Margaret Porter has just published her 15th novel The Myrtle Wand, a retelling of the classic ballet Giselle. Such an amazing accomplishment! So I asked Margaret the obvious question: “What inspired you to transform the ballet Giselle into an historical novel?”
In January of 2020, I attended a live broadcast of a recently recreated version of Giselle, staged by renowned Russian-Ukrainian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. As a lifetime ballet lover, a former dancer, and someone who does almost-daily exercise to the New York City Ballet workout, I was no stranger to Giselle. But the version I saw that afternoon was different. Ratmansky based it on the original 1841 Paris libretto, the original choreography notation (or as much as exists in the Harvard libraries and elsewhere), and the characters were presented as originally conceived. This became apparent as soon as the aristocratic hunting party appeared onstage.
The Princess Bathilde I saw that day wasn’t the noble, condescending bitch of most productions. She was warm and friendly and generous and kind. Sensitive. Deeply wounded by her future husband’s behaviour. She wasn’t just concerned by his betrayal of her—she was utterly devastated by Giselle’s tragic fate. And then . . . at the conclusion of Act 2, she reappeared. Quite unexpectedly.
I wasn’t prepared for that. I was surprised. Intrigued.
Giselle is one of the classic ballets, possibly the most famous of all, along with Swan Lake. The source material was a poem by Victor Hugo, Fantomes, or Phantoms, inspired by an imaginary girl who dances herself to death and joins a troupe of girl ghosts, who are somewhat based on the Eastern European legends of samovila or samodiva.
In Act I of the ballet, a duke in disguise who is already betrothed to a princess, becomes involved (either seriously or not) with the pretty dance-loving village girl Giselle. Her jealous suitor exposes his deception. His fiancée, Princess Bathilde—in most versions—is outraged, Giselle reacts to the shock in the famous and fatal “Mad Scene” in which every great ballerina must prove herself.
Act Two takes place in a forest, at the edge of the graveyard where Giselle is buried. The church bell tolls midnight, and a female emerges from the ground: Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, ghosts of young umarried women whose lovers betrayed them. They love to dance, which is nice. Not so nice—their vengeful desire to enact vengeance on deceivers. Any man they encounter is forced to dance himself into exhaustion, until he falls down dead. With a myrtle branch—a myrtle wand, that is—Myrtha draws the spirit of Giselle from her grave and initiates her into the group. When Albrecht arrives on the scene, he becomes a target of the Wilis’ wrath.
During lockdown, a period of intense video streaming, I discovered that the ballet world, with theatres and dance studios closed, had gone online with classes, tutorials, and entire performances, either free or by subscription. I searched for all my favourite ballets and watched dozens of Giselles.
Gradually, but inexorably, questions emerged. Most of them concerned Princess Bathilde and Duke Albrecht. But also Giselle. And Myrtha.
How did the duke and the princess become engaged? Did they know each other well? Did they like each other? Was it an arranged marriage? Why was Bathilde so friendly towards the peasant Giselle? Did they already know each other? Why was Albrecht masquerading as a grape-picker?
And when Act I is over . . . still more questions.
What did Bathilde do after discovering Albrecht’s deception, when Giselle is dead? Who was Myrtha during her lifetime, what betrayal did she suffer, by whom?
And more importantly for my purposes, What happened after the final curtain falls?
I decided that my version of the story should take place in France. The ballet was based on a Frenchman’s work, conceived in France, and premiered on the Paris stage. I’d wanted to write another 17th century novel, and France in the middle of the 17th century offered plenty of conflict, political and religious turmoil, sexual intrigue, beautiful chateaux – and vineyards. Best of all, it had Louis XIV, whose court entertainments were among the very first ballets, whose second (morganatic) wife Francoise attended a convent boarding school in Niort. Friends of ours lived near there, not far from Poitiers, which I’ve visited. Some of my own ancestors came from there, and from the environs of La Rochelle.
As for the ghostly element of the story . . . What if a devout Catholic girl of the mid-17th century, taught by nuns, began to believe they existed? What is the nexus between superstition and the supernatural and religious faith and belief?
And that’s how The Myrtle Wand came into being.
For research, I delved into the full history of the ballet, studying original sources and alternate versions from which I could borrow story elements and conflicts. Francoise d’Aubigné’s history at the Niort convent school. The Fronde rebellion in France. Louis XIV, before and after his coronation and his marriage.
And girls and women of that time. Their upbringing, across diverse social classes. The family and societal expectations laid upon them. Princess Bathilde, struggles with her appointed role in life, her preferences, and points of resistance. In 17th century France, parents decided whether a girl would receive a formal education—or not. Who she would marry, whether she knew him—or not. Who would have guardianship of her, if she remained single before reaching her majority…which in that time and place didn’t happen until her twenty-fifth birthday. Even a widow who hadn’t yet turned twenty-five wasn’t free from guardianship of the designated relative, as is the case for Francoise, in real life and in my novel.
When creating the plot and characters, I needed to determine the extent to which this would be a ghost story, in the supernatural category, or a realistic historical novel with hints of ghostly or supernatural elements. Anyone who’s had a metaphysical or mysterious encounter with the world will wonder, “Did it really happen or did I imagine it?” As King Louis XIV tells Bathilde in the story, “There’s no way we can really know” whether the supernatural experience is real. I prefer to roam through the grey areas of uncertainty. Creepy things happen for which there’s no logical explanation. It’s been true in every age. I remain open to the possibilities, in my life and in my fiction. I want that to be possible also for my reader.
So, if you ask me what actually occurs in that forest near Bathilde’s chateau at midnight, I won’t give you the definitive answer. But I do provide physical, tangible evidence of a mysterious event: the myrtle wand.
What an imaginative approach to creating historical fiction! Many thanks for sharing your very creative writing process, Margaret. And all best wishes for The Myrtle Wand.
The Myrtle Wand by Margaret Porter ~~ The Myrtle Wand, a retelling and a continuation of the classic ballet Giselle, restores original story elements to transform a tale of blighted romances and betrayals into a quest for redemption and restorative love.
Princess Bathilde de Sevreau, unlike her school friend Myrte and the peasant Giselle, doubts the existence of legendary vilis, ghostly maidens who rise from their graves by night to roam the forest to take revenge on faithless lovers. Until she, too, has cause to fear being ensnared by that spectral sisterhood . . .
Destined for a marriage of convenience with Albin, Duc de Rozel, Bathilde leaves her ancestral château for the Sun King’s sophisticated and scandalous court. As participants in royal ceremonies and entertainments, the princess and the soldier gradually recognize deep feelings for each other and mutual hopes for marital contentment.
But the tragic consequences of Albin’s brief masquerade as a commoner and the amorous Louis XIV’s quest for a mistress divide the lovers. Together and separately, they must overcome conflicting duties and unexpected dangers to determine their fate.
Kirkus Reviews calls The Myrtle Wand “An absorbing and touching tale . . . a fully realized, moving portrait of the storied court of Louis XIV.”
Read other posts by Margaret Porter: On Writing Historical Fiction; The Limits of Limelight; Beautiful Invention: Transported to Hedy Lamarr’s Time and Place.
FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.