On the Trail of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force
The primary character in my novel Bitter Greens is the scandalous 17th century writer, Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who wrote the version of the Rapunzel fairytale that we know best.
She was one of those fascinating women that have been forgotten by history. She was related to the Sun King, Louis XIV, and became lady-in-waiting to the queen at the age of sixteen, living the next thirty years in the glittering royal courts of Paris, Versailles, Fontainebleau and Marly-le-Roi.
At the age of forty-seven, she was incarcerated by the king in a tumbledown old convent as punishment for her wild and wicked ways. She had had an affair with an impoverished actor, used black magic to try and ensnare herself a husband, disguised herself as a dancing bear to gain access to her much younger lover, and written a series of titillating novels about the king’s most notorious ancestors.
While locked away in the convent, Charlotte-Rose wrote the collection of fairytales that included ‘Persinette’ (later renamed ‘Rapunzel’ by a German author Friedrich Schultz).
Dramatic and fascinating as Charlotte-Rose de la Force’s life was, it was very difficult to research. Usually she is given nothing more than a biographical paragraph in encyclopaedias and fairytale scholarship.
After long months of detective work, I found a biography of her life, Mademoiselle de la Force: un auteur mèconnu du XVIIͨ siècle, by the French academic Michel Souloumiac. However, it was only published in French and despite my expensive and prolonged education, my French is very poor.
So I enlisted the help of a translator, Sylvie Poupard-Gould, who not only translated Michel Souloumiac’s biography, but also translated an autobiographical sketch written by Charlotte-Rose and a number of her fairytales, which had never before been translated into English. This took a great deal of time, because the biography was written in dense academic terminology, and the second was written in Old French, complete with the letter ‘f’ looking like the letter ‘s’.
Michel Souloumiac’s book Mademoiselle de la Force gave me the basic framework for my story, though there were many times when I had to use my imagination to fill in the gaps. For example, he says that Charlotte-Rose “came to the attention of the king” during the infamous Affair of the Poisons, a scandal about witchcraft, satanism, and murder that led to the execution of hundreds of people.
From those seven small words – “came to the attention of the king” – I wrote three whole chapters, in which Charlotte-Rose is interrogated by the terrifying Chambre Ardente and locked in the Bastille.
In April 2011, I packed up my three young children and we travelled to France on the trail of Charlotte-Rose de la Force. We went to the Louvre, where she came as a frightened sixteen year old country girl to work in service of the terrifying king who had locked up her mother against her will. It was easy to imagine the women in their wide silken gowns and tall lace headdresses, strolling along on the arms of men in heavy wigs and full-skirted satin coats, their high heels clacking on the stone floor, their shrill voices trying to fill the vast echoing space of the galleries of that old palace.
The children and I visited the Place des Vosges, where Charlotte-Rose’s cousin Henriette-Julie de Murat, another fairy tale teller, had lived with her elderly and aristocratic husband. I sat with my notebook and pen, writing away, while my children played tip in the garden and clambered over the modern climbing equipment.
We went to the Église Saint-Sulpice, the grand and gloomy church in Paris where Charlotte-Rose finally married her young lover, Charles de Briou, a few weeks after he reached his majority at the age of twenty-five. It was no use. They had ten days of happiness before the marriage was annulled, and her husband locked away in a madhouse by his parents.
Of course a trip to Versailles was de rigeur. My children suffered the stuffy, crowded tour of the gilded palace, having been promised bike riding around the lake. By the time we turned back to the train station, our feet were so bruised and swollen from the tiny cobblestones that we could barely walk. What must it have been like to have been a lady-in-waiting to the queen, never permitted to sit in the royal presence, all while wearing ridiculously high-heeled shoes that showed her noble lineage and enormous heavy skirts. Charlotte-Rose’s feet must have hurt all the time, I thought.
Finally, we travelled down to Gascony for a week, staying near where Charlotte-Rose spent her childhood. With a French translator accompanying us, we were given a private tour of the Chateau de Cazeneuve by its owner, the Comte de Sabran-Pontevès. One of the oldest privately owned castles in France, the Chateau de Cazeneuve was once the hunting lodge of Henri of Navarre, who became Henri IV of France. When he moved to Paris, he gave his castle to his cousin, Charlotte-Rose’s great-grandfather. It is an extraordinary place, built for strength on a bluff overlooking the wild Ciron River. I saw Charlotte-Rose’s baptismal records, her pram, and the room in which she had been born. I was able to see where the secret passage where Queen Margot, Henri IV’s wife, used to sneak through to rendezvous with her lovers. It was the most amazing and beautiful place, steeped in history and old tales, and the children and I were incredibly privileged to see it.
Writing the story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force was the most extraordinary adventure, both imaginatively and in actuality. I hope that Bitter Greens will ignite new interest in her life and her work, so that her name becomes as well known as the far less interesting Charles Perrault, who published his fairytales only a year earlier than she did.
This blog post was originally published on Gillian Polack’s Live Journal blog at