Melissa Ashley, The Bee and the Orange Tree (Affirm Press 2019)
Most people know that the story of Cinderella has been told in myriad ways in many cultures, and that the version most commonly told to children in the west these days – the source of the Disney version – was written by Charles Perrault, a late 17th century Parisian. But did you know that he was part of a thriving fairy-tale publishing scene in France between 1690 and 1725, and that most of the many authors of original fairy tales of that time were women? And had you even heard of the Baroness Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy, the woman who coined the term ‘fairy tale’ (conte de fée).
Melissa Hay’s novel The Bee and the Orange Tree, set in 1699, takes place in that gap in our collective knowledge. It’s main characters are Marie Catherine, old, racked with arthritic pain and about to publish her second collection of tales; Angelina, a largely fictional character based on Marie Catherine’s youngest daughter; and Mme Nicola Tiquet, a friend of Marie Catherine who is accused of conspiracy to murder her abusive husband. Chapters are narrated from the point of view of each of these three characters in turn. The struggle to save Nicola from execution is a main narrative thread, secrets from Marie Catherine’s past are revealed, Angelina falls in love, and both Angelina and Marie Catherine reach turning points in their writing careers.
It’s a historical romance, even a bodice ripper, though rather than any bodice being ripped there’s a revelation of bound breasts and, at the novel’s steamiest, a lustful eye is cast at a décolletage. Paris of the time is vividly evoked, from the salons where ladies read their fairy tales to the huge public festive horror of an execution. Men tend to be peripheral to the story, except possibly for him of the bound breasts.
The novel has an agenda to retrieve some lost literary history, and some history of women and gender non-conforming people, and it achieves that interestingly, though I wasn’t completely convinced by the portrayal of the salons, and didn’t believe in the fairy tales included in the book. On the other hand, the sexual intrigues and the various plot revelations are pretty much determined by the genre – serviceable rather than engaging.
The part that worked best for me is the account of the execution as a public event that people feel compelled to witness, whether as sympathisers, as ghoulish entertainment seekers, or as participants. (It’s not a spoiler to tell you there is an execution – the threat of it hangs over more than one character.)
And now, because it’s November:
November verse 13:
Three thousand sombre people gathered,
candles lit, when Ron Ryan* hanged.
By needle, bullet, stones, gas pellet,
rope, electric chair or sword,
Iran, Iraq, South Sudan, China,
Texas to South Carolina,
state killing still goes on today.
Polite, we turn our heads away
where once it was a great occasion:
come and see a life cut short,
come see how great the power of courts,
see how we'll kill, for God or nation.
Wise though we others claim to be
we'd still watch, glued to the TV.
* Ronald Ryan was the last man hanged in Australia. It was 8 am on Friday February 3 1967 in Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison. He refused a sedative so that he could write a note to his daughters. The note ended, ‘Goodbye, my darlings … Lovingly yours, Dad.’