thought I would intercut with my other two narrative threads. 

I then told the story of Margherita (my Rapunzel character) in third person, and in a far more simple style, because this was a tale being told to Charlotte-Rose by another. Once I had finished the whole story, I then wove these two together, making sure I kept a fine balance between the two different tales. 

Only then did I turn to the third narrative thread, the tale of the witch Selena Leonelli, who is a Venetian courtesan, and muse to the artist Tiziano. Her story was much darker, and seemed to me to have a kind of potency or intensity, that would be dissipated if I broke it up to interweave with the other two tales. It woudl also mean too much chopping and changing. So I changed my plan, and made the witch’s tale the dark heart of the novel, the unexpected midpoint reversal which changed everything you thought you knew about Charlotte-Rose’s and Margherita’s stories. 


JULIET: You’re an extremely versatile writer, with a body of published work including award-winning novels for children and young adults, two best-selling fantasy series for adult readers, collections of poetry and an earlier literary novel. What drives you to keep challenging yourself as a writer?

KATE:
I always think that the great dangers for any creative artist are smugness and predictability. Market pressures mean that writers are constantly being asked for more of the same, yet it is very difficult to keep writing the same storyline, with the same characters, and not start to feel stale and monotonous. 

I always want to write better than I have before, to keep pushing myself to create something fresh and unusual and exciting. I want my readers to know they will find a vivid, compelling, surprising and emotionally moving story every time they sit down with one of my books. It’s easier to win new readers than it is to win back dissatisfied readers. 

Of course, every time someone loves one of my books, they write to me begging me to write a sequel, or another just like it. I always tell them that I hope they’ll read my other books too, and love them just as much.


JULIET: 
I know Bitter Greens was written as part of your work on a doctorate in fairy tale retellings at the University of Technology in Sydney (correct me if this is wrong.) How different was this experience from writing your earlier adult novels? Did the academic side of things put any constraints on the way you created the book? Was your process different?


KATE:
I thought, when I first began to conceive and develop the idea of doing a retelling of Rapunzel, that it would make a fascinating doctoral project.  ‘Bitter Greens’ was a very research-intensive book to write, and it seemed a good way to maximise all those long hours reading through scholarly fairy tale articles.  I had actually written a novel before under university supervision – my novel ‘Full Fathom Five’ was written as my thesis for my Master of Arts in Writing. (Although I wrote it in my 20s, it was my eighth published novel).
I do not feel my doctorate put any constraints on me in a creative sense. My supervisor, the novelist Debra Adelaide, was more concerned in helping me find the voice of my protagonist, and to help me learn to be a better writer. 

I am always eager to learn, and so I was grateful to her for her close scrutiny of my work. I’m not used to showing my early drafts to anyone and so I did find that difficult, but she was very tactful.

I actually love writing articles and essays as well as poems and novels, and so I’ve been enjoying the theoretical aspect of the doctorate as well. I like to know everything I possibly can about a time or a place or a person or a subject before I write about it, and so I would have studied just as intensively for the novel as I am now doing for my exigesis. I am writing about the many different retellings of Rapunzel, from the earliest Maiden in the Tower tales right down to Disney’s ‘Tangled’ and the use of Rapunzel motifs in advertising and popular culture. It’s fascinating. 

JULIET: There must have been a huge amount of research behind Bitter Greens, though you use your historical material with a storyteller’s light touch – it’s never laid on too heavily. I understand you travelled to France and Italy with your children to do research. Tell us a bit about that.

KATE:
I did! It was wonderful. I have always taken my children with me on research trips. They’ve been to London, Paris, Venice and Edinburgh, to the Isle of Skye, Sussex, Gascony and Lake Garda. They’re lucky children!

I feel it very important to actually go to the places I describe in my books. A writer doesn’t simply describe a mountain, or a lake, or a castle, or a city street. They need to imbue that scene with some kind of emotional significance. They need to know what the characters would hear, and smell, and feel. 

Kate writing in Florence

JULIET: 
The book is beautifully structured. I particularly loved the Rapunzel poems by various writers that stand at the start of each section.  What do you think it is about this particular fairy tale that grabs people’s imagination?

KATE: 
Rapunzel is a tale about love, sex and power. Psychologically speaking, it is normally interpreted as a tale about a young girl on the brink of puberty who is kept locked away from the world by a mother-figure who seeks to protect her. Only by defying her mother, and coming to terms with her own sexuality, is the girl able to grow into maturity. However, like all fairy tales it is open to much deeper interpretations. 


JULIET: Some passages of Bitter Greens must have been exceptionally challenging to write. I’m referring in particular to scenes of sexual violence, part of your realistic depiction of the society those women lived in. I found parts of the book extremely disturbing to read. What were your reasons for choosing to present this material so openly?


KATE:
It is true a few scenes were exceptionally difficult to write. In particular, the gang rape of Selena’s mother. I had to get up and leave the computer, and come back to it, only to flee again. Yet it felt important to me, both psychologically in the development of an understanding of what drove Selena to do what she did, and historically, to illuminate what life was like for women of that era. One of the things that most fascinated and disturbed me about the Rapunzel tale is that it is a woman who imprisons another woman. Why? What led her to do such a terrible thing?  Most retellings of Rapunzel never truly examine this, and yet it was one of the questions that first spurred me to explore the tale.

Although it was so awful to write, it seemed to have a ring of truth about it.

JULIET: 
When you were first considering writing this, you said it would be ‘a dark gothic retelling of a dark gothic fairytale.’ It’s certainly a gritty and challenging story, revealing among other things the unsavoury reality behind the frothy and glamorous French court. Do you think most fairytales have that shadow about them, the darkness beneath the charming surface? 


KATE: 
I do indeed. It is one of the things that most intrigues me about fairytales. I love the haunting beauty of them, the magical strangeness, the joyous triumph over adversity. Yet I am also drawn by the darkness of them, the sense of a cost to be paid for that joy. 


JULIET: I understand you’re already well into a new project, a novel about Dortchen Wild, the Grimm Brothers’ ‘girl next door’. And it includes a retelling of a Grimm fairytale, ‘Allerleirauh’ or ‘All Kinds of Fur.’ Can you tell us about the new novel? 


KATE: Oh, yes, I’m completely obsessed with Dortchen Wild now, just like I was completely obsessed with Charlotte-Rose de la Force last year. I think I’m drawn to the forgotten, cobwebbed corners of history, particularly when it relates to extraordinary, neglected women.
A drawing of Dortchen Wild by Ludwig Grimm

Dortchen Wild was twelve when she met the Grimm Brothers. She lived next door to them, above her father’s apothecary shop, and was the source of some of their most compelling and unusual stories. She told Wilhelm Grimm ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘The Frog King’, ‘Six Swans’ (a favourite of mine as you well know, Juliet!) and ‘The Singing Bone’ (about a murdered boy whose bones are used to make a harp that then sings to accuse his murderers). She told a very gruesome version of ‘Bluebeard’ called ‘Fitcher’s Bird’, the primary difference being that the heroine saves herself and her sisters, and a very beautiful version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ called ‘The Springing, Singing Lark’. A key tale of hers was ‘Allerleirauh’ or ‘All Kinds of Fur’, better known as ‘Deerskin’ or ‘Catskin’ about a princess whose father wants to marry her. 

I’m interweaving the beautiful and rather tragic story of Dortchen and Wilhelm’s love affair with her tales, drawing upon ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’ in particular (Dortchen’s father was a very stern and strict man who forbade her to see her one true love, and who may indeed have abused her). 

BITTER GREENS: The history of the Rapunzel fairy tale

Friday, February 20, 2015

BITTER GREENS, my retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale, has won the American Library Association award for Best Historical Fiction in 2015. 

Here, for your delight, is a brief history of the tale ...


Rapunzel is one of the most mysterious and enduring of all fairy tales, telling the story of a young girl sold to a witch by her parents for a handful of bitter green herbs. 


Most people think that the ‘Rapunzel’ story was first told by the Grimm Brothers in the early 19th century, but in fact it is a much older tale than that. There are so many ‘Maiden in the Tower’ stories in cultures all around the world that it has its own classification in the Aarne-Thompson fairytale motif index (Type 310). 

The first known version is from Christian iconography with the story of Saint Barbara. She was a virtuous young girl locked in a tower by her father in the 3rd century. She was tortured for her Christian beliefs but her wounds miraculously healed overnight and when she was beheaded by her father, he was struck by lightning and killed. Most images of her show her with long, flowing, blonde hair, and in one version of the story her hair miraculously burst into flame when her father seized hold of it.

The first appearance of the motif of the ‘hair ladder’ was in a 10th century Persian tale told by Ferdowsi (932-1025 AD), in which a woman in a harem offers to lower her hair to her lover so he can climb up to her. He is afraid he might hurt her and so throws up a rope instead. 

The ‘hair ladder’ reappears in Petrosinella, a literary fairy tale told by a Florentine writer, Giambattista Basile and published in 1634. Basile was living in Venice at the time and so may have heard many tales brought by sailors and merchants from faraway lands. Petrosinella (Little Parsley) is given up to an ogress after her mother steals parsley from the ogress’s garden. The ogress locks Petrosinella up in a tower in the forest, using her hair as a ladder to access the building. Petrosinella escapes with the help of a prince who heard her singing, overcoming the ogress by casting three magical acorns behind her that turn into obstacles that impede the witch and ultimately devour her. 

Sixty years later, the story appears again, this time in France. It is told in 1698 by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force , who has been banished to a convent after displeasing the Sun King, Louis XIV, at his opulent court in Versailles. Locked away in a cloister, much like Rapunzel is in her tower, Charlotte-Rose was among the first writers to pen a collection of literary fairy tales and also one of the world’s first historical novelists. Published under a pseudonym, Mademoiselle X, Charlotte-Rose’s tales became bestsellers and she was eventually able to buy her release.

In Persinette, Mademoiselle de la Force’s version of the tale, the mother conceives an insatiable longing for parsley which her husband steals for her from a sorceress’s garden. When he is caught by the sorceress, the husband promises the sorceress his unborn daughter. The sorceress comes and collects the little girl at the age of seven, names her Persinette, and raises her until she is twelve. Persinette is then locked away in a tower without a door or stair, deep in a forest. 

In time she becomes a woman; the prince hears her singing and chants the rhyme so he can climb up the ladder of hair to her room, where he seduces her. “He became bolder and proposed to marry her right then and there, and she consented without hardly knowing what she was doing. Even so, she was able to complete the ceremony” is how Charlotte-Rose rather coyly describes his seduction. 

Persinette becomes pregnant as a result, and in her naivety betrays herself to the sorceress when she complains about her dress growing tighter. The sorceress is furious. She cuts off Persinette’s hair and banishes her to a far-distant wilderness, then tricks the prince into climbing up the braids to the tower. She then causes him to fall from the tower to the ground, and he is blinded by the thorns that grow about the base of the tower. Persinette bears twins in the wilderness, then finds the prince and heals his eyes with her tears. The sorceress continues to torment them, until the young couple’s courage and tender love for each other move her to mercy and she magically returns them to the prince’s loving family. 

The story was then retold by the German author Friedrich Schulz (1790). His version is almost identical to Mademoiselle de la Force’s, except that he changed the girl’s name to Rapunzel. It was then retold by the Grimm Brothers (1812), becoming less powerful, mysterious and sexually charged with each subsequent edition. For example, Rapunzel betrays the prince by remarking that the witch is much heavier to pull up, rather than by the witch’s realization that Rapunzel is pregnant. 

I love Charlotte-Rose de la Force’s version of the story because of the ardent love affair and the miraculous healing of the prince’s eyes, and also because the heroine takes a more active role than in later versions of the tale. Persinette is imprisoned as a child, but she survives her ordeal, plots her escape, falls in love, and then raises two children on her own. She heals her lover’s wounds with her tears, and she persuades the sorceress to set them free. She becomes a magical agent of healing and salvation, not only for herself and her family, but also for the sorceress. 

I am also fascinated by Charlotte-Rose herself. Strong-willed, intelligent and fiercely independent, she once rescued her lover from imprisonment by disguising herself as a dancing bear and entering his father’s castle with a travelling troupe of performers. Her stories were among the first literary fairy tales to be published, and her historical novels are known to have been read and enjoyed by Sir Walter Scott, who many attribute with beginning the historical fiction genre. Her most famous novel, The Secret History of Margeurite de Valois (1697), was also a strong influence on Alexander Dumas’s novel The Queen Margot (1854). She was an early feminist who believed passionately in free love and fought to live her own life liberated from the rigid hierarchy and etiquette of the court of Louis XIV. I find it interesting that her own story echoes the themes of Persinette – she is locked away from society by the king, but she wins her freedom by telling stories.

In my novel, Bitter Greens, I have entwined a retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale with Charlotte-Rose’s dramatic life story to create a novel of desire, obsession, black magic, and the redemptive power of love. Oh, and Giambattista Basile makes a brief appearance too …


BITTER GREENS: Vampires in Renaissance Venice

Thursday, February 19, 2015

BITTER GREENS has won the ALA Award for Best Historical Novel 2015!

To celebrate, I'm running some vintage posts about the writing of the novel. Enjoy!


One of my absolute favourite things about writing a novel is all the extraordinary things you discover while doing your research that are begging, no, pleading, no, SCREAMING OUT to be used.

My novel BITTER GREENS is stuffed full of these forgotten, fascinating facts, but my absolute favourite is the burial rites of suspected vampires in Renaissance Venice.




Corpses suspected to be those of vampires had their jaws wrenched open, and a large brick or stone jammed into their mouths, before they were wrapped in a shroud and flung into a plague-pit.

The brick was to prevent them from chewing their way out of the grave.

BITTER GREENS is a retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale, interwoven with the dramatic life story of the woman who first told the tale, the 17th century French writer, Charlotte-Rose de la Force. So you may be forgiven for wondering what on earth that has to do with Venetian vampires. 

Well, Charlotte-Rose de la Force wrote her version of the old Maiden in the Tower tale while locked up in a falling-down old nunnery in rural France in the late 1690s. 

However, an earlier version of the tale was written by a Neapolitan soldier, Giambattista Basile, in the early part of the 1600s, while he was serving the Venetian Republic. 

I have always been fascinated by Venice, and so I at once saw how perfect it would be for a retelling of Rapunzel. All those secret, walled gardens, all those labyrinthine alleyways and canals, all those tall towers and secret passageways. I planned a parallel story, with one narrative thread being the story of Charlotte-Rose, writing in France in the 1690s, and the other set close on a hundred years earlier, in the gorgeous and dangerous world of Renaissance Venice.

I decided to have three Points of View – Charlotte-Rose herself, the Rapunzel character (who I called Margherita), and the witch. It was while writing the story of the witch - who I made a beautiful courtesan and Titian’s mysterious red-haired muse -  that I stumbled across the real-life 16th century woman who had been buried with a brick jammed in her jaws.




The body was discovered in early March, 2009, by archaeologists digging up a mass grave on the Lazzaretto Nuova, an island in the Venetian lagoon where plague victims were taken to die. 

When the skeleton with the brick-jammed jaws was first discovered, project leader Matteo Borrini, a forensic archaeologist at the University of Florence in Italy, said that this was a common practice among people who believed fervently in vampires.

He said that the belief in vampires in the Middle Ages may have begun because the process of decomposition was not well understood. For example, as the human stomach decays, it can release a dark, bloody fluid from a corpse's nose and mouth. As mass burials were often opened up again to add new plague victims, Italian gravediggers would see some shrouds were stained or torn about the mouth, and so surmise that those corpses were those of vampires.

Inserting bricks and stones into the mouths of suspected vampires was thought to stop them chewing their way out, feasting on other corpses, and stalking the night looking for fresh blood.

Suspected witches (often thought to drink blood too) were also buried with bricks in their jaws. Further studies on the skeleton found on the Lazzaretto Nuova show that she was a lower-class woman of around 61 to 71 years of age, which is surprisingly old for a woman of that time. 

Matteo Borrini says this may show that the old woman had been accused of being a witch. In medieval Europe, many people believed the devil gave witches the power to cheat death.

All this was, of course, a gift to a novelist writing partly from the point of view of a witch in 16th century Venice. 

To see how I used this particular gift, well, you’ll just have to read the book .... 

Read more about BITTER GREENS or BUY IT HERE!


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