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

Thursday, May 25, 2017



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.  


It will be released in Australia in July 2017. 

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: 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:  

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). 

SPOTLIGHT: My notebooks for my novel BITTER GREENS

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

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!

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

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

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




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



SPOTLIGHT: Dortchen Wild, fairy tale teller

Tuesday, March 07, 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.

Today I am re-posting a blog about Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told the Grimm brothers many of their most famous tales and - after a long and difficult courtship - married Wilhelm Grimm. I drew upon the true events of their forbidden romance to write my novel The Wild Girl

       
      

Sometimes an idea hits you like a sizzling bolt of lightning, and you know that you have to write it.

That’s how the first idea for my novel THE WILD GIRL came to me.

I was reading a scholarly book about the Grimm Brothers’ when I discovered that one of the primary oral sources for their fairy tales was a young woman who had grown up next door to the Grimm family. Her name was Dortchen Wild, and she was only eighteen when she began to tell Wilhelm some of the world’s most beloved stories. 

I was fascinated by this, having always imagined the sources of the tales being hunchbacked old peasant women. Then I discovered that Dortchen and Wilhelm had fallen in love and - many years later – married. I knew at once that I had to tell her story! It was absolutely electrifying. I could hardly sleep that night for excitement.



Discovering Dortchen’s story was not at all easy. Very little of her life was known – only her birth, marriage and death dates (and people even argued about those). Of her own writing, there remained only a few letters and a brief autobiographical sketch that she dictated to her daughter on her death-bed. All I had to give me a sense of her inner life was the stories she told – and when she told them. 

Dortchen grew up next door to the Grimm brothers in the small kingdom of Hessen-Kassel. When she was in her teens and Wilhelm was twenty, Napoleon Bonaparte’s army invaded and the Hessian people were forced to live under French occupation for many years. Hessen-Kassel was mashed together with a number of other small countries to become the Kingdom of Westphalia. Napoleon put his dissolute young brother, Jerome, on the throne. He was only 22, and marked his ascension to the throne by playing leapfrog through the empty palace in his underwear. 

It was a dark and difficult time. Unable to find work, the two eldest boys in the Grimm family decided to collect and study the old wonder tales they had always loved so much. They were too poor to travel about and so asked friends and neighbours to tell them any old stories they knew. That was when they discovered - right next door - an absolute treasure-house of tales, all stuffed inside one young woman’s head.

Dortchen told Wilhelm almost one-quarter of all the stories in the first edition of the Grimm brothers’ ‘Children’s and Household Tales’, published in 1812. She told him ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘The Frog King’, ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, and ‘Rumpelstiltskin’. 

On one extraordinary day – 10 January 1812 – she told Wilhelm three stories back-to-back, while huddling about the stove in her sister’s summerhouse so her father would not know.



On 9 October 1812 – the day before the fairy tale collection was sent to the printers – Dortchen told Wilhelm another two tales.  The first was about a good sister who is given the gift of spitting gold coins, while her evil sister who is cursed to spit out snakes and toads. The second was ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, a dark and haunting tale about a king who falls in love with his own daughter. 

Dortchen’s own father disapproved mightily of Wilhelm Grimm, and prohibited them from seeing each other. She had to tell Wilhelm her tales in secret. Kept apart by war, poverty, and patriarchal domination, the story of their forbidden romance is as full of drama, heartbreak and triumph as any fairy tale she told. 

I do hope that you will all find her story as fascinating as I did. 








Please leave a comment - I love to know what you think.

SPOTLIGHT: Sleeping Beauty

Monday, April 18, 2016

SLEEPING BEAUTY

History of the Tale

The earliest ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale appears in oral tradition around 1300, in the tale 'Troylus and Zellandine'.  In this tale, a disgruntled deity places a curse on the young Princess Zellandine that causes her to go into a deep slumber. Many years later, Prince Troylus happens upon the princess and rapes her in her sleep. As a result, she has a child. In 1528, the same story appears in print for the first time, in Paris, in a book of romances called Perceforest.


The tale ‘Sun, Moon & Talia’ was written by Neapolitan writer and courtier Giambattista Basile in the early 1600s, and published posthumously in 1634 in a collection of stories called The Tale of Tales. This also included the earliest known versions of Cinderella and Rapunzel. 

Basile's story is not as pretty as the tale we know. It features the rape of the sleeping beauty, attempted infanticide, forced cannibalism and the threat of being burned alive.

Here is a brief outline of Basile's tale: 
 
It is prophesied at Talia’s birth that she will one day face great danger from a chip of flax. Her father orders that all flax be removed from the kingdom. When she is grown, Talia manages to find the only piece of flax in the entire kingdom, gets a splinter of it stuck beneath her fingernail, and falls into a deathlike sleep. 

Her father, beside himself with grief, orders the palace and surrounding countryside be abandoned so he can put the event out of his mind.

Eventually, another king stumbles upon the abandoned kingdom, and finds Talia sleeping alone. Unable to wake her, he decides to have sex with her while she sleeps. Talia falls pregnant and, without waking, eventually gives birth to twins. While the babies try to suckle, one sucks on her finger and the flax splinter is loosened. Talia wakes up, and is overjoyed to find herself the mother of twins, which she names Sun and Moon.

The king returns and finds Talia awake and his twin childrenborn. A relationship develops between them. 
The king’s wife learns of the affair and, pretending to be the king, sends for Sun and Moon. She gives them to the cook, and tells him to slaughter and roast them and serve them to the king. The cook, unable to kill the babies, hides the twins and serves up two baby lambs instead. The queen watches gleefully as the king devours the meal. 

She then sends for Talia, and demands she be burned alive. The King hears Talia screaming, and rescues her just in time. The awful queen is thrown in the fire instead, and roasts to death. The cook then produces the twins, alive and well, and they all live happily ever after.

In one 14th century version of the tale, the sleeping princess tells off the king and points out her lack of consent before deciding to give him another chance.


La belle au bois dormant’  was written by French author Charles Perrault in 1697, most probably drawing upon Basile’s stories which may have been brought to the French court in mid-1690s by an Italian publisher. Perrault's Mother Goose tales also included such well-known stories as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, and Puss in Boots. 

In Perrault's tale, a king invites seven fairies to bless his newborn daughter, and prepares golden plates and cutlery for them. One fairy was not invited because she was so old and no-one had seen her for so long. However, she comes anyway and then is angry  because there is no golden plate for her. She curses the baby princess to prick her on a spindle finger & die. One of the other fairies saves her by changing the curse of death to the curse of sleeping for 100 years.

At the age of 15 or 16, the princess pricks her finger on a spindle and falls into an enchanted sleep. The fairy puts the whole castle to sleep as well. A prince hears the story of the sleeping princess and goes to find her – the wood that hides the castle shows him the path. He finds the princess and kneels before her. The princess wakes up (NB: there is no kiss in Perrault's story) and they are married.

Perrault's story does not end here. The prince keeps Sleeping Beauty hidden for a few years and they have two children called Morning & Day. At last he becomes king & takes his wife and children to his home. The prince’s mother is an ogress – she conspires to eat the children and the princess but is outwitted by the cook, in a similar fashion to Basile's story. The Ogress queen dies in a tub of toads and snakes.

The uninvited fairy motif goes back to Greek mythology when he goddess Eris is not invited to a wedding, but arrives anyway, and throws the Golden Apple of Discord amongst the other goddesses with the inscription ‘For the Fairest’ which causes an argument over whom should claim it, and leads to the Trojan War.




'Dörnroschen' (Little Brier Rose) – Grimm Brothers

The story was told to Wilhelm Grimm by a young woman, Marie Hassenpflug, who had French ancestors and was included in the first 1812 edition.

The tale is different to Perrault's in the following ways: 
Differences 
- it has a much simpler style, closer to ‘oral’ traditions
- the Queen is told of her pregnancy by a crab (in later versions a frog) 
- There are 13 fairies but the king only has 12 golden plates so he does not invite one
- The thirteenth fairy curses the princess to prick herself with a spindle and die
- The twelfth fairy changes the curse to a sleep of 100 years
- When she pricks her finger, the whole castle falls magically asleep
- A thorn hedge grows up around the castle 
- Many princes try and fight through the thorns but fail – then the right prince comes along and the thorns turn into flowers 
- When he finds the sleeping princess, he kisses her
- The princes wakes up and so does the whole castle
- The story ends with their marriage


Jacob & Wilhelm argued about including this tale because of its French origins (they were collecting tales with German origins), but Wilhelm argued for its inclusion because of 1) its beauty and romance 2) it had linked to the Norse myth Sigur and Brynhild – she was a Valkyrie who disobeyed Odin and was cursed to marry a mortal. She feared being wed to a coward, so was allowed to sleep on a mountaintop surrounded by a ring of fire until there was a man brave enough to ride through it and wake her. She had fallen asleep after pricking her hand on a thorn from the ‘sleep tree’. 



Motifs & Meaning Of Tales

Bruno Bettelheim , the Freudian psychoanalyst, wrote in his seminal work ‘The Uses of Enchantment’ that Beauty’s sleep is the physical lethargy that occurs at puberty.  He sees the pricking of her finger as a symbol of menstruation, and sees sexual imagery in the girl’s search for a secret room, the circular stair, and the key in the lock. Therefore her awakening is a sexual awakening 

Maria Tatar has written:  “The story of Briar Rose has been thought to map a female sexual maturation, with the touching of the spindle representing the onset of puberty, a kind of sexual awakening that leads to passive, introspective period of latency”.

Joseph Campbell notes that fairy tales are often about girls who resist growing up. At the crisis of the threshold crossing, she baulks. So she goes to sleep until the prince comes through all the barriers.

Contrary to most feminist readings of the tale as being a bout a passive princess, many scholars have seen the Sleeping Beauty tale as containing remnants of matriarchal myth. 

In ‘The Feminine in Fairy Tales’, Marie-Therese von Franz says: ‘ the mother of the Sun and the Moon is not an ordinary human being, so you could say it is a symbol. But if the children were Sun and Moon, or Day and Dawn, as in other versions, you are [. . .] in the realm of what we normally call the world of the gods.’ (ie Sleeping Beauty is representative of the Great Goddess) 

This interpretation is borne up by some of the symbols in the story, such as the spinning wheel, a feminine tool and an instrument of the Fates. It symbolizes death—i.e. the cutting of the thread. The hundred-year sleep of the princess is evocative of winter and Persephone’s ordeal, and her awakening to love is therefore the awakening of spring. 

In ‘Once Upon a Time’, Max Luthi builds on this mythological interpretation, saying Sleeping Beauty ‘tells of death and resurrection. The flowering of the hedge of roses and the awakening of the sleeping maiden suggest the earth in lifeless repose which, touched by spring, begins to live anew and blossom as young and beautiful as ever. It suggests also the awakening of sleeping nature at the first glimmering of a new day.’(Aurora)

Luthi finds it significant that Sleeping Beauty is fifteen when she touches the spindle and falls into her enchanted sleep: she is 'in the time of transition from childhood to maidenhood.' Every important turning point, every transition from one stage of life to another, are times of threat and danger and change. 

'The story of Sleeping Beauty is more than the imaginatively stylized love story of the girl and the breaking of the spell through the young lover. One instinctively conceives of the princess as an image for the human spirit: the story portrays the endowment, peril, paralysis, and redemption not of just one girl, but of all mankind,' Luthi writes. 

Luthi also examines the idea that the twelve good fairies in the Grimm version of the tale may reflect "the twelve months (of the year) which bestow their manifold gifts of the earth and on nature.' The thirteenth fairy who was provoked to anger may then personify the "dethroned , neglected thirteenth month (and thus may) portray the transition from the lunar year with its thirteen months, to the solar year, with its twelve.'

In the same line of thought, 'the 100 years ... is nothing more than a poetic overstatement for the 100 days of winter, when the earth lies imprisoned in its sleep.' 

Luthi warns to be careful of such 'sophistical allegorising', saying 'one must guard against the desire to interpret every single feature, every thorn and every fly.'  Nonetheless, he says, Sleeping Beauty is not just a romantic fairy tale but a story filled with powerful themes of 'danger and redemption, paralysis and rejuvenation, death and resurrection.'  



Modern Retellings

'Sleeping Beauty' was a 1959 Disney animated musical fantasy film, the 16th in the Animated Classics series, it was released to theaters on January 29, 1959, by Buena Vista Distribution. This was the last Disney adaptation of a fairy tale for some years because of its initial disappointing box office gross and mixed critical reception. The studio did not return to the genre until years later, after Walt Disney died, with the release of The Little Mermaid (1989).

The film's musical score and songs, featuring the work of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, are arrangements or adaptations of numbers from the 1890 Sleeping Beauty ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

The heroine has only 18 lines of dialogue throughout the entire film & appears in the film for 18 minutes. Her first line is spoken 19 minutes into the film, and her last is delivered 39 minutes into the film. However, she does sing two songs during this time frame.

The seven fairies were changed to three so that it was not too much like Snow White & the Seven Dwarves. 


Sleeping Beauty
is also the name of a 2011 Australian film written and directed by Julia Leigh. It stars Emily Browning as a young university student who begins doing erotic freelance work in which she is required to sleep in bed alongside paying customers. The film is based in part on the novel The House of the Sleeping Beauties by Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata.

In Matthew Bourne’s 2013 version of Tchaikovsky's ballet Sleeping Beauty, the action starts in 1890, the year the ballet first premiered in St. Petersburg. Baby Aurora is humorously portrayed by a puppet and the fairies are both male & female. Instead of beauty, grace and modesty, they bestow passion, plenty, spirit, temperament and presciently, rebirth. The wicked fairy Carabosse is danced by a man.


The Disney movie Maleficent has recently been released, starring Angelina Jolie.

Maleficent is a fictional character from Walt Disney Pictures's 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty. Here is the blurb:

Maleficent is the untold story of Disney's most iconic villain, from the 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty. A beautiful, pure-hearted young woman, Maleficent has an idyllic life growing up in a peaceable forest kingdom, until one day when an invading army threatens the harmony of the land. Maleficent rises to be the land's fiercest protector, but she ultimately suffers a ruthless betrayal – an act that begins to turn her pure heart to stone. Bent on revenge, Maleficent faces an epic battle with the invading king's successor and, as a result, places a curse upon his newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Maleficent realises that Aurora holds the key to peace in the kingdom – and perhaps to Maleficent's true happiness as well.

I find this new take on the story particularly interesting, with the story being told from the point of view of the villainness allowing a new complexity of character and new moral ambiguity.



My Favourite Retellings of 'Sleeping Beauty' 


Sophie Masson. Clementine. Lady Aurora, daughter of the Count and Countess of Joli-Bois, and Clementine, the local woodcutter's child, have been firm friends for all of their sixteen years. Until, that is, the day they stumble upon a castle they never knew existed … A century later, Lord Arthur, a young amateur scientist, is determined to find out. But he discovers that science is no match for a magic that has been lying untouched for over one hundred years...

Adela Geras. Watching the Roses. Raped on the night of her eighteenth birthday by the despicable Angus, Alice remains in her room, in a near-catatonic state, communicating only with her diary, in a modern version of Sleeping Beauty in which the princess must ultimately save herself.


Helen Lowe. Thornspell. - reimagines the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of the prince. Read my review and an interview with Helen Lowe here  

Robin McKinley. Spindle's End.  Katriona, an apprentice fairy sees the wicked fairy, Pernicia, delivers the curse: one day before her 21st birthday, the princess will prick her finger on a spindle, fall into a poisoned sleep, and die. Katriona flees with the infant princess in order to save her.

Jane Yolen. Briar Rose. Written by one of the true greats in the field of folk and fairy tales, this novel explores the Holocaust with a storyline borrowed from Sleeping Beauty – brilliant!



Sleeping Beauty & Me

Sleeping Beauty has always been one of my own personal fairy tales, and images of roses and thorns are entwined through many of my books.

I am currently working on a fairy-tale infused historical novel for adults inspired by the fascinating story behind the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones's creation of a series of paintings inspired by 'The Legend of Briar Rose'. He painted it a number of times over thirty years, including this gorgeous version:

 

WANT TO KNOW MORE? 

I will be blogging about the new novel BEAUTY IN THORNS as I go along - and I make regular progress reports on my Facebook page and Twitter.

And of course I'm always blogging about fairy tales

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



BOOK REVIEW: TWO FEARSOME FAIRY TALES FROM FRANCE retold by Adele Geras and illustrated by Fiona McDonald

Friday, February 26, 2016


Christmas Press has been quietly producing a range of exquisite fairy tale retellings with gorgeous illustrations for the last couple of years. This beautiful edition has the Jerusalem-born author Adele Geras retelling ‘Beauty & the Beast’ and ‘Bluebeard’ with illustrations by Fiona McDonald (who also illustrated my own contribution to the series TWO SELKIE TALES FROM SCOTLAND). 



THE BLURB:

Two magical, scary classic fairy tales from France, Beauty and the Beast and Bluebeard, elegantly retold by Adele Geras and lavishly illustrated by Fiona McDonald. For older readers.


WHAT I THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK:

The stories are simply and elegantly retold, and are carefully pitched to appeal to a younger reading age – no need to fear for a sensitive child’s sensibilities here! 

So far the series has included tales retold by Sophie Masson, Ursula Dubosarky, and me, with one coming soon from Duncan Ball. Other titles are in the pipeline. 

Together they will build to a library of some of the world’s most beloved fairy tales, with stories from Russia, Japan, Ancient Greece, Rome, and Ireland , as well as Scotland and France. 

A perfect gift for any fairy-tale-loving child!


WHAT'S YOUR FAVOURITE FEARSOME FAIRY TALE?


You may also enjoy my blog on Neil Gaiman's wonderful retelling of Sleeping Beauty, THE SLEEPER & THE SPINDLE

A Rapunzel poem by Kate Forsyth

Thursday, February 11, 2016

BITTER GREENS, my imaginative retelling of Rapunzel, has won the ALA Award for Best Historical Fiction!

I also studied a Doctorate of Creative arts on the fairy tale, writing a thesis called 'The Rescue of Rapunzel: A Mythic History of the Maiden in the Tower tale,' and a poem, 'In the Tower': 




In the Tower


Walled in my old stone tower
the bitter taste of tears
always in my throat
only a slit to put my eye to
yet how full of change is that sky
I watch the stars wheel past
seasons turning and turning
the one tree on that faraway hill
once more bursts into life
green in the shadows
golden in the light 


Walled in my silent tower
how can I frame the words
to tell my story
my heart is a riddle
green sickness in my soul
loneliness the heaviest burden
how I long to slip free
of this empty shadowed tower
fly on muffled wings like the owl
white against the thorns
black against the moon


Walled in my cold stone tower
I conjure a steed from flame
An invisible cloak from ashes
A frail ladder from cobwebs
I make a dagger from ice
A key from bone and wishes
I spin a song from the silence
One day someone shall sing my refrain
Green in the shadows
Golden in the light


Free of my shadowy tower
We shall bind ourselves together
With tendrils of green
With tresses of gold
We shall build a castle of light and air
And banish silence with song
Together we’ll dance in the forest
White against the thorns
Black against the moon


by Kate Forsyth



SPOTLIGHT - How grim were the Grimms' fairy tales?

Thursday, February 11, 2016



Just how grim are the Grimm tales?

* In the 1812 version of the Grimm’s tale ‘Little Snow-White’, it is the heroine’s own jealous mother that wants her dead. She tells the huntsman to bring back her daughter’s lungs and liver, for her to eat. Wilhelm Grimm later changed the mother to a step-mother.

* The jealous queen was punished by Little Snow-White and her prince by being forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes till she died. 

* In the original (1812) version of ‘The Frog King’, the princess does not kiss the frog to change him into a prince. Instead, she throws him as hard as she can against a wall. 

* In ‘Aschenputtel’, the Grimm’s version of ‘Cinderella’, one wicked stepsister cuts off her toes to try and make the slipper fit and the other cuts off her heel. In the end, they have their eyes pecked out by pigeons.

* In a later edition (1857) of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, the dwarf tears himself in two when the queen guesses his true name. This detail was added in by Wilhelm, quite possibly because he thought it was funny 

* in one Grimm tale, ‘The Maiden Without Hands,’ a girl’s hands are chopped off by her own father

* The villain of ‘Fitcher’s Bird’ is a sorcerer that travels about the countryside, kidnapping girls and hacking them to pieces in a hidden room. 

* In ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, a girl disguises herself in a coat made from the fur flayed from a thousand animals in order to escape the incestuous desires of her father

* in many cases, Wilhelm made the stories more violent – particularly the punishments for witches and evil step-mothers

Nonetheless, nearly all of the tales end happily, with the hero or heroine triumphing because of their courage, goodness, and wit.

My novel THE WILD GIRL tells the astonishing untold story of how the Grimm brothers came to collect their world-famous tales - and the young woman who was their most important source. Its a story of love, war and the redemptive power of storytelling. 

    

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


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