Happy International Women's Day! We've been looking at women in myth, folklore, and fantasy in the last few posts. Today is dedicated to the fairy tale writers of the French salons, with illustrations by French book artist Adrienne Ségur (1901-1981)....
The term "fairy tale," now used throughout the English-speaking world as a generic label for magical stories for children, was a term coined in the literary salons of 17th century Paris by a group of writers who wrote and published their tales for adult readers. These stories have come down to us through the years in simplified forms adapted for children: Cinderella, Rapunzel, Bluebeard, Sleeping Beauty, Donkeysin, and many others. They have their roots deep in the oral folk tradition, but they are not anonymous folk tales themselves -- they are literary works by a group of French authors, primarily women, who have exerted a strong influence on fairy tale literature up to the present.
To explore this group and their influence, first we need to distinguish between the oral folk tales and literary fairy tales of western Europe. Magical folk tales, of course, have been part of the storytelling tradition since the dawn of time -- including stories of fairies, sorcerers, witches, and human folk under enchantment. Folk tales are humbler stories than the great cosmological myth cycles or long heroic Romances, and as such have been passed through the generations largely by the lower caste portions of society: women, peasants, slaves, and outcast groups such as Tinkers and Travellers. The literary fairy tale, by contrast, began as an art form of the upper classes -- made possible by advances in printing methods and rising literacy. Literary fairy tales borrow heavily from the oral folk tales of the peasant tradition (as well from myth, Romance, and literary sources like Apuleius’ Golden Ass), but these motifs are crafted and reworked through a single author’s imagination.
Although we find magical elements in medieval literature (in Boccaccio’s Decameron, for instance, or Chaucer’s Cantebury Tales), 16th century Italy is where the fairy tale became a genre of its own with the publication of Giovan Francesco Straparola’s Le piacevoli notti (The Pleasant Nights, 1550-53) and Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentamerone, also known as Lo cunto de li cunti (The Story of Stories, 1534-36). Both authors acknowledged that their source material came from women storytellers, yet Straparola and Basile were not scholarly collectors intent on preserving the oral folk tradition; they were writers who filtered the oral tales through an educated sensibility, turning them into literary works intended for adult readers. Both authors embedded short fairy tales into a larger frame story (ala the Decameron), a narrative technique that was to become a staple of fairy tale literature. Between them, Le piacevoli notti and Il Pentamerone contain some of the earliest written renditions of many classic tales such as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Puss-in-Boots, among others. Yet these stories were somewhat different than the fairy tales we know today. Sleeping Beauty, for instance, was not wakened by a kiss, but by the suckling of the twins that she gave birth to after the prince has come, made love to her sleeping body, and left again. The tales were sensual, dark, bawdy, and never intended for children’s ears. Straparola, in fact, had to legally defend his volume against charges of indency.
In the 17th century, Italian interest in magical stories waned -- but the tales of Straparola and, particularly, Basile went on to influence a new generation of writers in Paris. Prior to the 17th century, French folk tales were considered the “vulgar” province of the peasantry, although members of the upper-classes often knew such tales via nurses and servants. In the middle of the century, however, a vogue for magical tales emerged in the women’s salons of Paris. The salons were regular gatherings hosted by prominent aristocratic women, where women and men could gather to discuss the issues of the day. At court, contact between men and women was socially constrained and ritualized; and many topics of conversation were considered inappropriate for well-bred ladies. In the 1630s, disaffected women began to host gatherings in their own homes in order to discuss the topics of their choice: arts and letters, politics (carefully, for the Sun King’s spies were everywhere), and social matters of immediate concern to the women of their class: marriage, love, financial and physical independence, and access to education. This was a time when women were barred from schools and universities; when arranged marriages were the norm, divorce virtually unheard of, birth control methods primitive, and death by childbirth common. These women, and the sympathetic men who were increasingly attracted to their lively gatherings, came to be called précieuses, for they perfected a witty, inventive, précieux mode of conversation (rather like the bon mots popular in the Aesthetic movement of Oscar Wilde’s day).
Some of the most gifted women writers of the period came out of these early salons (such as Madeleine de Scudéry and Madame de Lafayette), which encouraged women’s independence and pushed against the gender barriers that circumscribed their lives. The salonnières argued particularly for love, tendresse, and intellectual compatibility between the sexes, opposing the system of arranged marriages in which, at its worst, women of their class were basically sold off to the highest bidder. They railed against a culture that permitted men to take lovers while demanding women remain faithful to men they’d never wanted to marry in the first place. They sought to control their own money, and property, and to travel without chaperones. Most of all, they wanted the opportunity to exercise their intelligence and talents. Encouraged by their success in the salons, women began to write fiction, poetry and plays in unprecedented numbers -- and to earn a living through this work which enabled them to remain unmarried or to establish separate households. The salons became quite influential -- fashions grew out of them, artistic ideas, and even political movements; they also provided a network for women struggling to achieve independence.
In the middle of the 17th century, a passion for conversational parlor games based on the plots of old folk tales swept through the salons. The telling of folk tales was an art that had long historical associations with women – yet the use that these bluestocking women made of such tales was new and subversive. Each salonnière would be called upon to retell an old tale or rework an old theme, spinning them into clever new stories that not only showcased verbal agility and imagination, but also slyly commented on the conditions of aristocratic life. Great emphasis was placed on a mode of delivery that seemed natural and spontaneous -- but in fact people devised and practiced their stories before they trotted them out in public, and a style emerged that was both archly sophisticated and faux-naif.
Today, the salon fairy tales may seem quaintly old-fashioned, dripping with too many pearls and jewels, but to 17th century audiences the rich rococo language of the tales seemed deliciously rebellious -- in deliberate contrast with the mannered restraint of works approved by the French Academy (from which women were barred). In the Academy, in the "Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns," Boileau, Racine and other literary men insisted that French literature should strive to emulate the classical works of Greek and Rome, while the Moderns (Charles Perrault among them) believed that the home-grown source material of French folklore and myth could inspire a vigorous new literature, free of antiquated rules. (Stories of ogres in seven league boots were the true inheritors of the Homeric tradition, Perrault argued, not odes composed in Latin.) The king eventually ruled in favor of the Ancients, but Modern literary experimentation continued to go on with popular if not critical support -- particularly in the world of the salons, where women writers often had no choice but to boldly take up the Modern cause. Largely self-educated, few of them could read and write in Latin.
The rococo language of the fairy tales also served another important function: disguising the subversive subtext of the stories and sliding them past the court censors. Critiques of court life, and even of the king, were embedded in flowery utopian tales and in dark, sharply dystopian ones. Not surprisingly, the tales by women often featured young but clever aristocratic girls whose lives were controlled by the arbitrary whims of fathers, kings, and elderly wicked fairies – as well as tales in which groups of wise fairies stepped in and put all to rights.
Fairies were central to these stories, and it was here that the name contes des fées (fairy tales) was coined -- a term now used to describe a large, international body of magical tales. The fairies populating the salon tales were not quite the same as the earthy creatures to be found in the oral folk tradition, however. They shared some of the same characteristics (they wielded magic and granted wishes; they could be good or evil, helpful or capricious), yet these fairies were clearly aristocrats, intelligent, erudite, and independent, ruling over kingdoms and presiding over the workings of justice and fate -- just as intelligent, independent women ruled over the world of the salons. In short, these fairies can be seen as representing the women writers who created them.
As the vogue for fairy stories evolved in the 1670s and ‘80s, Madame d’Aulnoy emerged as one of the most popular raconteurs in Paris, famed for her tales and for the glittering circle she drew to the salon she hosted. Eventually she wrote down her tales (The White Cat, The White Deer, Green Snake, Bluecrest and The Royal Ram, among others), publishing them to great acclaim from 1690 onward -- beginning with a fairy tale embedded in her novel L’Histoire d’Hypolite, comte de Duglas. Soon after, other salonnières began to publish fairy tales of their own, including Marie-Jeanne L’H’éritier and Catherine Bernard beginning in 1695, Charles Perrault and Comtesse de Murat in 1696, Rose de La Force in 1697, Chevalier de Mailly and Jean de Préchac in 1698, Catherine Durand in 1699, and Comtesse D’Auneuil in 1701.
Madame d’Aulnoy’s own history is just as fantastical as any of her stories. Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville was born in Normandy in 1650, and received a modest convent education -- arranged for her by Francois de la Motte, Baron d’Aulnoy, a wealthy aristocrat who was thirty years her senior. When Marie-Catherine was 15 or 16, the Baron abducted her from the convent (with the connivance of her father, who profited financially) and a forced marriage ensued -- from which, in that time and place, there was no possibility of divorce. The Baron was famed for his dissolute habits, including drunkenness, an addiction to gambling, and sexual irregularities. Three long years later, it looked as though the girl might be freed from her odious husband when the Baron was arrested and charged with a crime of high treason against the king. Then the two men who had implicated the Baron recanted their testimony under torture. These men were discovered to be the lovers of the young Baroness and her beautiful mother, and it was now believed that the whole affair had been cooked up between the four of them. The Baron was released, the men were executed, and d’Aulnoy and her mother fled to Spain. The two adventurous women spent the next several years traveling the Continent, and may have been spying for Louis XIV as a way of regaining his favor. Baroness d’Aulnoy received royal permission to return to Paris in 1685, where she promptly set up her literary salon in the rue San-benoit. Intelligent, beautiful, and tinged with an aura of mystery, she soon formed a glittering group around her of nonconformist women and men, as well as establishing a highly successful and profitable literary career.
Henriette-Julie de Castelnau, Comtesse de Murat, was part of the d’Aulnoy circle -- and another writer of magical tales with a colorful history. Born in Brittany in 1670, she came to Paris at the age of 16 upon her marriage to the Comte de Murat, quickly making a name in the salons for her wit and insouciance. Her high spirits landed her in trouble when a tale she wrote was recognized as a thinly veiled satire of the king’s mistress; she was subsequently denounced by her husband for wild behavior, immodesty, and rumors of lesbianism. Banished by the king to the provincial town of Loche at the age of 24, de Murat constantly petitioned to be released from this sentence, to no avail. She was kept confined to a Loche chateau for all but one year of the rest of her life -- returning to Paris only when King Louis died, just before her own death.
Yet even in confinement, de Murat managed to maintain close contact with her women friends, and continued to play an active role in the Parisian fairy tale movement. She wrote and published a large number of novels and stories, and set up her own literary salon (dubbed the Académie du domicile) -- recreating the atmosphere of Paris in Loche and scandalizing the town. Her best known tales include Bearskin, in which a young king falls in love with a princess-in-exile disguised as a big brown bear. The bear wins the young man’s heart through the elegance of her conversation and the erudition of her beautiful letters and poems. Unlike Disney-style fairy tales today, where a beautiful face is a girl’s main attraction (think of Disney's Cinderella, or the film Pretty Woman), this king falls in love before he discovers the royal maiden inside the gentle bear -- in fact, he agonizes over his unnatural attraction to the animal and is greatly relieved when a fairy finally assures him that his beloved is actually human.
Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier, by contrast to the authors above, was able to lead a more self-determined life -- partly because she was born into a family of scholars who saw nothing untoward in her desire to be a writer, and partly because she followed the example of her mentor, the writer and salonnière Madeleine de Scudéry, by refusing all offers of marriage. (A wealthy woman’s patronage and the income from her writing made this possible.) Charles Perrault was her uncle, as well as her colleague in the world of the salons; she was also close to de Murat, to whom she dedicated her first major collection of tales. She inherited de Scudéry’s famous salon upon her mentor’s death, and ran it with great success as her own literary reputation grew.
Scholars are now divided on whether L’Héritier (an early champion of fairy tale themes) influenced Perrault or whether it was Perrault who influenced his niece. It hardly matters, for in all likelihood the two of them influenced each other -- they were friends, they moved in the same social circles, they wrote fairy tales during the same stretch of years, and they drew their themes from a common stock of oral folk tales, as well as from Basile. L’Héritier is best remembered for The Discreet Princess -- a wry and charming tale in which a king locks his three daughters away in order to safeguard their chastity. An evil prince from a nearby kingdom manages to trick his way into the tower, and then to seduce and impregnate each of the foolish older princesses. The youngest, Finette, is a clever girl, and more than a match for the honey-tongued prince. “Once this devious prince had locked up her sisters,” writes L’Héritier, “he went in search of Finette in her room, which she had locked against him. He spoke the same compliments at her door that he had used with each of her sisters, but this princess was not so easy to dupe, and did not respond….The wicked prince lost his patience. Fetching a large wooden log, he broke the door in. He found Finette armed with a large hammer, her eyes glittering with rage. ‘Prince,’ she said, ‘if you approach me, then I shall split open your skull!’” In the end, the prince is outwitted, killed in a trap he has laid for Finette, and she marries the prince’s gentle brother, the new heir to the neighboring kingdom.
Catherine Bernard, born in Rouen in 1662, moved to Paris in order to become a writer, where she frequented d’Aulnoy’s and L’Héritier’s salons and became part of the fairy tale circle. Bernard resisted marriage and devoted herself to her literary career, writing well-received novels and tragedies known to have influenced Voltaire. As a fantasist, she’s best known for her version of an oral folk tale called Riquet of the Tuft, published around the same time as Perrault’s rendition of the story. Both versions are good ones, and thus it’s interesting to compare the two, demonstrating the differences in tales by men and women of the period. In Perrault’s charming retelling, a beautiful princess is cursed with stupidity by a malevolent fairy and then encounters Riquet of the Tuft, a courteous but ugly prince who gives her the gift of intelligence in exchange for her promise to marry him in one year’s time. During that year, the now-dazzling princess entirely forgets her benefactor…until she encounters him once again on the day she had promised to wed him. She attempts to weasel out of the promise, using all her new-found cleverness – until he assures her that it is quite within her power to make him as beautiful as herself, provided she agrees to love him. She does so, Riquet changes shape, and now he’s as handsome as he is courteous. Perrault then ends the tale with the suggestion that Riquet may have not changed his shape after all, but merely appeared to be beautiful to the princess once her love was pledged.
Catherine Bernard’s version of the old folk tale is a considerably darker one, and takes a dimmer view of her heroine’s prospects for happiness. The lovely but stupid princess encounters Riquet, an ugly and bossy little gnome, ruler of a wealthy gnome kingdom in a realm deep underground. He gives the girl a spell to chant that will render her intelligent, and only then does he inform her that she has no choice but to marry him in one year’s time. (This echoed the experience of upper class girls whose limited convent educations were subsidized by older men who had arranged to marry them when they were grown.) The princess soon grows witty and charming, suitors flock to court her, and she loses her heart to a handsome youth who has no power or wealth. Secretly, she ponders the dreadful fate that is awaiting her, and the day finally comes when she must give herself to the horrid gnome. Her deep distaste for the marriage is so obvious that Riquet presents her with a choice: she can marry him of her own free will and retain her new intelligence, or she can return to her father’s house as stupid as she was before she met him. Loathe to give up her intelligence, and fearful of losing her young lover’s regard, she chooses the lesser evil and marries Riquet of the Tuft.
The tale continues after the marriage, in Riquet’s kingdom under the ground. Angered by his wife’s continued aversion, the gnome avoids her company -- and she concocts a plan to bring her lover to the palace. Her plan succeeds, and for a time she revels in stolen happiness…but the sudden bloom in her cheeks awakens her gnome-husband’s suspicions. After various machinations, Riquet discovers his wife’s secret, and he takes ingenious revenge by turning her young lover into a replica of himself. "Thus," writes Bernard, "she lived with two husbands instead of one and could no longer distinguish between them, living in fear of mistaking the object of her hatred for the object of her love." Whereas Perrault’s version ends with a moral ("We find that what we love is wondrous fair."), Bernard’s version ends with a warning: "In the end, lovers turn into husbands anyway."
A number of Modern, nonconformist men frequented the women’s fairy tale salons, contributing stories of their own as part of the conversational games. Foremost among them are Jean de Mailly, author of Les Illustres Fées, contes galans; Jean de Préchac, author of Contes moins contes que les autres; and Charles Perrault, author of the most famous of all French fairy tale collections: Histoires ou contes du temps passé, also known as Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (The Stories of Mother Goose).
Perrault was born Paris in 1628 to a distinguished family of high-achievers: his father was an accomplished lawyer and a member of the Paris Parlement, and his four brothers forged glittering careers in the areas of theology, architecture, and law. Perrault became a lawyer himself after passing examinations at the University of Orleans, but he gave it up to become a court administrator three years later. As secretary to Jean Baptiste Colbert, the Sun King’s powerful finance minister, he was able to wield his influence in support of culture and the arts. (He was one of the men in charge of the design of the Louvre and Versailles, for instance.) He published poetry, essays, and panegyrics for the king, and was elected to the French Academy in 1671, where he was one of the leading initiators of the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns (arguing for the latter). In the 1690s, like his niece and other habitués of the Paris salons, Perrault turned his attention to fairy tales -- producing three poems with folklore themes, a prose version of Sleeping Beauty, and then his Histoires ou contes du temps passé in 1697.
Perrault turned the blunt language and earthy imagery of peasant folk stories into tales that were urbane, aristocratic, and refined, yet contain some marked differences from those of the female salonnières. First, the literary style he adopted was a simpler one, his plots less complex, his language less rococo as he played with the narrative conceit that the tales come direct from the mouth of Old Mother Goose. Second, despite his salon friendships with out-spoken, independent women, the princesses in Perrault’s tales tend to be passive, helpless creatures, praised for their beauty, modesty, and quiet obedience. His princes stride off to seek their fortunes, outwitting ogres and hacking through briars, while the princesses sleep or sit in the ashes, virtuously awaiting rescue. Compare Bluebeard’s wife, lying prostrate before him in tears while her brothers ride in to save the day, with clever Finette, in The Discreet Princess created by Perrault’s niece L’Héritier, waving her hammer at the prince and shouting: "Come closer and I’ll open your skull!"
Though L’Héritier, d’Aulnoy, and other women enjoyed readerships as large as Perrault’s, the fairy tale form was still suspect among the leading critics of the day, who reserved their praise for the simpler, less subversive tales penned by Perrault. In 1699, Abbé de Villiers published a Dialogue commending Perrault while damning all women fairy tale writers, railing in particular against the popularity and financial success those writers enjoyed. "Most women only enjoy reading because they enjoy laziness and the trivial,” de Villiers declared. “Everything that requires a little effort tires and bores them; they amuse themselves with a book in the same way they play with a fly or a ribbon. So does it astonish you that tales and little stories are popular?" In the years to come, Rosseau would also write scathingly of women’s fairy tales, and of the very idea of women's salons. "Every woman in Paris gathers in her apartment a harem of men more womanish than she," he sneered, while strongly advocating the establishment of English-style clubs exclusively for men.
He needn’t have worried. The social and literary ground that the women salonnières had gained was already slipping away from them as the 18th century dawned. One by one, their salons closed as the salonnières died or were banished from Paris. Perrault died in 1703, d’Aulnoy in 1705, Bernard in 1712, de Mailly was in trouble with the king, de Murat was still under house-arrest in Loche, and de la Force had been banished to a convent for publishing “impious” works. As the Marquise de Lambert lamented years later: "There were, in an earlier time, houses where women were allowed to talk and think, where muses joined the society of the graces. The Hôtel de Rambouillet [a famous salon], greatly honored in the past century, has become the ridicule of ours."
As the salons ended, a "second wave" of French fairy tale literature began, consisting of stories, primarily by men this time, that were parodies of the earlier tales, as well a host of magical stories with an Oriental flavor. (The latter was due to Antoine Gallard’s phenomenally successful translation of The Thousand and One Nights, 1704-1714, which introduced Arabian fairy tales to the French reading public.) By the middle of the 18th century, however, a "third wave" of French fairy tales emerged by writers who had more in common with the 17th century salonnières than with the parodists who succeeded them. Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, for example, was associated with the parodists (she’s believed to have been the mistress of Claude-Prosper de Crébillon fils) but used the fairy tale form in a manner that harked back to the 1690s, penning stories that explored the role of women in marriage and society. In her youth, de Villeneuve had been unhappily married to a military officer, turning to writing to earn a living when his death left her impoverished. Her best known fairy tale is Beauty and the Beast (1740), a long, complex, and subtly erotic story exploring issues of love, marriage, and identity. (The tale was later shortened by Madame Leprince de Beaumont, which is the version we know best today. For the interesting history of Beauty and the Beast, go here.)
Another writer who picked up the threads of the salon tradition was Marguerite de Lubert, the author of six acclaimed fairy tale novels and a number of shorter works, best known today for La Princesse Camion (1743) and Peau d’ours (1953). Like L’Héritier and Bernard before her, de Lubert studiously avoided marriage in order to pursue a literary career. Her tales have a light and sparkling surface, in keeping with the tastes of the time, but underneath lies a firm foundation of narrative sophistication. Her stories, like the salon tales, revolved around courtly, powerful fairies -- but de Lubert seems to have been more ambivalent about the nature of that power, portrayed in a manner that ranges from benevolent to meddlesome to downright sadistic.
While the 17th century salon writers had composed their tales for adult readers, in the latter half of the 18th century fairy tales were increasingly aimed at younger readers. Creating a separate body of fiction for children was a relatively new notion, engendered by new printing methods and the rise of literacy in the upper classes. Prior works for children were dull and didactic, intended to inculcate moral values. It now occurred to liberal-minded parents and children’s educators that these values would be easier to swallow if sugar-coated with entertainment.
Madame Leprince de Beaumont was one of the first French writers to compose fairy tales specifically for younger readers. Having fled from a disastrous marriage to a dissolute libertine, Leprince de Beaumont worked as a governess in England, where she began to write stories, in French, for magazines aimed at “young misses”. Although a number of her fairy stories contain original elements, she also borrowed liberally from previous fairy tale writers. In 1757, she re-wrote the text of de Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast, severely condensing the narrative and imbuing it with clear moral lessons. De Villenueve’s original text, over three hundred pages long, is thick with incidental characters and rambling subplots; Leprince de Beaumont stripped these away to reach the bare, timeless essentials of the tale, condensing de Villenueve’s narrative into a mere seventeen pages. She also made some significant changes. First, she toned down the eroticism: in the de Villeneuve version, the Beast repeatedly asks Belle to go to bed with him, while in the Leprince de Beaumont version, he merely asks her to marry him. Second, Leprince de Beaumont’s Beast is sympathetic, even attractive, before his transformation -- while in de Villenueve’s story (similar to “animal bridegroom” tales from the oral tradition) the Beast is a genuinely frightening character.
Leprince de Beaumont was not alone in re-writing tales by earlier authors, or in turning them into stories that were simpler, shorter, and less challenging. Throughout the 18th century, the tales of d’Aulnoy, Perrault, de Murat, L’Héritier, Bernard, de la Force and the other salonnières appeared in the pages of the Bilbliotheque bleue, a series of small, inexpensive chapbooks distributed by traveling book peddlers. Intended for readers of the lower classes, these shorter tales proved enormously popular and were often read aloud -- and thus began to slip into the oral folk tradition, not only in France but in neighboring lands. It is because of this that so many readers think of literary tales like Donkeyskin, White Cat or Beauty and the Beast as "anonymous" folk tales to this day.
Fortunately, the salon tales as they were originally written and published have been preserved for us in a monumental work called Le Cabinet des fées, an enormous collection of stories from the 17t and 18th centuries. First published in three volumes in Amsterdam in 1731, it swelled to an astonishing forty-one volumes, published in Paris and Amsterdam (and then Geneva) beginning in 1785. These volumes contain a treasure-trove of stories, the vast majority of them by women authors.
So how, we might ask, did Perrault become known as the only French fairy tale author of note? Elizabeth W. Harries addresses the question in her essay "Fairy Tales About Fairy Tales: Notes on Canon Formation." Aside from the gender bias, too obvious to need any explication, she points out that the next generation of fairy tale enthusiasts were men like the Brothers Grimm: fairy tale “collectors,” not literary artists, who prized a simple, "peasant" style of prose, and were deeply suspicious not only of the subversive subtext of the salon tales, but of the very language used by the women and men of the précieux movement. (One can only wonder what they’d have made of Angela Carter today!) Although Perrault’s tales were modern literary creations like those of the other salonnières, he adopted a simpler prose style than that of his "inferior imitators," as the Grimms referred to d’Aulnoy and de Murat in the Introduction to their first collection (Kinder und Hausmärchen, 1812). The Grimms, writes Harries, "had to posit a rupture or separation between literate and oral culture, between modern, self-conscious writing and older, ‘natural,’ spontaneous story-telling or ballad-singing. Their nostalgia for a vanishing or vanished culture -- assumed to be simpler or more poetic than their own -- still permeates most fairy-tale collecting and research."
In the decades and centuries that followed, the salon stories, except for Perrault’s, were reprinted less and less -- or they appeared in bowdlerized form, with erroneous or missing author credits. "Tales by d’Aulnoy and Murat," writes Harries, "were no longer considered authentic or moral enough to reproduce -- or even to be mentioned, except in parentheses." By the 19th century, children’s books had become a thriving industry, and the French salon tales continued to be plundered as a cheap source of story material. The tales were shortened, simplified, and given a gloss of Victorian propriety -- and then often published under the name of that anonymous, illiterate peasant woman known only as Mother Goose, while the real women behind the 17th and 18th century contes des fées were slowly disappearing.
Yet those pioneering, scandalous, précieux women and men were not entirely forgotten. During the last two decades of the 20th century, their history began to be reclaimed by a new generation of fairy tale scholars, at the same time that their tales were being rediscovered, reappraised, and retranslated. Such tales provided inspiration for a whole new wave of fairy tale authors: Angela Carter, Anne Sexton, A.S. Byatt, Emma Donoghue, Margaret Atwood, Alice Hoffman, Kate Bernheimer, Tanith Lee, Jane Yolen, Delia Sherman, Kate Forsyth, Robin McKinley, Francesca Lia Block, and Donna Jo Napoli among them.
A number of women writers of my generation were raised, as I was, on the French salon stories in The Fairy Tale Book (Golden Books, 1958), translated into English by poet Marie Ponsot and illustrated by Adrienne Ségur, whose imagery adorns this post. That single book cast a spell on us that has lasted right up to this day, resulting in careers spent studying, writing, illustrating, and editing fairy tales, or fairy-tale-inspired literature.
I have written elsewhere about the particular importance of fairy tales in my own childhood, growing up in a troubled household, and how the quests in magic tales can prepare us for the quests we face in life. What I didn’t know as a girl was how very lucky I was to have that particular book as my introduction -- containing, as it did, stories shortened for young readers but not overly revised, rather than the sugary Disney-style versions best known today. I also didn’t know that those tales connected me -- a working-class girl in 20th century America -- with a group of strong-minded aristocratic women in 17th century Paris, who had struggled, as I was struggling, against societal expectations for an education, independence, and a self-determined life. The subversive message of their tales was buried deep in rococo imagery of fairies, princesses, diamonds and pearls…and yet I heard it. I learned at a very young age not to sit in the cinders awaiting rescue. I picked up a hammer (metaphorically speaking!) and set off to seek my fortune instead.
I like to think that d’Aulnoy and her friends would be pleased to know that the “fad” they started is still going strong more than three centuries later. And perhaps in another three hundred years Jane Yolen’s tales, or Patricia McKillip’s, or Theodora Goss's, will be read alongside d’Aulnoy’s and Perrault’s, to inspire new generations.
The artwork above is by Adrienne Ségur (1901-1981), most of it reprinted from The Golden Book of Fairy Tales. All rights to the text and art reserved by the author and the artist's estate.