Melissa Ashley is a writer, poet, birder and academic who tutors in poetry and creative writing at the University of Queensland. She has published a collection of poems, The Hospital for Dolls, short stories,
essays and articles. What started out as research for a PhD dissertation on Elizabeth Gould became a labour of love and her first novel, The Birdman’s Wife. Inspired by her heroine, she studied taxidermy as a volunteer at the Queensland Museum. Melissa lives in Brisbane.
Buy a copy of The Bee and the Orange Tree here. // Read a review of The Bee and the Orange Tree here.
The Bee and the Orange Tree is a beautifully lyrical and deeply absorbing portrait of a time, a place, and the subversive power of the imagination. Can you tell us a bit more about the book?
My novel is set in Paris, in 1699, at the time of Louis XIV, the Sun King. This was an extraordinary period in Paris’s history: it was the birth of its reputation as the ‘city of lights,’ as a travel destination to visit from overseas, as the seat of fashion, fine dining, literature, theatre, opera and intellectual conversation.
The heroine of The Bee and the Orange Tree, Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy, was a fairy tale author; she published the very first fairy tale, ‘The Isle of Happiness,’ in 1690, and indeed, coined the term ‘fairy tale’. This flies in the face of accepted knowledge, which is that fairy tales were ‘invented’ by the Grimm Brothers in the 19th century. In fact, there was a golden age of fairy tale publishing in France, between 1690 and 1725, and most of the authors were women.
As was the fashion of the time, Marie Catherine ran a literary salon from her bedchamber, where fairy tales were recited before an attentive, interactive audience, before being published. But it was at her salon that Marie Catherine ran into problems. Was she or was she not involved in an assassination attempt on the life of Monsieur Tiquet, the abusive husband of her dear friend Nicola??
This is based on a true story – How did you first hear about it?
I first learned of the extraordinary Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy about a decade ago, while researching at university to write a contemporary novel based on the Grimms’ fairy tale, The Maiden Without Hands. While the novel ended up in a dark cupboard, my fascination and interest in the 17th-century French woman who invented fairy tales steadily grew over time.
Although the 17th century was an incredible period in the city of Paris, the same cannot be said in terms of the agency of half of its citizens’ lives: its women. Women were controlled by the church, the state and their parents. They were considered minors until they were 25 – you could be imprisoned for running away with a lover, or thrown into a convent – but were usually married, as young as 15, to men much older than themselves. They could not divorce, work, nor control their own money.
And this was the case with Marie Catherine. She was born in 1650 in Normandy, to a minor aristocratic family. When I discovered a scandal in her early life, I realised she would make an excellent character for a novel. The idea went on the back burner, but then a few years later I discovered yet more about her incredible biography and realised that I had to write about her, before somebody else beat me to it.
Can you tell us about your research process for this book?
Perhaps as with the best ideas, this one crept up on me while I was desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to make another project work. I remember writing a very long (and unpublishable) short story about the Cabinet des Fees (Chamber of Fairy Tales), a 42-volume collection of French fairy tales published in the late 18th century, sitting on humidified shelves in the French national archives. I simply could not believe that, outside of France (and academia and fairy tale enthusiasts), nobody had heard of the French contuses (female fairy tale writers).
I did regular research, in libraries and archives, as for any project. But I was also very fortunate in being awarded an Australia Council Grant to live in the Marais in Paris for 3 months at the Internationale Cite des Arts, while I wrote the first draft. This was an essential and incredible experience – I had only spent about a week in the city before – and I let Paris seep into my skin, wandering the streets, getting lost in museums and hotels and palaces, hanging out with some of the other writers and artists at the residency.
I wandered along the street where Marie Catherine used to live. Amazingly, it’s a very literary area in Paris, near Les Deux Magots, the famous café that Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre used to write in. The former house of writer and film-maker Marguerite Duras – a favourite of mine – was in the same street, as was the most extraordinary perfumery. I am a sucker for French perfume (and flowers) and this shop was set up like an 18th-century apothecary, with huge glass jars of herbs and spices lining the walls, antique scales, uniformed assistants, and bottles of perfumes that were made according to 18th– and 19th-century recipes. I can vouch that I had never smelled anything like it. And that shop – also inspired by the exquisite 17th-century perfume bottles I saw in the national museum and my abiding love for Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume, set in Paris about a murderous perfumer – meant that a little cameo of the shop made it into the novel. That is perhaps an illustration of how my research all comes together into words and images that are exciting and alive for me as a writer, and then the reader.
What do you hope the reader will take away from this book?
I hope that the reader takes with them a little bit more understanding and appreciation of women’s lives during this period. While women had limited agency and freedom, nevertheless there was a group of inventive, clever and fascinating French aristocrats who thwarted the constraints on their lives to create the templates for our classical fairy tale heroines – Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Cinderella. I think it’s important to know that fairy tales were not simply oral traditions collected by the likes of the Brothers’ Grimm and Charles Perrault – the only writer from this period to be remembered outside France – but in fact were written by individual female authors. Although Marie Catherine and her contemporary fairy tale writers were bestsellers in their lifetime, over subsequent centuries their contributions to fairy tales and to literature were erased by the patriarchal processes of canon-formation, which is terribly unfortunate and unfair.
What’s your daily writing routine like and what are you working on at the moment?
When I’m writing a draft, I write six days a week – or until I can’t go on any more, whichever comes first – as soon as I wake up. A session is usually about three hours, but it could be longer or shorter. I listen to my intuition, my inner voice, and work hard to get down on paper everything that has bubbled up overnight and in the previous afternoon from the work of the draft. It takes six weeks to three months to complete the draft, and deadlines need to be involved. And then it’s back to rewrite the draft, many times, until the work begins to resemble a book.
I’ve just returned from a research trip to far north Queensland, including Kuranda, Port Douglas and remote Cape York. I visited an ancient rainforest that was pummeled by a cyclone at the beginning of 2019 and has just been through an extensive bushfire. This is research for my next novel, which concerns the extinction crisis in Queensland. As with my interests, the protagonist is a creative, a visual artist, and the story takes place in Brisbane, Amsterdam and remote far north Queensland.