Although my body is here in my study, in Sydney in the 21st century, my mind and my soul have spent most of the past year in Versailles, at the magnificent and corrupt court of the Sun King, in witty Parisian salons, and imprisoned within the walls and locked doors of a Benedictine nunnery.
I never expected to find myself immersed in the grand siècle world of King Louis XIV. I thought I was writing a quite different novel. But sometimes authors set out to write one story, and find themselves instead in thrall of something quite different, a tale that demands to be told.
So it was with me and Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force.
I first became interested in Charlotte-Rose when I was researching the history of the Rapunzel fairytale. I had wanted to write a novel which retold the story of Rapunzel for many years, and so I had begun to search out other retellings of the tale, plus any essays or articles that I could find. One day I read an essay entitled ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair’ by the US writer Terri Windling, published in Endicott Studio's Spring 2006 Journal of Mythic Arts.
Terri Windling explained how the Grimm Brothers’ story ‘Rapunzel’ had not been a folktale passed down orally from generation to generation, but in fact a retelling of an earlier tale, ‘Persinette’, written by the French writer Charlotte–Rose de Caumont de La Force, which was itself a retelling of an earlier Italian story, ‘Petrosinella’, published by Giambattista Basile in 1634.
Terri Windling wrote: ‘La Force and other writers of the period championed the idea of consensual, companionate marriages ruled by love and civility ... The emphasis on love and romance in their stories can seem quaint and saccharine today, but such stories were progressive, even subversive, in the context of the time. La Force herself was an independently–minded woman from a noble family who caused several scandals in her quest to live a life that was self–determined. She fell in love and attempted to marry a young man without parental permission. When his family locked him up to prevent an elopement, she snuck into his room dressed as a bear with a traveling theater troupe! The couple escaped, and married — but the law eventually caught up to them and the marriage was annulled. She then got caught publishing satirical works critical of King Louis XIV. La Force was exiled to a convent for this crime — where she wrote her book of fairy tales and a series of popular historical novels. Eventually released, she spent the rest of her life earning her own living through her writing.’
I was utterly intrigued by this story. A woman who would disguise herself as a dancing bear so she could rescue her lover was exactly my kind of woman! I was also struck by the fact that she wrote “Persinette” – a story of a girl locked away in a tower – while incarcerated in a convent herself. I began to think how I could use the story of Charlotte-Rose as a kind of framing device for my retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale.
I began to research her life. It was not an easy task, as most biographies of her are even briefer than the passage by Terri Windling above. However, I discovered that a French academic, Michel Souloumiac, had written a biography of her entitled Mademoiselle de la Force: Un auteur méconnu de XVII siècle (A Disregarded Author of the 17th century). No copies of this book were available via the Internet, and the book had been self-published. I tried to find a way to contact the author, but was to find all the usual avenues – personal websites, facebook, twitter – of no help at all. My task was not made any easier by my very poor French. Finally, I managed to find a copy of the book for sale on a French website and – with the help of a French translator – was able to obtain a copy of the book and have it translated into English. What a treasure I discovered! Charlotte-Rose’s life story was even more extraordinary than I could have hoped for, filled with romantic intrigue, scandal, cruelty, and black magic.
Charlotte Rose de Caumont de la Force was born into an aristocratic family in 1650, the younger of two sisters. Her father – who died when she was only a baby - was the seventh son of the Duc de la Force, a proud and fervent Huguenot who had fought against the king in the bloody religious wars of the early 17th century. Her mother was King Louis XIV’s second cousin, and the chatelaine of a medieval castle in Gascony, the Chateau de Cazeneuve, which had once been the prison of Queen Margot, infamous as the catalyst for the St Bartholomew Day’s massacre. Charlotte-Rose was born at the Chateau de Cazeneuve and had a happy and adventurous childhood there.
Then, in the spring of her 10th year, His Most Catholic Majesty King Louis XIV came to visit the chateau on his way to Spain to meet his new wife, Maria Theresa of Spain. Two years later, he had Charlotte-Rose’s mother dragged off to a convent against her will. The baroness of Cazeneuve was a devout Protestant; she was to be incarcerated until she recanted her faith and was baptised as a Catholic. Since she died in the convent, it seems as if she refused. Charlotte-Rose and her sister became wards of the king.
At the age of 16, Charlotte-Rose was summoned to court to serve as one of Queen Maria-Theresa’s ladies-in-waiting. She scandalised the court with her wayward behaviour, first taking as her lover Moliere’s protégé, the actor Michel Baron, and then becoming engaged to the Marquis of Nesle. When the marquis’s family took him away from court, in an attempt to break the engagement, the marquis attempted to drown himself. In the struggle to save him, his cousins accidentally tore away a pouch he wore about his neck. At once the marquis became calm, and lost all desire to kill himself for love of Charlotte-Rose. Indeed, he lost all desire for Charlotte-Rose at all. On investigating the pouch, toads’ legs and a bat’s wing were found wrapped in a parchment inscribed with magical words and symbols. Charlotte-Rose, the court whispered, had obviously ensnared the marquis with black magic.
She was eventually called before the Chambre Ardente, the French Inquisition, and questioned, but no charges were laid. The French court was at that time convulsed by the Affair of the Poisons, a scandal about poison, murder, satanism and infanticide which had implicated the King’s favourite mistress. Whether it was Charlotte-Rose’s kinship with the King or whether the King feared what further investigations would reveal about those closest to him can never be known, but Charlotte-Rose was lucky not be burnt at the stake like many other women at that time.
Then Charlotte-Rose fell in love with a much younger man, Charles Briou. When his family kidnapped him and locked him up in their chateau, Charlotte-Rose did indeed disguise herself in a bearskin and visited the chateau with a travelling troupe of actors. She was able to speak with her lover and make a plan for his release. As soon as he was free, the couple eloped and for ten days were blissfully happy. Charles’s father had Charlotte-Rose charged with unlawfully marrying a minor (even though they married a month after he had turned 25), and the court found in his favour. The marriage was annulled and Charlotte-Rose was charged a thousand gold louis.
Desperately poor, Charlotte-Rose turned her hand to writing. She wrote a series of ‘secret histories’ – historical novels that told the ‘true’ story of people such as the scandalous Queen Margot who had once been imprisoned in her home, the Chateau de Cazeneuve. Her books were enormously popular – even though most had to be published outside France to escape the king’s censors – and Charlotte-Rose became a cause célèbre. Rumours that she had become the Dauphin’s mistress and the publication of some satirical Noels displeased the ageing and now fanatically devout king, and she was given the choice of exile or the convent. Charlotte-Rose chose the convent, and spent the next eleven years locked inside its high, stone walls. While there, she wrote her collection of fairy tales and a number of other ‘secret histories’. The money she earned through her writing, plus her growing literary reputation, at last secured her freedom, though she was not permitted to return to court.
When I began discovering Charlotte-Rose’s story, I thought hers would be a framing device for my real story, the retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale. Charlotte-Rose refused to be sidelined, however. Her personality was so strong and her voice so clear to me, she ended up running away with the story. She was born ahead of her time, a strong-willed and intelligent woman who was determined to be the mistress of her own fate.
Kate Forsyth’s novel Bitter Greens will be published with Random House Australia next year. It interweaves a retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale with the life story of one of its first tellers, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force.