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

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Gourmet Delights from Gascony

My books are filled with feasts. 

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Read more about BITTER GREENS or BUY IT HERE!




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

Wednesday, April 26, 2017


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

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

This blog was first published in September 2014.


My novel BITTER GREENS is, of course, a work of imagination.

However, in weaving a tale of fancy I have used as the immovable pegs the known facts of Charlotte-Rose de la Force’s life, few as they are.

Even the year of her birth is open to argument, ranging from 1650 to 1654. I travelled to Château de Cazeneuve in Gascony and, with the help of her baptismal records, was able to confirm it as the earlier date. I also saw her baby pram and the simple white family chapel where she was baptised.

Chateau de Cazeneuve, in Gascony, France


Of her childhood, we know only that she met King Louis XIV in 1660 at the Château de Cazeneuve, and that two years later her mother was imprisoned against her will in a convent in Bordeaux.

Charlotte-Rose went to court at the age of sixteen, and was maid-of-honour first to the queen and later to the Duchess of Guise.

She had an affair with Moliere’s protégé, the actor Michel Baron, who notoriously left his nightcap in her bedroom one night.

Michel Baron, the 17th century French playright


Later, Charlotte-Rose was engaged to the Marquis de Nesle, the betrothal ending in scandal after a pouch she had given him was found to have toads’ feet and spells in it. As a result, Mme de la Force “came to the attention” of the King during the infamous Affair of the Poisons.

Her love affair with the much younger Charles de Briou caused more scandal, particularly after she dressed up as a dancing bear to gain access to him. They wed, but their marriage was annulled in the courts.

In 1697, she was banished to the abbey of Gercy-en-Brie after writing some satirical Christmas verses and under suspicion of having an affair with the Dauphin.

 

The Dauphin


She wrote ‘Persinette’ and various other fairy tales while imprisoned there, publishing them anonymously the following year.

 The mystery of how Charlotte-Rose de la Force came to know of Giambattista Basile’s fairytale ‘Petrosinella’ may have been solved in 2007 by the fairytale scholar Professor Susanna Magnanini. She conjectures, in ‘Postulated Routes from Naples to Paris: The Printer Antonio Bulifon and Giambattista Basile’s Fairy Tales in Seventeenth Century France’, that a copy of his fairytale collection may have been brought to Paris around the time of the explosion of literary fairytales by French writers Charles Perrault, Charlotte-Rose de la Force, Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier and others. If so, these French storytellers would have had to have read Basile in his original Neapolitan dialect, which is strikingly different to both Latin and Italian. 

The story ‘La Puissance d’Amour’, told by Charlotte-Rose in the novel on the night she first meets Charles de Briou, is a paraphrasing of one of her actual fairytales, which has never before been translated into English.

Similarly, ‘Bearskin’, the story about a princes turned into a she-bear, is one of Henriette-Julie d’Murat’s most famous fairytales, and she was indeed a cousin of Charlotte-Rose de la Force.

I first heard about Charlotte-Rose de la Force in an essay by Terri Windling, 'Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair', in Endicott Stduio's Spring 2006 Journal of Mythic Arts. This was the first seed that led me on my journey to discovering the life of this extraordinary writer.

My primary source for the facts of Charlotte-Rose's life come from "Mademoiselle de la Force:  auteur mèconnu du XVIIͨ siècle", by the French academic Michel Souloumiac, which I had translated into English, again for the first time. My secondary source was "Letters from Liselotte: the collected letters of Elisabeth Charlotte, Princess Palatine and Duchess of Orléans, 'Madame', 1652-1722", in which she recorded the gossip of the Sun King's court. Charlotte-Rose is mentioned a number of times.


Researching and writing the life of Charlotte-Rose de la Force was like assembling and putting together a gigantic jigsaw - it required patience, dedication and persistence. I feel, however, that I have discovered one of the most fascinating women ever forgotten by history.

Read more about BITTER GREENS or BUY IT HERE!

BITTER GREENS: The story behind my fascination with Rapunzel

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

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


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

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


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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

Read more about BITTER GREENS or BUY THE BOOK HERE!

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. 

    

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SEVEN FASCINATING THINGS about the Grimm Brothers

Thursday, February 11, 2016





To celebrate THE WILD GIRL being released in the US, I'm going to share some vintage Wild Girl posts this week - I hope you enjoy!






Seven Fascinating Facts about the Grimms & their Fairy Tales

1. the last witch executed in Europe died only three years before Jakob Grimm was born 

2. Although the Brothers Grimm are famous for their collection of old tales, it was actually the younger brother, Wilhelm, who did most of the work, particularly after the first edition was published in 1812. 

3. The brothers transcribed all their stories with a quill dipped in ink. Paper was scarce during the Napoleonic Wars, and so they wrote on both sides of the paper and then turned it sideways to write crossways across the page.

4. In 1810, they sent a copy of their manuscript to a poet friend, Clemens Brentano, who had promised to help them find a publisher. Brentano lost the manuscript, which was not found until the early 1920s. Wilhelm had to rewrite the whole collection by hand.

5. Their youngest brother Ludwig was a talented artist who illustrated the first Children’s Edition of their tales, published in 1825. It was this book which became an international bestseller.

6. The Grimm brothers published many other books apart from fairy tales, including writings on linguistics, folklore, and the beginning of the first detailed German dictionary. This was not finished until 120 years after their deaths.

7. the Grimm brothers were rebels who were eventually fired from their jobs at the University of Gottingen for protesting the abolition of the constitution by the King of Hanover.

The story of how the Grimm brothers came to discover their world-famous fairy tales - and the beautiful young woman who told them many of the tales - inspired my novel THE WILD GIRL.

      


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SPOTLIGHT: Sources of the Grimms' fairy tales

Thursday, July 23, 2015

 

To celebrate THE WILD GIRL being released in the US tis week, I'm going to share some vintage Wild Girl posts this week - I hope you enjoy!


SOURCES OF THE GRIMM BROTHERS' FAIRY TALES



Everyone has heard of the Grimm brothers.

Everyone has read some, at least, of their famous fairy tales.

What few people know, however, is who originally told the stories to the Grimm brothers. The names of the original tellers has been lost to all but those fairy tale scholars that have painstakingly pieced together clues taken from the brother’s notes and diaries to name the sources of the some of the world’s best loved fairy tales.

For example, ‘Aschenputtel’, (better known today as Cinderella), was told by an old woman in a poorhouse in the small medieval town of Marburg where Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm went to university. Her name is thought to be Frau Creuzer.

‘Hansel and Gretel’ was told to Wilhelm in the house of the local apothecary, Herr Wild, which was next door to where the Grimm brothers lived. It was most probably told by Herr Wild’s second youngest daughter, Dortchen. She most certainly provided the famous rhymes, usually translated into English as ‘Little mouse, little mouse, who is nibbling at my house?’ with the children replying, ‘it’s the wind so wild, the heavenly child.’




‘Little Red Cap’ was told by Jeannette and Marie Hassenpflug, young women in their late teens and early 20s, who also told ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ and ‘Brier Rose’ (better known as ‘Sleeping Beauty’), as well as many others. Their brother Louis married the Grimm brothers’ younger sister, Lotte. 


‘The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes’ (sometimes called ‘Twelve Dancing Princesses’) was told to Wilhelm Grimm by Jenny von Droste-Hülstoff, the niece of a university friend. She had a warm and tender friendship with Wilhelm, so that many thought they might marry, but the wedding never came to pass.


‘The Bremen Town Musicians’ was told to Wilhelm by Jenny’s aunts, the sisters of Werner von Haxthausen, who studied law with the Grimms at Marburg University. 

‘The Goose Girl’ was told to the Grimm brothers’ by Dorothea Viehmann, a poor old woman, widow to an innkeeper, who came to the Grimms’ house selling vegetables and butter.


‘Snow White’ was originally thought to have been told by the Wild family’s housekeeper, Marie Müller, better known as Old Marie. Now many scholars believe it was told by Marie Hassenpflug instead (though the Grimms had not yet met the Hassenpflugs when this story was first recorded). It is likely that a number of different variants were told by different tellers, and that the Grimm brothers blended the best elements of them together.

‘The Twelve Brothers’ was told by Julia and Charlotte Ramus, daughters of the local pastor

‘Rumpetstilskin’ was told to Wilhelm by his next door neighbour, Dortchen Wild. She also told him ‘Six Swans’, ‘The Frog King’, ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, ‘Sweetheart Roland’,   ‘Mother Holle’, ‘The Three Little Men in the Wood’. ‘The Singing Bone’, ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, and ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’. 
In fact, she told almost one quarter of the Grimm brothers’ first collection of fairy tales. 

Dortchen and Wilhelm fell in love during the collection of the fairy tales, but were unable to marry for many years thanks to her father's disapproval and the Grimm brothers’ poverty. It was not until a small collection, chosen especially for children, was published that the tales at last became popular and the two star-crossed lovers were at last able to marry. 

I tell the story of their star-crossed love in my novel THE WILD GIRL:  
          
     



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




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