The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley

‘Storytelling’s an escape: a place I visit.’

I opened this novel and found myself in Paris in 1699. In the Paris of literary salons, in a world where some women can have an independent life outside the restrictions imposed by marriage or the confines of the church. Or can they? This is the world of Louis XIV, ‘the Sun King’, a world in which the Catholic church is dominant.

Told in the third person, there are four parts to the story which unfolds over a period of just three months between March and June 1699.  The chapters alternate between the three women who are central to this novel: Nicola Ticquet, Baroness Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy, and her daughter Angelina.

Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy, inventor of fairy tales, is struggling to write.  Her youngest daughter, Angelina, is learning to live outside St Anne’s Convent.  Nicola Ticquet, friend of Marie Catherine, is wealthy and married to an abusive husband, Claude Ticquet.  When Claude Ticquet is attacked, Nicola is suspected of arranging to murder him.

Three women, three very different stories. Freedom, even for Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy, is more apparent that real.  She and Angelina try to save Nicola.  Woven around Nicola’s plight, we learn more about Marie Catherine’s past, about how Angelina came to be in a convent, about double standards and about the purpose of Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy’s fairy tales.

I found it difficult to put this novel down.  For a while I was in late 17th century Paris, observing and wondering.  Would Marie Catherine write again, how would Angelina fare outside St Anne’s, can Nicola survive?

‘It felt as if she had stumbled into a war between men and women, and she was merely girding herself for the next battle.’

Before I picked up this book, I’d not been aware of the Baroness Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy. I was unaware of her life and work, and I’m grateful that Ms Ashley has written a novel about her. Like Elizabeth Gould (from Ms Ashley’s first novel ‘The Birdman’s Wife’), Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy is another interesting woman on the fringe of history.  A beautifully written and illustrated novel.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



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