The forgotten feminist history of the French fairy tale

Each year, tourists in their millions flock to France to visit Disneyland Paris, where - so the marketing material promises - "fairytales take flight".

The forgotten feminist history of the French fairy tale
File photo: yekophotostudio/Depositphotos

But perhaps few visitors know that some of the tales that inspired Walt Disney’s films were first popularized in France by a group of non-conformist women writers in the 17th century. They used the stories as a way of subtly complaining about their husbands and critiquing King Louis XIV without being seen to speak out of turn.

The term ‘fairy tale’ is a translation of ‘conte des fées’, first coined by storyteller and noblewoman Madame d'Aulnoy, one of the women who helped popularize the tales that many are brought up with. 

Her own biography has elements of the fantastic: aged just 15, she was kidnapped from the convent where she was being educated and forced to marry a wealthy Baron.

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He was 30 years her senior and known to have gambling and drinking problems, but the marriage was profitable for d'Aulnoy's father, who may have conspired in his daughter's kidnapping. D’Aulnoy and her mother were later suspected of a plot to have the Baron executed for treason, after which she fled across Europe before eventually returning to Paris.

It was there that she set up one of the first and most renowned literary circles – or salons, as they were named, after the upper class living rooms where the meetings were held. A select group of friends gathered to discuss the issues that mattered to them, such as love, marriage and politics, but as these were delicate subjects, it was convenient to disguise any criticisms within a fictionalized world.

Madame D'Aulnoy. Photo: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Women were excluded from formal education at that time, and so the meetings were also used as a chance to improve their conversational and storytelling skills, taking it in turns to share their prepared works. They wrote in a variety of genres, from poems to plays, but the fairy tale lent itself particularly well to this style of narration.

Borrowing from the folk tales which had been passed on through the generations for centuries, the salonnières elevated the genre from bedtime story to bonafide work of literature, and were responsible for printing the oral tales for the first time in France.

D'Aulnoy's salon, which started in 1695, became the place to be for those on the French literary scene and she was nicknamed 'Clio' after the Greek muse for her storytelling skills. When she published the first known French fairy tale, The Island of Happiness, within a novel, she also coined the name of the genre.

A large number of the tales woven in the salons were variations on stories we still know today, and which had been around in multiple cultures beforehand: Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Puss in Boots, and Bluebeard.

Photo: Ivan_varyukhin/Depositphotos

But many of the tales are unrecognizable from Disney's versions.

D'Aulnoy and her contemporaries didn't write of fragile, naive princesses who must be shielded from danger, but of quick-witted women who battled the injustices they faced. Women were powerful, ruling over kingdoms and had the power to effect change.

This was a stark contrast to the real lives of many of the writers. One leading salonnière, Madame du Murat, was exiled over accusations of lesbianism and “shocking practices”, while another, Madame de Villeneuve, was forced to request a separation of belongings from her husband of just six months after he squandered much of their joint fortune.

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Another writer, Mademoiselle de La Force, wrote a collection of stories from a convent where she had been banished to for “impious” behaviour. In one tale, Fairer-than-a-Fairy, she wrote of a princess given that name due to her beauty, who is then kidnapped by fairies and sentenced to sweep a room which is cursed to grow dirtier and dirtier however much she cleans.

Marriage was frequently painted as a sinister trap in the tales, arranged by the girls' fathers or the result of a curse set by an evil fairy, and many tales depicted princesses using their cunning to get out of such an arrangement.

File photo: Maugli/Depositphotos

Another common theme was forbidden love, with princesses falling for ordinary peasant boys or even enchanted animals, reflecting the pressure upper class women felt to marry someone of their class. These tales often had a happy resolution, with the shepherd or animal revealing himself as a prince and the victim of a curse which transformed his outer appearance.

The original version of Beauty and the Beast, written by Madame de Villeneuve, has both these themes: in her tale, Beauty is cursed to marry a beast as punishment for her mother, a fairy, for falling in love with a human. But as you may have guessed, the beast is revealed to be a prince, who has been transformed into an ugly and stupid animal as part of another curse.

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Kings and queens reduced to poverty were also a popular subject. For example in d'Aulnoy's The White Cat, which could be seen as a thinly veiled criticism of Louis XIV's economic policy.

Though the stories of d'Aulnoy and her peers remained popular throughout the 18th century, by the 19th they had fallen out of fashion, with these versions of the classic tales often considered too shocking.

Fairy tale decorations in Colmar, France. Photo: pillerss/Depositphotos

Writer Charles Perrault, who attended the salons but who started writing several years after d'Aulnoy, instead went down in history as the 'father of the French fairytale'.

His collection of Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals was published with the subtitle Tales of Mother Goose – an acknowledgement of the generations of mothers and nursemaids who told such stories, not as a reference to the salonnières who had paved the way for his own work.

In Perrault's tales, sanitized versions written for upper class families, each was followed by a 'moralité' summarizing the lesson children were expected to draw from it. These complied with Catholic, conservative morals, and in contrast to the sharp, active heroines of the tales above, often emphasized the untold dangers awaiting young women in particular.

His version of Little Red Riding Hood, for example, concluded with the warning that children, “especially young girls, pretty, courteous and well-bred” should not speak to strangers.

A message, it seems likely, that d'Aulnoy, her peers, and their fictional heroines would have strongly disapproved of.

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.