January 25th 2020

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Wildfires: Lessons from the past not yet learnt

EDITORIAL America 'resets' foreign policy on China and Russia

CANBERRA OBSERVED After the fires, we still need an economy and to power it

GENDER POLITICS In trans Newspeak, parental consent is a 'hurdle'

REFLECTION Conjugal honour: Love of husband and wife joined together in pure intimacy

LIFE ISSUES Pro-lifers punished for exposing baby harvesting

LAW AND SOCIETY Cardinal Pell and the Appeal Court judges

LITERATURE AND SOCIETY The poetry of Distributism

AUSTRALIAN HISTORY Botany Bay: Always more than a dumping ground

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Finally getting Brexit done

HUMOUR The MacStuttles probe

MUSIC From retch to wretched

CINEMA Three times the bravura: 1917, The Gentlemen, Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon

BOOK REVIEW The contradictions of the dominant ideology

BOOK REVIEW Novel celebrates inventor of literary fairytales



HUMAN RIGHTS A Magnitsky-style law for Australia?

Books promotion page

Novel celebrates inventor of literary fairytales

News Weekly, January 25, 2020


by Melissa Ashley

Affirm Press, South Melbourne

Hardcover: 384 pages

Price: AUD$35

Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel

Paris 1699, and the celebrated author, Baroness Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy, is at the zenith of her literary career. Although a popular author and aristocrat, as a female she needs to conduct herself circumspectly in a country ruled by the autocratic Louis XIV. Her medium of criticising social structures, particularly the status and treatment of women, is through her fairytales, as well as her other fictitious works.

In her second published novel, Australian novelist Melissa Ashley has again focused on a female trying to negotiate her profession in a male-dominated world. Although almost forgotten now, D’Aulnoy was a popular writer at the time whose works were translated almost immediately into a range of European languages, including English.

While fairytales are generally associated with the Grimm brothers, early 19th-century German writers, scholars now argue that D’Aulnoy invented the genre, which became extremely popular in the 1690s. She employed what was then a standard means of promoting her works, namely a literary salon. At these gatherings Marie Catherine read excerpts of drafts of her forthcoming works, to gauge the reactions of attendees. Emerging writers were also given the opportunity to present their works at such salons to gain interest from potential readers.

The narrative proper begins with D’Aulnoy conducting one of her monthly salons in her apartment soon after the return of her youngest daughter Angelica, who has just left a convent where she was raised. Although a celebrated writer, Marie Catherine senses that her writing career has stalled.

Her guests include Marie Catherine’s old friend, Nicola de Tiquet, and an aspiring writer, Alphonse. Nicola is trapped in an unhappy marriage, and the complication emerges when there is an attempt on the life of her abusive husband. Failing to heed Marie Catherine’s warnings to leave Paris surreptitiously until the fuss has died down, Nicola is soon accused of attempting to murder her husband, and arrested.

Using her literary and friendship networks, Marie Catherine desperately attempts to save Nicola. Her old friend, the enigmatic Father Etienne, becomes a key player in the drama.

Another parallel plot is Angelica’s back-story in the convent, and her emerging friendship with Alphonse, whose real identity is revealed during the novel. The details of Marie Catherine’s own unhappy marriage are also gradually revealed, as readers learn detail after detail about her estranged husband, an extremely ill aristocrat.

The crises within the novel – particularly the arrest and trial of her friend Nicola – give Marie Catherine the strength to re-commence her writing. Although she has hitherto written novels set in other countries, and fairy stories as a means to critique current trends in French society  the novel ends with the sense that she will write a text set in contemporary France as a means of critiquing society, then considered a bold step as it left a writer more open to charges of treason and sedition.

While some of the characters are fictitious and Ashley has changed a few of the key dates in the narrative, the plot of The Bee and the Orange Tree is substantially based on fact: for example, the career of Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy, and the arrest and trial of Nicola de Tiquet. The historical details in the novel are the product of Ashley’s extensive research conducted during a three-month study fellowship at the Cité internationale des arts in Paris.

Those who know Ashley’s first novel, The Birdman’s Wife, previously reviewed for this publication by me, will soon recognise that Ashley’s writing craft has developed greatly. While in The Birdman’s Wife there are some extremely well-crafted passages, large sections of the novel are somewhat dry, perhaps because the author intended to write a biographical novel covering most of Elizabeth Gould’s life.

In contrast, by focusing on events encompassing a relatively short time frame in The Bee and the Orange Tree, Ashley is able to maintain suspense effectively, with seminal details gradually being revealed, while at the same time holding the reader’s interest until the very end.

This novel was a thoroughly enjoyable read, one that I found extremely hard to put down, and is highly recommended.

Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne-based writer.

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