I read The Bee and the Orange Tree by Australian author Melissa Ashley. A wonderful historical fiction set during the early stages of the French Revolution but focused on the female literary circles surrounding Baroness Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy established as an author in her own right after successful publication career of several novels and fairytale collections. The darker, more disturbing undertone throughout the novel is that of female oppression during the reign of the French King Louis XIV, where the fairytales of young heroes and heroines overcoming impossible odds is a glittering hope for the oppressed women and subjugated peasants of France.
The Bee and the Orange Tree follows Angelina, Marie Catherine’s daughter, raised in a convent with barely any contact with her mother or father. Angelina is recalled from her only known world of the convent, to aid her ageing mother as an assistant. Soon, Angelina finds herself among the literary salons of Paris, attended by some of the most talented writers and poets but also many wealthy or noble families. Angelina is disheartened to discover the popularization of the craft and art her mother worked hard to establish herself and which Angelina greatly enjoys. Angelina is quickly confined by the existence of a respectable woman, suddenly missing the relative freedom of the convent especially as Marie Catherine has not written a single word after suffering an unusual form of writers block.
At one literary circle, Angelina is introduced to her mother’s protege, a young talented writer named Alphonse. Although unsure of her feelings toward Alphonse, Angelina is soon aware that Alphonse’s attempts to court her are only aimed at gaining Marie Catherine as a potential benefactor. This revelation hardens Angelina’s mistrust of Parisian society, which only deepens further when Marie Catherine’s good friend, Nicola Tiquet is accused of adultery and attempted murder. The subsequent trial of Nicola Tiquet, an independently wealthy and powerful woman without the need of a husband to support herself, becomes a focal point for Angelina’s realization of the oppressive nature of French society and the discrimination against women and any of unequal status. Against this is the greater landscape of the early French Revolution and the the determination of the powerful to hold onto power. Throughout these dramatic social challenges, Angelina learns disheartening truths about both her parents, discovering both are willing to sacrifice for their own aims and Angelina soon finds she has more in common with Alphonse than she imagined.
The Bee and the Orange Tree was an engrossing, complex historical fiction where the stories of each of the characters were as much the focus as the development of the fairytale literature and women’s rights in France during the eighteenth century. A wonderful read and highly recommended!