The first fairytales were feminist critiques of patriarchy. We need to revive their legacy

The women who created the first fairytales were far more radical than the Brothers Grimm have led us to believe

160bcdabb99fe24ca648c273a751d9ca[1]Most revolutions begin quietly, in narrative. Take, for instance, fairytales. The popular understanding is that fairytales evolved exclusively from oral folktellers – from the uneducated “Mother Goose” nurse, passing into the imaginations of children by centuries of fireside retellings.

But this story is a myth. Fairytales were invented by the blue blood and pomaded sweat of a coterie of 17th century French female writers known as the conteuses, or storytellers.

The originator of the term “fairytale”, Baroness Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy, didn’t need another hero when she published the very first fairytale in 1690. Her resourceful fairy queen Felicite was a true heroine, ruling over a magnificent kingdom and showering her lover, Prince Adolph, with devotion and gifts, only to be abandoned when he sought fame and glory over their mutual happiness.

In the closing years of Louis XIV’s reign, French society had become dangerously religious and conservative. Prominent clerics argued for the banning of plays at Versailles, and art forms such as female-authored novels suffered increasing criticism.

Women’s lives during this period were deeply constrained. They were married as young as 15 in arranged unions to protect family property, often to men many years older than themselves. They could not divorce, work, nor control their inheritances. And where husbands were allowed mistresses, women could be sent to a convent for two years as punishment for so much as the whiff of rumour at having taken a lover.

It was in the repressive milieu of the troubled last decade of 17th century France that fairytales crystallised as a genre. Performed and recited in literary salons, from 1697 the fairytales of D’Aulnoy, Comtesse Henriette-Julie de Murat, Mademoiselle L’Héritier and Madame Charlotte-Rose de la Force were gathered into collections and published.

In La Mercure Galant, Paris’s most fashionable literary magazine, these new stories and their authors were celebrated as the latest vogue. The subversive genre incorporated motifs and tropes from classical myth, the codes of medieval chivalry, the fables of La Fontaine and novels by the early feminist French writers Mademoiselle de Scudéry and Madame la Fayette.

D’Aulnoy and her peers used exaggeration, parody and references to other stories to unsettle the customs and conventions that constrained women’s freedom and agency. Throughout her writing career, D’Aulnoy’s central theme was the critique of arranged marriage, her heroines repositioned as agents of their own destinies. While the quest continued to be love, it was on the terms of the Baroness’s female readers, whom she took immense care to entertain. Gender roles were reversed; princesses courted princes, bestowing extravagant favours and magnificent gifts – such as a tiny dog encased in a walnut that danced and plays the castanets.

Melissa Ashley 11 November, 2019 published in The Guardian.

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