The Bee and the Orange Tree
This bustling book is set in Paris in 1699, under the reign of Louis XIV. It explores the lives of a group of female characters who are struggling to gain their independence in a social climate where the Catholic Church is repealing women’s liberties. The historically underexplored figure, Baroness Marie Catherine D’Alunoy, is one of these women. Her coping mechanism, and act of resistance, is penning subversive fairy tales.
The plot is driven forward by two key events. Marie Catherine’s close friend Nicola Tiquet narrowly escapes from her abusive husband, who she is then accused of murdering. Alongside this, Marie Catherine’s daughter, Angelina, arrives in Paris after being reared in the heady conservatism of a convent. She enters the narrative eager to be swept up in the glitz and glamour of Paris’s avant-garde literary salons with their progressive social codes. The novel’s momentum is carried forward by shifting among the perspectives of Nicola, Angelina, and Marie Catherine in the race to save Nicola from the allegations she faces.
Ashley’s greatest achievement is the way she captures the characters’ struggles for independence by illuminating the difficulty for women of the time to exist outside not just the church but also the institution of marriage. The book possesses an interesting mix of anachronistic dialogue that mingles with the characters’ strikingly contemporary clarity of the nature of their struggle. Ashley’s creation of historical space and time is highly detailed and immersive; however, it at times threatens to detract from the natural flow of the narrative. I particularly enjoyed its whimsical air, which is reminiscent of the fairy tale that inspired its title.
The Bee and the Orange Tree is Melissa Ashley’s second novel. She previously published the bestselling and critically acclaimed novel, The Birdman’s Wife, which followed the same path of exploring an underrepresented female historical figure.