Author Melissa Ashley came to prominence when her debut novel, The Birdman’s Wife, expertly re-imagined the life of Elizabeth Gould. Following this theme of uncovering the lives of fascinating but largely forgotten women from history, her second novel The Bee and the Orange Tree (Affirm Press 2019) is an engaging and previously untold story about Frenchwoman Baroness Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy, the inventor of fairy tales long before the Brothers Grimm. Set in Paris in 1699, this novel is a completely immersive experience of French aristocratic life and the strong and independent women who battled constantly for agency against the constraints of the church, the monarchy and the patriarchy. But it is also a much deeper and plot-driven book – the story of Marie Catherine’s friend, Nicola, accused of attempting to murder her husband, and the Baroness’ youngest daughter, Angelina, adjusting to the glamorous and often confusing life of the City of Lights after being raised in a convent. Told from the perspectives of these three woman – each feisty and determined, each talented and generous, each struggling to assert their identity while tied by societal expectations – The Bee and the Orange Tree explores what it means to be female, to be an artist, to be a benefactor; what it meant to be the 17th century equivalent of today’s ‘Influencer’!
I had expected this book to be about the secret history of fairy tales, and it certainly is that. In her research, the author has uncovered many wonderful fables and fantastical stories that were written, often by women, and usually for adults, rather than for children. The fairy tales were a coded way of addressing the inequalities and injustices of the times, particularly against women. The language, the evocative imagery, the delightful characters – all were woven together to construct escapist stories with moral or instructive or cautionary advice for young women about to navigate the world of marriage, children and expectations. As was common in the day, Marie Catherine held regular literary salons in her bedchamber, where artists gathered to listen to each other recite their work and to offer feedback, suggestions and encouragement.
But what I didn’t expect was that this book would be so full of intrigue, scheming, plotting, murder, mayhem, cunning, torture, crime, racy sexual liaisons, indiscretions, ancestral secrets, lies, backstabbing and passion. At the opening, Marie Catherine’s friend Nicola Tiquet is under suspicion for conspiring to murder her husband, and the plot is driven by Nicola’s increasingly desperate situation, her pleas of her innocence, Marie Catherine’s attempts to help her plight, and the terrible hypocrisy and unfairness of the time around how women were treated, their lack of rights and power, and the unjust and seemingly random operation of the legal system, fuelled more by money changing hands than actual facts. But also right from the beginning, we know that Nicola’s husband Claude is a brutish man who terrorised his wife…and so we are left wondering whether perhaps she could indeed be guilty of trying to enact revenge. This unsolved mystery propels the story forward as it is a race to uncover the truth before it is too late.
The other aspect of this novel that I found surprising was the tender, joyful, supportive and endearing friendships between women, who may have been subjugated by the men around them, but who nevertheless forged strong bonds of companionship and intellectual rigour that sustained them from the powerlessness they often felt in other areas of their lives. This is very much a story about female friendship – loyalty, betrayal, forgiveness – and the lengths women will go to in order to protect each other.
The sumptuous setting of The Bee and the Orange Tree is rich in meticulously researched details of the time. The intricate fashions, wigs and powders; the minutiae of preparing for dressing and bathing and one’s toilette; the blood-letting and other common medical cures; the class levels of servants and attendants; the extraordinary furnishings – canopied beds and exquisite handmade armoires and curtained carriages. Reading from these pages feels like being on a film set; the smells, sounds and sights of a place 300 years ago and across the other side of the world brought to life.
Much is made of the writing muse and I particularly love this passage that depicts Marie Catherine’s anguish over her writing life: ‘All the advice and experience and practice in the world was not necessarily any help when one’s well had run dry of ideas … What had happened to those hours she used to spend, wresting an idea that would not leave her in peace … If it were her last act, she would again seduce the gods of story to toss their net of wonders at her feet, to strew their gifts before her, and out she would pluck one starfish, one mushroom, one invisible cloak, one prince dressed as a pauper, one naked king. Oh, she would take it all and rush, her apron lifted and bulging with treasure, back to her desk to make sense of the hoard.’ Which of the writers amongst us cannot recognise that feeling?
Or this exchange and piece of writing advice still relevant today:
“‘But I set my works in courts from a hundred years past, and in distant countries.’
‘But the books’ concerns are from the life you live.’ …
‘An author must be brave,’ said Marie Catherine. ‘You can say whatever you like in your writing. It’s your opportunity to re-imagine the world as you would have it turn.’”
The Bee and the Orange Tree is written in beautiful, literary language reminiscent of the time, imbued with French sensibilities and an ornately described setting. It is an intriguing mystery, the pages filled with uncertainty about the literal life or death fate of the characters. And it is a tender homage to female friendship and to the inimitable and innate power of women to bond together and to support each other in times of difficulty. Complete with a handful of reproductions of original black and white drawings, this book is an engrossing read and a lovely objet d’art.