French Fairy Tales – By Forward Thinking Women

Based on a Smithsonian Associates lecture by Dr. Sara Cleto and Dr. Brittany Warman and my own research.

Most people, the hosts declare, would describe a fairy tale using these terms: magic, simple language, happily-ever-after, created for children, romantic, timeless. The truth is that these stories are sometimes florid, can have tragic endings, were originally associated more with adults than children, and were rooted in the time and place of the teller, reflecting contemporary cultural values and messages. They instruct, caution, inspire, and might instigate status quo or rebellion as well as entertain.

“All fairy tales have a history (and) they are anything but ageless or timeless.” Elizabeth Wanning Harries

Left: Portrait of Charles Perrault by Charles Le Brun (Public Domain) Right: Cover of Cinderella/Cendrillon (Public Domain)

Charles Perrault (1628-1703) studied law, embarked in government service, and participated in the design of a park at Versailles. Forced into retirement, he decided to devote himself to children and in 1695 published the first volume of European fairy tales, Tales of Mother Goose, laying a literary foundation for an oral tradition. (Antoine Galland followed with his translation into French of what we now know as The Thousand and One Nights.) Perrault would go on to write much more, including Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Puss in Boots all derived from earlier folktales.

Salon de Dames by Abraham Bosse (Public Domain)

Also evidently writing at the time, 17th century French women barely get a blip in public awareness. The celebrated salons of Paris were hosted by female aristocrats. Each had its own purpose whether politics, sex or blending the arts. When only the distaff side gathered, women were known to collaborate on fanciful stories. Wit, sophistication, intellect, imagination, and description were prized. Some of these worthy artists published, but were dismissed as Perrault imitators.

“Most women only enjoy reading because they enjoy laziness and the trivial…everything that requires a little effort tires and bores them. They amuse themselves with a book the same way they play with a fly or a ribbon…” Abbe de Villiers 1699.

Little Red Riding Hood from Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault illustrated by Harry Clarke (Public Domain)

Women who had their lives controlled by men in everyday life wrote about fathers, kings, and elderly wicked fairies doing the same, but what was considered flowery style disguised subversive subtext. Gender bias was rampant. “The salonnieres argued particularly for love, tendresse, and intellectual compatibility between the sexes opposing the system of arranged marriages…They rallied against a culture that permitted men to take lovers while demanding women remain faithful…” Terri Wilding. Imagine!

Catherine Bernard was born in 1662, went to Paris at 18 in order to write, and established a salon. Against all societal norms, she refused to marry, devoting her life to literature. Bernard composed three historical novels, two verse tragedies, several poems, and was awarded poetry prizes by the Academie francaise. It was she who established the fundamental principle of the French contes de fees (fairy tales): “The (adventures)should always be implausible and the emotions always natural”.

Riquet with the Tuft from Old Time Stories by Charles Perrrault (Public Domain)

Riquet with the Tuft (1697) tracks back to being forced to marry a monster as in Beauty and the Beast. (Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve wrote the initial version of this.) The princess is beautiful, but stupid. On condition she wed him, an ugly man gifts her with intelligence. She then realizes the situation and grows furious. Marriage becomes a battle of wills. She takes a lover, but he’s transformed to look like Riquet. It’s a critique of arranged marriage.

Perrault’s version is an apology for the marriage of convenience. “It lacks teeth,” the hosts comment. Here, both characters endow themselves with missing qualities. The princess is less repulsed by Riquet. She’s attracted by his intelligence, wealth, and social position. In the end, she finds him beautiful. Oh, and she’s never given a name. The author’s Bluebeard has a similar point of view. Most interpretations have women able to save themselves, take revenge or flee. In Perrault’s, a new bride discovers the room full of corpses. It’s made clear she shouldn’t have opened the door!

Illustration de Walter Crane for Barbe Bleue -Bluebeard (Public Domain)

Marie Catherine Le Jumel Barneville, comptesse d’Aulnoy was, with her father’s permission, abducted from a convent by a baron 30 years her senior and married off to him at 16. He was a violent drunk. Accused of treason, her husband was imprisoned. The young woman fled to Spain – and may have worked for Louis XIV as a spy to regain his favor. In 1685 she returned to Paris, set up a popular salon, and wrote. She’s credited with coming up with the term “contes fe fees” and would publish twelve books including three pseudo-memoirs, two fairy tale collections and three “historical” novels.

The comptesse wrote Belle Belle or The Chevalier Fortune based on the lesser (all but unknown except in academic circles) folktale The Change of Sex. In the original, a brave, clever female dresses as a man to make her way in life and is transformed into one. She/he marries a princess and lives happily ever after. The protagonist stays dressed as a male in Belle Belle, but achieves a life lived truly, showing women can accomplish whatever men can. The advanced story even changes pronouns where applicable.

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Left: Portrait of Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barnevilles, comtesse d’Aulnoy (Public Domain) Right: Fairy Tales by the Countess d’Aulnoy 1856 (Public Domain)

Henriette-Julie de Castelmare, Comtesse de Murat spent her life in Paris. She was a leader of fairy tale vogue with Catherine Bernard and Baroness d’Aulnoy. The Comtesse wrote Memoirs of the Countess of M***, a two-volume collection of false “memoirs”, three volumes of fairy tales, a ghost story and poetry. Accused of lesbianism (possibly in retaliation to a thinly veiled satire of the king’s mistress), she was estranged from her husband, disinherited by her mother, and long exiled. Apparently still able to publish, we’re told she continued to maintain a salon through correspondence.

De Castelmare wrote Bearskin, the story of a king who falls in love with an exiled princess who’s taken the form of a brown bear to escape marriage to an ogre. The royal falls in love with her before he realizes she’s under an enchantment. Unable to speak, the bear carves poetry in tree bark. Their companionship is romantic. The beast eventually transforms back. This tale is much like D’Aulnoy’s The White Cat in which a prince falls in love with the feline without knowing she’s a woman. Both speak to the salon premise that relationships have more to them than perceived by governing males.

Left: Portrait of Henriette-Julie de Castelmare, Comtesse de Murat 1699 (Public Domain) Right: Histoires sublimes et allégoriques (Public Domain)

Perrault is the name everyone knows, but tales by forward thinking women enriched and shook up the culture ahead of their time. A revelation.

Opening Image: From My Book of Favourite Fairy Tales illustrated by Jennie Harbour-Sleeping Beauty– (Public Domain)

Further recommended reading:

Enchanted Eloquence, Fairytales by 17th Century French Women Writers
Beauties, Beasts, Enchantment: Classic French Fairytales
Wonder Tales: Six French Stories of Enchantment
Miracles of Love: French Fairytales by Women

Dr. Sara Cleto and Dr. Brittany Warman run a monthly digital fairytale salon on Patreon.

Smithsonian Associates offers a wide roster of fascinating lectures.

About Alix Cohen (1751 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.