Kate Forsyth challenges the notion of the woman-as-muse in The Wild Girl, a novel that imagines the relationship between Wilhelm Grimm and his neighbor, Dorothea Wild. Known as Dortchen, this woman did more than inspire Wilhelm Grimm: she told him many of the tales that would eventually appear in the collection that made him famous. In Forsyth’s novel the couple endures various hardships before they marry, including Napoleon’s occupation of the German kingdom of Hessen-Cassel and a long battle with an ogre in the form of Dortchen’s abusive father.
In The Wild Girl, storytelling functions to further the romantic relationship between Dortchen and Wilhelm. As she recounts and he records, the old tales become a seduction and a celebration, an excuse to spend time together, and a declaration of citizenship and love of culture. Telling stories is also a way for Dortchen to retain some power in this relationship. She is not a scholar and has little time to read, but she provides the material that builds Wilhelm’s career. Wilhelm leaves much to be desired as a suitor, due to his poor health and financial dependence on his brother and collaborator, Jacob. When Wilhelm fails to give Dortchen any credit after the first edition of the fairy tales comes out, he causes a rupture that nearly destroys them. Ultimately the stories are what save them as a couple. And when Wilhelm and Dortchen work together, they become part of a greater project to promote German culture. As Wilhelm explains, “You see, that’s why it’s important to preserve the old stories, before all our ways are smothered by the customs of the French. Those who remember the old tales are getting fewer all the time. If we don’t save them, they’ll be lost forever, and that seems sad to me.”
Scholars generally agree that Dorothea Wild told Wilhelm Grimm a fourth of the stories that appear in the first collection of the Grimm tales, including “The Wild Swans,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” and “The Frog King.” In her long relationship with Wilhelm, Dortchen plays many roles, and it soon becomes apparent that she functions as his editor. The simple act of remembering and retelling is significant: Dortchen chooses which tales to tell Wilhelm, and these stories go on to take a permanent place in world literature. Her most important suggestion to Wilhelm pertains to marketing, which is always at the core of publication concerns: “There are more children in Germany than scholars . . . So why not write a book for children, in the hope you will get more sales?”
Against the backdrop of war, poverty, and continual regime change, the true antagonist to the couple’s happiness is Dortchen’s abusive father. Forsyth admits that the scenes of horrific sexual abuse are her own invention, but it does make one wonder about the violence of the original, unedited tales. Can the physical horror of the Grimm universe be read as a metaphor for what children, especially females, suffer under patriarchy? Dortchen is a classic survivor, blessed with many skills, in addition to storytelling, which promote household success and prosperity. She is an excellent cook and good with children, but she is also an herbalist who combines her training as an apothecary’s daughter with her instincts for finding medicinal plants in the soil of her homeland. On several occasions throughout the novel she literally keeps other characters alive or lessens their suffering.
Wilhelm may be a disappointing leading man, but aside from Napoleon himself, he is one of the few characters in the novel to leave an enduring legacy. He finds success not only in publication but in furthering the triumph of the human spirit: “The whole reason for telling the fairy tales is to awaken the heart. To help people believe that misfortune can be overcome and evil conquered. If the fairy tales are to do their work, they must shine.” In one of the novel’s most poignant moments, Dortchen goes to a poorhouse to hear a toothless old woman, known as the Story Wife, share “Cinderella” with a group of mistreated orphans. Here Forsyth takes us to the heart of all storytelling: not only do we recognize “Cinderella” as one of the most famous fairy tales, but we feel its power when told to the audience that needs it the most.