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BEAUTY IN THORNS: Edward Burne-Jones's Sleeping Beauty paintings

Saturday, September 08, 2018

The National Gallery of Australia has just announced a major exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art, 'Love & Desire', will open in mid-December. It's bringing out many of the Tate's masterpieces for the very first time. This is a chance for Australians to discover the extraordinary luminous art of this circle of passionate rebellious mid-Victorian artists, which I have loved all my love and which inspired my novel, Beauty in Thorns.   

Beauty in Thorns is an historical novel for adults which tells the astonishing true story behind the famous 'Sleeping Beauty' painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. Told in the voices of four very different women, Beauty in Thorns is a story of love, desire, art, and awakenings of all kinds. 

Burne-Jones painted the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale many times over the forty-odd years of his career: 

In May 1856, Burne-Jones drew a pencil sketch of his betrothed, Georgie Macdonald, as the Sleeping Beauty to amuse her little sister Louie on her birthday. He was 23 years old and Georgie was sixteen. I believe this is the sketch, though it has not been officially confirmed. 

In 1862, Burne-Jones designed a series of 'Sleeping Beauty' tiles for a client of the Morris & Co decorating firm, of which he was a partner. The princess looks very much like Lizzie Siddal, who had died a few months earlier of a laudanum overdose, and the prince kneeling to kiss her awake looks very much like her grieving widower Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The peacock (featured on the wall of the boudoir) is a symbol of immortality and rebirth.  This tile is one of nine in a sequence that begins with the baby in her cradle and ends with the marriage of the prince and princess. The tiles can be seen at the V&A Museum in Kensington.

In the 1870s, Burne-Jones had a tempestuous affair with one of his models, the sculptor Maria Zambaco, and he painted a very sensual version of Sleeping Beauty with his mistress modelling as the princess. The affair ended badly, with Maria attempting to drown herself in Regent's Canal.  At one point, Ned planned to run away with Maria but he ended returning to his wife and family so they would not be besmirched by the scandal. 

This painting - now in Puerto Rico - was the final in a sequence of three paintings that showed the prince in the briar wood, the king and his councillors asleep in the council chamber, and the princess asleep with her maids.

This beautiful drawing is a chalk study of his daughter Margaret that Burne-Jones made in 1881, when he was planning another sequence of painting inspired by the fairytale. Margaret was then fifteen, the age of the princess in the story.

And this exquisite painting of his daughter Margaret as Sleeping Beauty was created by Burne-Jones in 1884-1887,  as the final in a sequence of four enormous painting which now hang in Buscot Park, in Oxfordshire. Margaret was aged in her late teens and early twenties, and had fallen in love with a young poet and scholar named John William Mackail, much to her father's distress. 

The four paintings - called 'The Legend of Briar Rose' - caused an absolute sensation when they were first exhibited in 1890, with queues of carriages along Bond Street and crowds of people returning again and again to view them. Burne-Jones sold the quartet of painting for fifteen thousand guineas, the most money a British artist had ever been paid, and he was subsequently knighted by the Queen. 

His final painting is a small circle, entitled 'Wake Dearest' which he painted for his ever-loving and faithful wife Georgie in the final year of his life (1898). I believe she was the model for the princess. This tiny masterpiece - along with 37 other tiny glowing circles - were left to Georgie in his will, and later published as 'The Flower Book'. 

My novel Beauty in Thorns tells the story behind the creation of these exquisite drawings and paintings - a story of love, betrayal, heartbreak, death, and awakening of all kinds.  

SPOTLIGHT: Books That Haunt a Child Forever

Saturday, January 06, 2018


Bertrand Russell said, ‘There are only two motives for reading a book: one, that you can enjoy it; two, that you can boast about it.’
Children, of course, rarely read a book for any other reason than enjoyment. And there really should be no other reason to read. 

Books give us entertainment and escape, refreshment and relaxation, and even, perhaps, wisdom. 
The best of them also bewitch us, giving us some sense of beauty and astonishment that stays with us all of our lives.

One of my favourite writers, Susan Cooper, wrote about one of her favourite writers, Walter de la Mare: 
“I’ve had my copy of this wonder for thirty years and must have turned to it at least as many times each year – 
sometimes for solace, sometimes for sunlight, always with an emotion that I have never quite been able to define. 
Come Hither is my talisman, my haunting: a distillation of the mysterious quality that sings out of all the books 
to which I've responded most deeply all my life - 
and that I deeply hope as a writer I might someday, somehow, be able to catch.”

That quote says exactly what I feel most passionately about books and about my writing. I too want to write books that become talismans, 
to write books that have that “mysterious quality that sings”.

Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising is a book that has haunted me all my life. 

So too:

Philippa Pierce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden

Lucy Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe

Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse

Ursula le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea 

Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase 

 Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life. 

There are, of course, others. 

These, however, are my magic seven, the ones I have returned to so many times 

their flimsy paperbacks are falling to pieces in my hands.

What all these books have in common is a sense of wonder and mystery, 

a feeling that adventure and magic is lurking just around the corner. 

They are also silver-tongued. The writing is vivid and supple and lucent. 

The characters are alive, dancing and joking and fighting and fearing 

and losing and sorrowing and prevailing at sometimes a great cost. 

They sing.

Lucy Boston once wrote: 

"I believe children, even the youngest, love good language, and that they see, feel, understand 

and communicate more, not less, than grownups. 

Therefore I never write down to them, but try to evoke that new brilliant awareness that is the world.’

Me too!

Every book I have ever written is in homage to these writers – among others – 

and these books – among others. I'm a passionate advocate of books which empower children -

books which teach children they have the chance to choose 

what they become, and that their choice can change the world.

Jane Yolen - another favourite writer of mine - said:

“A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book 

cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult. 

What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child 

that has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, 

or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged, the greatest wizard Earthsea has ever known?” 

In a speech I gave recently, I said, 'I love writing for children aged about eleven or twelve.

It was the age in which I first really discovered books and reading. 

It was the age in which I laid down my idea of the world and how it works. 

The books I read then are the books which I have carried with me all my life. 

At this age, I can still hope to surprise and enchant my readers. 

I can still hope to save them.’

Until I said this, I did not know that was what I longed for. 

Yet I do. 

To haunt my readers with beauty, to astonish them with the strange and the miraculous, 

to help them realise they have the power to change the world. 

This is what I, as a writer, deeply hope I might someday, somehow, catch and pass on.

(This longer version of this article was first published in Magpies in 2004)

THE BLUE ROSE: I've started writing the new novel

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

I've begun writing my new novel, The Blue Rose.

it's always really thrilling to start putting words down. I've been thinking and planning and day-dreaming this novel for about three months now (I began work on it on Sunday 23rd July, on the night of the new moon). 

For those of you who have not been following my creative journey with this novel, here is a brief outline:

The Blue Rose is a historical novel for adults set in the late 18th century and moving between France during the 'Terror' of the French Revolution and Imperial China, a mysterious and scarcely discovered land of mandarins with long curving fingernails and concubines with bound feet. The book is inspired by the true story of a quest for a blood-red rose that blooms even in winter.

This is a picture of Rosa semperflorens, the ruby-red repeat-flowering rose brought back from China in the late 18th century. It is the ancestor of all our modern-day red roses.

In the past three months, I have been to London and spent a week in the Chinese archives of the British Library:



I went to Paris and Versailles where many of my scenes are set:



I travelled to Wales to research the life of my hero, a Welsh gardener (and along the way visited Caerphilly Castle and Tredegar House and Fleur-de-Lis, a most unusually named Welsh village where I imagined my hero may have grown up). 



I also visited many 18th century gardens for inspiration for the romantic garden at the heart of The Blue Rose.

Cerney Garden, in the Cotswolds


Coughton Court, in the Cotswolds 
I'd already filled up one notebook with timelines, scene outlines, character sketches and research notes, and have now typed up all my thoughts and ideas, then printed them out to stick in a new notebook. 

During the last few months of thinking and day-dreaming and planning, a few of my ideas have changed. I had initially imagined my heroine living in a chateau in the Loire Valley. I even visited the Loire last year to get some ideas and inspiration. I had a very clear idea of what the chateau looked like, however, and nothing I saw seemed close enough. Then one day someone posted a photo of a chateau in Brittany on Facebook and it looked so much like what I imagined my heroine's home to look like that I had to go and read up about it. It's called the Chateau de Trecesson and it sparked so many ideas for me that I had to move my story from the Loire to the Paimpont Forest in Brittany, a place deeply steeped in Athurian mythology. I also changed my heroine's name from Rosemunde to Viviane. As soon as I had the right name for her, she came to life in my imagination.

The French actress Marine Vacth who looks how I imagine my heroine Viviane would look

My character outline for Viviane 

Brittany in the time of the French Revolution

Chateau de Trecesson in Brittany

The Welsh actor Aneurin Barnard, who is my visual inspiration for my hero David

I began writing on Friday October 20th (again on the time of the new moon) and now I am aiming to write one chapter every week (that's about 4,000 words). There will be weeks when I simply cannot manage it, but I'll try. 

So far my word count is 5,665 words and so its very much early days ... however, once I get into the flow those words will start piling up fast.

Want to know more about The Blue Rose?  Read about the first inspiration for the novel.


A Conspiracy of Inspiration: The Historial Novel Society conference 2017

Monday, September 25, 2017

In early September, I was lucky enough to attend the second conference of the Historical Novel Society Australasia, held in chilly Melbourne. For those of you who were unable to attend, here is the brief speech I made to welcome all the attendees,

The Historical Novel Society is an international organisation that was founded in 1997 to celebrate fiction of all kinds set in the past. The Australasian branch of the society was formally established in 2014, and I am very proud to be its patron.

In our auditorium today, we have some of Australia’s most celebrated and respected authors, working in all genres and all-time frames. Their stories are variously powerful and poignant, sexy and surprising, illuminating and inspiring.

As the weekend passes, they will be asked all sorts of questions and yet I can guarantee the one they dread the most is: Where do you get your ideas from?

My books have been inspired in all kinds of different ways.

A story my grandmother once told me about a bloodstain that can never be scrubbed away.

A charm bracelet passed down through generations of women. 

A raven that dropped a feather at my feet. 

A book that fell open on an unexpected page.

A story that haunted me for a lifetime.

A dream, a day-dream, a painting, an apparition.

Inspiration cannot be manufactured or manipulated. It comes like a bolt out of the blue, or like a whisper in the darkness. I call it ‘the flash’, which is what Emily of New Moon called it, in a beloved series of books by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

The word ‘inspire’ comes from the Latin ‘in-spirae’ which means ‘to breathe into’, as a shepherd might breathe life into a newborn lamb, as a god might breathe life into a statue of clay. Its root word is ‘spiritus’, which means breath, spirit, courage. Other words that arose from the same root included perspiration, respiration, aspiration and – surprisingly – conspiracy, which means to breathe together. 

To be inspired is to be filled with courage and grace, to be given an idea or purpose, to be animated with the breath of life.

And so I hope that all of us today can join together in a conspiracy of inspiration – as Mary Oliver writes, ‘Breathe it all in, Love it all out!’

Thank you.

SPOTLIGHT: The story behind how I first got published

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Today (1 June 2017) marks twenty  years since my first novel was published!

The book was called DRAGONCLAW, and it was the first in the series of heroic fantasy novels called THE WITCHES OF EILEANAN.  


Here is the story of how THE WITCHES OF EILEANAN came to be published:

I’ve always wanted to be a writer – it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to be.

A novel I wrote when I was 15

All through my childhood I wrote many poems and novels, and sent out my first manuscript when I was sixteen – it was handwritten, in my very childish handwriting, on loose foolscap pages. I didn’t know any better! Well, I didn’t have a typewriter and computers were barely invented. It was rejected, of course, but came back with a lovely letter saying that I clearly had talent and must keep writing.

So I did. I laboured over a magic realism novel all though my early 20s, while working as a journalist, and began to have poems and stories published. I sent out my novel a few times, and it was almost published three times, but fell through every time, much to my despair.

Me in my 20s

At the age of 25 I had a quarter-life crisis. I decided to give myself five years, to pour all my energy into getting a book published, but that I’d have to reassess my life if I couldn’t get published by the age of 30.

I quit my job as a journalist and began freelancing to support myself, and I applied to do my Masters of Arts in Writing, using the magic realism novel I had been working on as my thesis.

I began writing the first draft of Dragonclaw while I was studying for my first year exams, probably in reaction to the “fictive discourses” we were told to construct in our writing classes. About 50,000 words into the first draft, I sent off a few sample chapters to Gaby Naher at Hickson Associates.

She came back the next day, saying she loved it, and when could I get her a complete manuscript? I wrote madly for the next few months (practically ignoring my studies and work commitments).

I finished the first draft, she put it up for auction, and I signed with Random House by the end of the month. This made me particularly happy, since it was two days before my 30th birthday.  

I made my deadline by a whisker!

Dragonclaw has gone on to be sold in the US, Germany, Russia, and Japan, and I have been a full-time writer ever since.


 Dragonclaw changed my life forever!

BITTER GREENS: Rapunzel, Charlotte-Rose de la Force & me

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Interview with Elizabeth Jane for the Historical Novel Society magazine

I read on your website that you started out wanting to tell the Rapunzel Story as a historical novel, as if it really happened (as part of your PhD?), until, as part of your research, came across Charlotte Rose de la Force who you describe as one of the 'most fascinating women ever forgotten by history,' and knew you had to write about her. Can you tell me about this process and at what point you decided the two stories must connect? 

I began by wanting to rewrite ‘Rapunzel’. I’d been thinking about doing this since I was twelve, which is when I first tried to write a story based on the fairy tale. At that early age I knew I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of the girl locked in the tower. It was in my mid-teens when I realised I also wanted to tell part of the story from the point of view of the witch. So you can see it was a story I’d been interested in for a very long time.

I wrote many other books, but this idea still bothered me. One day I had an epiphany. I realised that I had been thinking of the book has a children’s fantasy, but that was why I had not been able to move forward with the idea. ‘Rapunzel’ was never meant as a children’s tale. It’s very dark and it’s very sexy. It’s a story of obsession, and madness, and desire, and resurrection, and it needed to be written for an adult audience. I also realised that I did not want to set it in a make-believe world. I wanted to set it in the real world, in our world, where girls are still kidnapped and locked up in attics all too often. 

Once I realised I wanted to write the story as a historical novel for adults, I began thinking about the setting. Where and when would I set my Rapunzel retelling? I began to research the history of the tale, a decision that led me to undertaking my doctorate.  

At the same time, I was playing with the idea of having a third narrative thread other than the stories of the maiden and the witch. I wanted the structure of the book to reflect the braid of impossibly long hair that is the most visually arresting motif of the story. I thought about the possibility of having one narrative thread set in contemporary times, with a girl locked away in a cellar, and I also thought about having the third narrative thread being someone – an old woman – telling the story to the Grimm brothers. I liked that idea, and so I began to research the background to the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales. It took me a long time, but eventually I discovered that the story I knew of as ‘Rapunzel’ was far older than the Grimms. I found the earliest known version had been written in the 1600s by Giambattista Basile, a man who was then working for the Venetian Republic. That set my imagination on fire, and so I began to envision the story set in late Renaissance Venice. 

However, Basile’s story was not the story I knew. I wanted to retell the tale that had meant so much to me as a child. I had to track down how the story travelled from Venice to Germany, and how it changed along the way. Again it took me a long time, but eventually I discovered the story of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, who wrote the version we know now of as ‘Rapunzel’. I knew at once I had to write about her – her life was full of drama and scandal and danger. 

Regarding the viewpoint order in which you told the tale (brilliant, by the way), how did you determine what to reveal when? Did you know from the start that you would need the three viewpoints? Or did you write the three tales in full, chopping them up at a later point?

I knew I wanted three narrative viewpoints from the start, so I could weave them together like a braid. I wrote each strand separately, from the first word to the last word, as if I was writing three individual novels. I wrote Charlotte-Rose’s story first, with breaks to show where I would insert the other stories. Then I wrote Margherita’s story, from first word to last word, and wove it in to Charlotte-Rose’s story. Then I wrote my witch Selena’s story. My original plan had been to break it into sections and weave it through like the other two strands. However, I felt that would dissipate much of the power of her narrative, and so I changed my plan, and put Selena’s story, in its entirety, in the middle of the book. I call it the dark heart of the book. 

You created such a plausible atmosphere of superstition and folk belief in 17th century France that the 'real magic' in the 16th century felt truly believable. How did you set out to achieve this? 

Thank you so much! I always try and make the world of my story as vivid and alive as possible, so that you can really understand the forces working upon the characters. I read a great deal, including primary sources such as letters and memoirs, and I was particularly fascinated by the Affair of the Poisons – a scandal of murder and satanism which rocked the court of Louis XIV to its foundations. 

When writing the sections set in Renaissance Venice, I read the work of an Italian historian, Carlo Ginzberg, who examined the Inquisition’s transcripts of 16th century witch trials. So many of the spells or practices in the book are ones which were actually recorded in Italy in the Renaissance. 

How important is it to keep this element of the mysterious in fairy tale retellings? 

It’s important for me! I think every creative artist brings their own passions and preoccupations to the task, and that is what makes their work so unique. I have always been fascinated by folklore and superstitions and the uncanny, and so my work reflects this interest.   

How important do you think setting the story in a real time and place (as opposed to once-upon-a-time) were to achieving this? 

For me, it was really important. I love the fantasy genre and many of my books are set far, far away, in make-believe lands. One of the great strengths of the fantasy genre is its quality of strangeness, and I love creating that type of world. However, with BITTER GREENS, I very much wanted to make it feel real, as if it had actually happened. I wanted to remind readers that the imprisonment of women against their wills is very much a cultural practice of our society … and it still happens. I did not want the escape hatch of magic, the sense that someone waved a wand and the impossible just happened. I wanted to find other reasons for the mysteries in the story. 

Were the links to Titian art part of this decision? Or a happy coincidence?


I was working on Selena’s sections of the book and wanted to bring the world of Renaissance Venice vividly to life. I knew that I wanted her to be a courtesan, and that she had lived a remarkably long life without visible signs of ageing. I also knew, in the back of my mind, that I wanted to weave in something about Venetian art. 

Then, one day, my son was doing a project on William Blake and I told him I had a book in my library that may be of help to him. I went and pulled the book on Blake out, and the book next to it fell out of the shelf and on to the floor. It was a book on Titian, and it had opened to a page showing colour plates of Titian’s paintings ‘Sacred & Profane Love’ and ‘Flora’, with a caption explaining how he used the same ideal of beauty in many of his paintings. Flicking though the book, I saw the same face appear again and again, and I remembered reading that Titian was thought to have been inspired by his mistress who had been a courtesan. I was absolutely electrified. I went racing to my study and started googling. Hours later, my son plaintively asked me if I had found the book on Blake … I had completely forgotten why I went into the library!

(Check out my Pinterest page on Titian to see all the paintings described in Bitter Greens) 

Were the witches incantations a product of your imagination? Or did you find similar examples in historical sources? For example was bathing in the blood of virgins a real superstition that you utilised for your purposes? Or did you make it up? How important is it to the overall plausibility to find such connections? 

I was inspired by Carlo Ginzberg’s work on 16th century Inquisition court transcripts, which contained a great deal of fascinating information on magical beliefs and superstitions of the time. I was also interested in other medieval accounts of witchcraft such as the Malleus Maleficarum. The idea of bathing in the blood of a virgin to preserve beauty is not new. It was a common belief of the time. The Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory was thought to have murdered hundreds of girls in the early 1600s for this purpose. I always like to have the magic in my stories deeply rooted in the real. It makes it feel more possible. 

How important do you think a surprise ending is to a fairy tale re-telling? How important is it to have a hitherto unexplored perspective?

I think surprise is the magic ingredient of all good storytelling. I am always thinking to myself, how can I best surprise the reader? I think this is even more important in a fairy-tale retelling, because the story’s structure and motifs are so familiar to most readers. ‘Rapunzel’ is one of the best known tales in the world, and so the challenge for me was to transform it into a compelling, suspenseful and unexpected reading experience. 

You worked with a translator? Was this frustrating? Did you have a sense that if you could have just read the materials yourself you might have uncovered more? What did you tell the translator you were looking for? 

My translator translated every single word for me, so there was no need for me to worry about missing things. It was a massive job. Sylvie translated some of Charlotte-Rose de la Force’s fairy tales that had never before been translated, plus a 
brief autobiographical sketch she had written, as well as a biography of Charlotte-Rose written by a French academic. She also communicated for me with some French fairy tale experts, and with the Comte de Sabran-Pontevès, a descendant of the La Force family who still lives in the Chateau de Cazeneuve where Charlotte-Rose grew up. Then, when I went to France and visited the Chateau, I hired another translator to go with me to help me communicate with the Comte (he gave me a private tour of the chateau – it was absolutely amazing! I saw Charlotte-Rose’s pram and her baptismal records which proved her birth age). 

What would you say were the main themes of your novel? If I were to take a guess I would say redemption - which, I believe, is an element of the de la Force version of the tale that appealed to you. 

Yes, I think it is all about redemption. The ‘Rapunzel’ fairy tale has its roots in ancient nature myths. All the characters in it – maiden, prince, crone - journey through death and darkness into light and rebirth again. It’s extraordinarily beautiful and powerful. 

Was this part of your decision to give the witch a viewpoint - indeed, to create an empathy for her in the reader's minds? 

Yes, this was an important aspect of the tale for me. 

Through her life, and that of Charlotte-Rose, did you also want to show the limited options for women apart from the church or marriage? 

This was certainly important for me too. I always think that I am living the life Charlotte-Rose dreamed of. I was free to choose who to love, and free to write as I please. Its important women never forget how far we have come, and how hard the battle has been. 

In Mirror Mirror (Bernheimer, Kate, Anchor Books, 2002), Margaret Atwood describes an antipathy for 'pinkly illustrated versions of Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty stories whose plots were dependant on female servility, immobility or even stupor, and on princely rescue.' I believe one of the reasons you liked de la Force's version of the Rapunzel tale is because the woman in the tower takes a more active role in her own redemption. Indeed, in Bitter Greens, Lucio tells her Margherita, that she must look in her heart and find a way to break the spell. Can you talk to me about your reasoning here? Is your novel a conscious attempt to fight against the helpless princess stereotype? 

It always makes me cross when people call Rapunzel the ‘passive princess waiting patiently for her prince’.  She is not a princess, she does not wait patiently but rather sings with all her heart and soul and so draws the prince to her, and she is the one that saves the prince, not the other way around. She is a mythic figure of feminine power, who frees herself and then heals the blinded eyes of the prince. It is true that she is held in stasis and immobility in the first part of the story, but never forget that she escapes her tower at the end. That is the whole point of the story. 

As you know, the fairy tale was an oral storytelling tradition long before it ever became a literary form, with each teller altering the tale for their own purposes. Do you see your own re-telling of Rapunzel as contributing to this tradition? Would your twenty first century message be that women hold the key to their own destiny? How does Charlotte-Rose de la Force's life further illustrate this theme? 

Yes, I like to think of myself as being the latest in a long chain of storytellers, both oral and literary, who have told and retold the tale from the very beginning of human history. I imagine the story as a flame, passed from hand to hand, casting light into the world.  

And remember that it is not only women who are held captive by the metaphorical towers of society. Men are too. Fairy tales are a window into the human psyche, and hold wisdom for us all. 

A little question aside from fairy tales ... In the chapter A Mere Bagatelle you have a delightful argument between Michel Baron and Charlotte-Rose about their writing. Some of the memorable lines are: 'All these disguises duels and abductions... All these desperate love affairs. And you wish me to take you seriously.' 'I like disguises and duels... At least something happens in my stories.' 'At least my plays are about something.' Etc... How does this describe your own working life? Where you sit on the literary spectrum? Like Charlotte-Rose do you see yourself as an intelligent female writer of fantasy/historical fiction who has a literary turn of phrase yet also wants to tell a good story, with themes like love and redemption, that women in particular will enjoy? 

I’m glad you enjoyed that scene! I have let Charlotte-Rose speak for me there. I too like stories in which things happen, and I too think that stories about love express one of the most universal human longings. Like Charlotte-Rose, I relish language, for its beauty, and for its ability to help us articulate ideas and emotions, and connect with other humans. I love storytelling, and am not interested in books that fail to tell a good story. Yet I want to think as well as feel, and so I love books that are full of big ideas, where I learn new things, and come to understand something that has always eluded me before. I see no reason why a page-turning, compelling story cannot be well-written too!

BITTER GREENS: Vampires in Renaissance Venice

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

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!

BITTER GREENS: The history of the Rapunzel fairy tale

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

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: The facts behind the Fiction of the Sun King & his Court

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

BITTER GREENS, the winner of the ALA Historical Fiction Prize 2015, is set in the corrupt and glittering court of Louis XIV, the Sun King. Here are some fascinating and little known facts about France at that time ...

In recent months, I’ve been visiting a lot of Book Clubs who have read my novel Bitter Greens. Some have cooked me French onion soup; others have poured me fine French champagne. All of them have been full of questions.

Most questions begin ‘Is it true ...?’

Some of the most eagerly asked questions were about the court of the Sun King, and so I thought I would write a little more about this most imperious of kings. It is all really quite fascinating. 

Yes, it is true that the Sun King used to ride out in a coach with his wife and his two favourite mistresses. 

Yes, it is true that he married his bastard children’s governess (although he never acknowledged her as his wife).

Yes, it is true no-one except another royal was permitted to ever sit in his presence (except at the gambling tables, one reason why gambling was so popular with his footsore courtiers). Even his own sons had to remain standing, though his daughters were allowed to squat on little footstools, a privilege that they fought over bitterly.

Yes, it is true that courtiers had to bow or curtsey to any dish being carried to his table.

Yes, it is true that it was considered rude and vulgar to knock at a door. Courtiers grew the nail of their little fingers long so they could scratch at a door.

The etiquette of the court at Versailles was extraordinarily rigid.

Take the King’s daily routine.

He was surrounded at all times by his courtiers and soldiers – three or four thousand was the usual number.

Every morning, a chain of servants and courtiers passed each item of clothing to the king. For example, the Valet of the Wardrobe brought the King's shirt, passed it to the grand chamberlain, who handed it to the Dauphin, who passed it to the King. 

He had one servant whose only job was to present him with his golden goblet of wine. 

The King ate alone, watched by up to 300 people at a time. At one meal he is said to have eaten "four platefuls of different soups, a whole pheasant, a partridge, a plateful of salad, mutton hashed with garlic, two good-sized slices of ham, a dish of pastry and afterwards fruit and sweetmeats."

The King expected all noblemen to live with him at Versailles. Anyone who preferred to live on their own estates soon fell from favour. The King would simply say, ‘I do not know them’, and favours would be passed to those who danced attendance upon him. 
Louis XIV was Europe’s longest serving monarch. He reigned for 72 years and 110 days. He out-lived his son, and his two eldest grand-sons (all three were named Louis too). He was succeeded by his five year old great-grand-son, Louis XV. 

And, yes, it is true that vichyssoise was invented because it took so long for the King’s soup to reach him after being passed along a long chain of tasters to ensure it was not poisoned. If the King ate cold soup, everyone must eat cold soup. 

Read more about Bitter Greens here and BUY IT HERE 

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

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

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

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 ?

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 ?

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?

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.

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?

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.

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

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?

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?

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.

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? 

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). 

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