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The Bee and the Orange Tree

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!

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Beauty in Thorns

I just finished reading historical fiction novel, Beauty in Thorns by Australian author Kate Forsyth. Beauty in Thorns was inspired by the Pre-Raphaelite movement during the mid-to-late 1800s. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was initially founded by the painters William Holman-Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the late 1840s. The movement expanded to later include socially conscious artists such as William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones , with Dante Gabriel Rossetti still acting as a unifying figure even after his death. The concepts utilized by the Pre-Raphaelites was to combine representations of medieval chivalry with religious and nature motifs thereby rebelling against mass-produced items where increasing mechanical technology of the Industrial Revolution was considered a social malaise. Beauty in Thorns focuses on the women involved in the Pre-Raphaelite movement, the wives, mistresses and relatives who were somewhat removed from the praise of the male pre-Raphaelites. Beauty in Thorns follows three prominent women of the pre-Raphaelite movement, where interconnected storylines of Elizabeth Siddle, Jane Morris and Georgina Burne-Jones are contrasted with the more historically famous lives of their male partners. The overarching scope of Beauty in Thorns captures the conception, development and final triumph of Edward Burne-Jones’ series of paintings ‘The Legend of Briar Rose’ inspired by the Grimm tales of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’. The grand sweep of the saga details the interconnected lives of Gergiana Burne-Jones and her enduring love and acceptance of the sacrifices made for her husband’s art to flourish. The contrasting figure of Elizabeth Siddle who struggled to be recognized on the same level as male artists and like her own lover and eventual husband, Dante Gabriel-Rossetti. The final story follows Jane Morris who married the wealthy artist and socially conscious William Morris but who through societal prominence was granted more liberty than either Georgina Burne-Jones or Elizabeth Siddle, even when she remained married to William Morris but was the mistress to Dante Gabriel-Rossetti.
Beauty in Thorns had complex intersecting storylines that linked Elizabeth Siddle, Jane Morris and Georgiana Burne-Jones, where the common struggle of social oppression was reflected differently depending on social class. It was such a pleasure to read Beauty in Thorns. I definitely recommend it!

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The Wild Girl

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth proved greater than expectations for a recounting of the romance behind the classic collection of fairy tales for which the Grimm brothers’ found fame.While The Wild Girl recounts the friendship and romance of Dortchen Wild and Wilhelm Grimm, the enduring romance provides a space apart from the bleak reality of Hesse-Cassel during the Napoleonic Wars. The darker aspects of life in war-ravaged Europe are abundantly clear in the Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, too poor to travel throughout Europe and collect folktales for their scholarly volume, instead relying on pieces donated from many sources. Dortchen, the middle daughter of the apothecary next-door, is one source and provides many of the most vivid and loved tales in the collections.
The Wild Girl is a rich historical tale, revealing the dark elements of Napoleonic Europe, the silent history behind the classic fairy tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and the untold story of Dortchen Wild.

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The Beast’s Garden

The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth is a meticulously researched historical fiction set in Germany during the rise and to the final days of the Third Reich. The protagonist for the novel is Ava, a German singer of gypsy heritage and daughter of a prominent Berlin academic and psychiatrist. Ava’s life-long and closest friends are siblings Rupert and Jutta from a Jewish family. Beginning in the underground scene of the gypsy jazz movement, Ava, her circle of friends and her family are increasingly constricted by the growing political and social conservatism of the Third Reich. Through the developing intrigues and resistance movements against the Third Reich, Ava finds herself in a desperate situation and an unlikely ally in Leo, one of Hitler’s intelligence officers. In desperation to save herself and her father, Ava marries Leo for the political protection he can grant her. Yet Ava mistrusts her husband and his secrecy. Unwittingly, Ava’s one involvement in the underground resistance movements planning to assassinate Hitler, Ava accidentally brings about Leo’s own incrimination in plans by Hitler’s Secret Intelligence Office to assassinate him.Leo flees Berlin but is soon captured and Ava finds herself without Leo’s presence and protection, struggling to survive in Berlin during air raids and growing deprivation. Determined to try to find Leo, Ava and Jutta escape Berlin. Ava intends to save Leo from execution and Jutta hopes to find Rupert, long-since taken prisoner to Birkenau concentration camp. As the Third Reich falls, prisoners of extermination camps are left to die or escape and among these desperate escapees is Rupert who is soon reunited with his sister Jutta. Ava rescues and is reunited with Leo, bearing the physical and psychological scars for betraying the Third Reich.
The Beast’s Garden is a tale of resilience, love and determination in the face of war. The title is taken from the Brothers Grimm folk tale, the iconic Beauty and the Beast, which the characters of Ava and Leo are clearly connected to the original Grimm tale ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’.