When we call to mind those who collected or wrote our favorite European fairy tales, we often think of the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, or Hans Christian Andersen. Whereas Anderson and the Grimm brothers worked in the beginning of the nineteenth-century, driven by renewed calls to nationalism and a problematic understanding of European identity, Charles Perrault wrote in France at the end of the seventeenth century. His fame, however, has overshadowed that of his female contemporary: Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, an inventive baroness who was forced to navigate tricky social and political waters in the wake of her husband’s disfavor with the crown. As much as d’Aulnoy’s biography sounds like a tale itself, she is now primarily known for her collections of fairytales, Les Contes des Fées and Contes Nouveaux ou Les Fées à la Mode. The tales from these collections have been included in Andrew Lang’s famous books of fairytales, and they narrate fairly conventional adventures—princesses in disguise, impossible tasks, animal helpers, and so on.
However, d’Aulnoy’s representation of her women is more nuanced than some—meticulously detailed and reflective of the life of noble women at court and in their households. Clothes and appearance are lingered over with sumptuous description. The princess-turned-monkey of “Babiole” is dressed appropriately for every circumstance at court:
“[d]irectly an ambassador or a foreigner arrived she had to appear in a gown of velvet or brocade with stiff bodice and ruff. If the court was in mourning she wore a long mantle and crape.”
The Princess Goldilocks from “Fair Goldilocks” has ringleted hair and “a garland of flowers; her dresses were embroidered with diamonds and pearls.” And Gracieuse, from “Gracieuse and Percinet” is given a new dress each morning: “Some times it would be of gold brocade, sometimes of velvet or satin.”
More importantly, in these three tales, the women often express real interiority that defies mere tropes. They struggle against the conventions of marriage and courtship. Gracieuse, tortured as she is by the villainous Grognon, is hesitant to marry the fairy prince Percinet, whom she loves. She sees a “danger in being near a prince so beautiful and so wonderful” and spends the rest of the tale being pulled back and forth between her care for her father and her love for the prince, both of which she cannot indulge at the same time. Goldilocks, courted by the handsome Avenant on behalf of a young king, finds herself in love with Avenant instead. The king, envious, throws Avenant in prison and Goldilocks is forced to suppress her feelings (“she stopped speaking of the matter, but her heart was very sad”) until the end of the tale when the king accidentally kills himself. And Babiole, in her monkey form, must escape her forced marriage to the king of the monkeys and rues the “ungrateful” nature of the prince whom she truly loves.
Despite the coercion of men in these tales, we must note that it is often another woman in the tale that pushes the female protagonist into her desperate straits (much like depictions of competing women in film and media today, a trope skewered in Rebel Wilson’s new flick Isn’t It Romantic). Babiole is pressured to marry the king of the monkeys by the queen who owns her. Babiole’s mother suffers “no thing but ill-luck” due to the curse of a resentful fairy. And Gracieuse is continually harassed by the jealous Grognon (“[m]onsters like her are are very jealous of those who are beautiful”). This certainly does not speak to d’Aulnoy as a proto-feminist, but it does underscore the societal pressures that so distort relationships among women (perhaps more so in representation than in real life, but the representation is grounded in real inequality).
The history of fairy tale collections is an interesting thing—because it is embedded (not unlike rom-coms) in a discussion of sexism and classism. Oral traditions, seeded in working class households and in female domains, were often appropriated and shaped by upper-class male writers or folklorists. The introduction to The Fairy Tales of Madame D’Aulnoy, an edition published in 1892, acknowledges that Perrault’s sources, for example, were “the popular nursery stories of the time.” The nursery was traditionally the woman’s place. And Lang, himself a collector, acknowledges (as also quoted in the above introduction) that fairy tales preceded their collectors:
“The stories came in their rustic weeds, they wandered out of the cabins of the charcoal burners, out of the farmers’ cottages, and, after many adventures, reached that enchanted castle of Versailles. There the courtiers welcomed them gladly, recognised the truant girls and boys of the fairy world as princes and princesses, and arrayed them in the splendour of Cinderella’s sisters.”
The quote points to the original tellers of these tales, but it also whitewashes the struggle of the economically disadvantaged and celebrates the appropriation and refashioning of the tales.
D’Aulnoy’s fairy tales, though not radically different than those of her peers, give us insight into the struggle to navigate upper-class social relations as a woman whose husband’s reputation was not always helpful. They also remind us, as does the history of fairy tales itself, that we cannot simply celebrate women writers without acknowledging the institutions of power from which they might benefit. Intersectionality is the key to analyzing how “enchanted” the castle of Versailles really is.