Baltimore native Celia Bell travels very far from Charm City in her debut novel, The Disenchantment. We find ourselves in seventeenth-century France, embroiled in the melodramas of barons, barronnes, lords, and comptesses. Poison, black magic, murder, sex, witchcraft, fortune-telling, cross-dressing: it’s all there. The action takes place during the Affair of the Poisons, a real-life event reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials.

Marie Catherine la Jumelle, unhappily married to a man interested only in her money, has a liberating secret: her passionate romance with Victoire Rose de Bourbon, Mademoiselle de Conti. When Marie Catherine’s odious husband dies unexpectedly, her world breaks open, exposing her to the network of women corrupting Paris with love potions and dark curses. The underbelly of the city is closer to home than she could have ever imagined.

In Bell’s note on the text, she explains that the novel’s characters and scenes correspond to historical figures and events from the seventeenth century. The book is a rhapsody in research. With The Disenchantment, Bell is pursuing the family business of historical fiction: her father is Madison Smartt Bell, professor of English at Goucher College and author of 22 books, including All Souls’ Rising, a historical novel about Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution. Bell’s mother, the poet Elizabeth Spires, is the author of five collections, and also teaches at Goucher.

Baltimore Fishbowl: Tell us about the inspiration for The Disenchantment.

Celia Bell: It began with my interest in Madame d’Aulnoy, who lends her given name, Marie Catherine, to my heroine. She was a 17th century novelist and writer of fairy tales who lived a fairly scandalous life, after managing to free herself from a husband to whom she had been married off to as a young teenager. There seemed to me to be a natural affinity between the world of the fairy tales and the world of the divineresses of Paris—as the fortune-tellers and magicians of the time would have been called. I wanted The Disenchantment to be both deeply historically grounded and to have the freedom and strangeness of a fairy tale, where nearly anything can happen and there is the possibility of radical transformation. Madame d’Aulnoy’s life seemed to me to have that quality, as did the lives many of the historical figures who were involved with the magic of the day.

BFB: What fascinated you about the Affair of the Poisons in particular? How did you discover these specific historical figures?

CB: I began reading about the Affair of the Poisons while researching the women of the court of Louis XIV. Many of them were adept political operators, but there was a great deal of anxiety on the more conservative side of society about the involvement of women in political life—and public life more generally. Many of the central figures involved in the Affair of the Poisons were women from both high and low society, including the king’s official mistress, Madame de Montespan, who fell out of favor partly as a result of the unsubstantiated accusations against her. France has a long history of feminist or proto-feminist philosophy, and the Affair of the Poisons seemed to me a moment of backlash, in which some of the freedoms that women had been working to gain were foreclosed. It was also a scandal that linked high and low society, incorporating both princesses and generals and regular people, which made it an interesting microcosm of French society at the time.

BFB: Do you see aspects of yourself in either (or both) of the two heroines?

CB: To an extent. I prefer to have a little distance between me and my characters, and for The Disenchantment it was also important to me that they should feel authentically like characters of their time. There are various characters for whom I drew on some aspect of my own life to inform their experience—some of Victoire’s memories of convent school, or, going a little beyond the novel’s heroines, Lavoie’s reflections on the tension between making good art and making a living. But there isn’t a character in the novel who is straightforwardly based on myself. 

BFB: The action of the book is punctuated by the fairy tales Marie Catherine spins for her children. Where did the inspiration for Marie Catherine’s fairy tales come from?

CB: When I was researching Madame d’Aulnoy, I realized that—totally by coincidence—I had had a collection of fairy tales written by her and other writers of her time, mostly women, as a young child. For an American child whose first experience of fairy tales was the sanitized versions of Disney, they were wonderfully dark and strange, and I was very attached to them. Rereading them as an adult, it seemed clear to me that using the folk form of the fairy tale allowed Madame d’Aulnoy and her contemporaries to be quite critical of French society in ways that would have been less possible in a more canonized genre.

 I was interested in the way the fairy tale violates many of the classical rules of drama—in particular vraisemblance, the idea that events in art must always be believable, and bienséance, which dictates that nothing too upsetting should be shown on the stage. While there are great writers of French literature who obey these rules, they were often used to enforce a normative vision of society within art. The fairy tale transgresses these ideals, and in doing so, is both a veiled criticism of the violence often elided by canonized forms of literature (the woman forced into an engagement with an ogre would be familiar to many French women of the time) and a way of imagining other possible worlds. 

BFB: Do you speak French? Did you travel to France as part of your research for the book?

CB: I do speak French, and lived for a while in France when I was a teenager. But the research for The Disenchantment was done mostly in libraries—I read a great deal of 17th history and contemporary writing, but didn’t visit Paris. One book that was helpful for getting the feel of the city right was Louis Sebastian Mercier’s Panorama of Paris, which was written a few decades after The Disenchantment is set, but which is a vivid and precise account of the particularities of the city in Mercier’s day. 

BFB: What are some of your favorite works by other authors of historical fiction? 

CB: I love Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy, which I feel was a particularly strong influence on The Disenchantment. I’m also very attached to the work of Hilary Mantel, Marguerite Yourcenar and Nicola Griffith, all of whom have written intensely imagined and stylistically innovative historical novels.

BFB: Your parents are two of Baltimore’s most famous authors. How did that affect your development as a writer?

CB: Well, I think either of my parents might dispute the word “famous” there, but I think the main impact my parents’ profession has had on my career was that my interest in writing was always treated as a possible and worthwhile life path. Growing up in a house of working artists meant that my vocation for writing was taken seriously, that I wasn’t pressured to enter a more traditional career, and that I had models for how that path might be pursued in the real world—all advantages which many emerging artists don’t have.

Of course, many things have changed in the decades since my parents first began publishing their work. Many of the avenues that writers of my parents’ generation and earlier used to create stability in their careers—teaching, freelance work, screenwriting—have become increasingly precarious over the past decades, which creates a serious burden for new writers. So my career path ended up looking rather different from my parents’ in a number of ways, but I think I felt less pressure to conform to traditional markers of success than I might have if I had come from a different family.

BFB: So what is your day job?

I work for a small honey company in Austin as their operations manager & beekeeper.

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