writing

The Victorian Writer

I was thrilled to have been commissioned by Writers Victoria to contribute a feature article and a front cover image for their April/May issue. The issue’s theme is around Writing for Young Adults, and I contributed a piece on adolescent transformation in fairy tales. I’m in excellent company, and look forward to settling down in front the fire with a cup of tea to read them all.

Hello to those who made it here from the pages of The Victorian Writer. For those new to my work, I have a (new) website at lorenacarrington.com and also tweet from @lorena_c.

 

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Early Women Writers of Fairy Tales

I wrote recently about women fairy tale illustrators, so now it’s time for some writers. The writers I have listed here are pre-Golden Age, and mostly wrote in France during the 1600s. I’ll write at a later date on Golden Age and contemporary writers, but there are already plenty of writers I’m brushing over here. French writers appear heavily in the canon, as fairy tales were very much in vogue in 17th Century France.

200px-D'AulnoyMarie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy (1650/1651–4 January 1705), AKA the more easily pronouncable Countess d’Aulnoy, was the first writer to define the term ‘fairy tales’ or rather, ‘contes de fées’. Many of her works were of a style that we define as the classical fairy tale – whimsical and tied up neatly at the end with a marriage or proper morals. They were also very French (oddly enough), and very linked to her aristocratic background, with titles like The Bee and the Orange Tree, Princess Belle-Etoille and The White Doe. She held a salon in Paris, and was linked to a good numbers of rumours and scandals involving adultery, treason and espionage. I like her very much.

220px-Liselotte_von_der_pfalzCharlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force (1654–1724) seems to the just the kind of woman you want at your party. No stranger to scandals (do you see a pattern forming here?), she was a maid of honour at the court of Louis XIV, until he banished her to a convent for writing ‘satirical verses’ and being embroiled in various mischiefs and a rumoured affair. It is here that she wrote many contes de fées, including her most famous story ‘Persinete’, based on an older Neapolitan story, and later rewritten as ‘Rapunzel’ by the Brothers Grimm.

Author Kate Forsyth’s wonderful book Bitter Greens is based on the time Charlotte-Rose spent in the convent. It’s a brilliant read. Kate has also written about Charlotte-Rose on her blog.

2855b2b50fd3152c15ce6e3b08231c46Henriette-Julie de Murat (1670-1716), not pictured. More controversy! What a surprise! In addition to fairy tales, Henriette wrote some scandalous faux memoirs, which had her exiled to the French provincial town of Loches for several years. She also wrote in France in the late 17th Century, and some of the fairy tales attributed to her are Bearskin and Starlight.

Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier de Villandon (1664-1734) was a refreshingly scandal free writer of fairy tales, and niece of the more famous fairy tale writer Charles Perrault, though she published her first tale a year before he did. She was a protégé of Madeleine de Scudéry, and inherited Madeleine’s salon after her death.

Like the three aforementioned writers, she was instrumental in the enormous popularity of fairy tales in 17th Century France.

Jeanne-Marie_Leprince_de_BeaumontJeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1711-1780) wrote the best known version of Beauty and the Beast, though the earliest known version was written by fellow French writer Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Marie’s childhood was beset by poverty and the death of her mother at the age of 11, though she claims not to have mourned her. Those looking for more scandal will find it this time in her first husband. He spent her large dowry on his debts, then bought a hotel with the rest. He used the hotel as one would expect of an unwelcome patron, by throwing wild parties and inviting all sorts of disreputable characters. Consequently he contracted a disease typical of such a lifestyle, and Jeanne-Marie was able to obtain an annulment. Not long after, she moved to London, where she wrote her many fairy tales, remarried and had a large family. Her works were very moralistic, more so than many of her scandalous French counterparts, and she also wrote schoolbooks and other moral stories and poems.

Wild-349While not technically a known fairy tale writer, it would be remiss of me not to mention Dortchen Wild. She was a neighbour of the Grimm brothers in Cassel, Germany in the early 19th Century. They met in 1805, when she was 12. Napoleon invaded Cassel in 1806, and this is the same year that the brothers began collecting fairy tales. Dortchen struck up a friendship with the brothers, much to the disapproval of her autocratic father. They met in secret, and Dortchen told the brothers many of the fairy tales included in their collection. Dortchen had several siblings, but all eventually moved away, leaving her to care for her ailing parents. She and Wilhem Grimm had fallen in love, but could not marry, even after her father’s death. The brothers were destitute, and it was only many years later, after the overthrow of Napoleon, and the eventual success of the Grimms’ stories, that they were finally able to marry. Dortchen and the Grimm brothers lived together for the rest of their lives.

Kate Forsyth has also written about the life of Dortchen Wild in The Wild Girl, in fact it is she who introduced me to her. Read more about Kate’s exploration of Dortchen’s life here.

Review: Marina Warner’s ‘Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale’

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Imagine the history of fairy tale as a map, like the Carte du Tendre, the ‘Map of Tenderness’, drawn by Parisian romancers to chart the peaks and sloughs of the heart’s affections… (Loc 50)

So begins the prologue to Marina Warner‘s new book on fairy tales Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale. At 226 pages it is a much slimmer follow up to her 1996 book From the Beast to the Blonde, but no less enlightening or engaging. Warner weaves her dialogue beautifully, sometimes slipping into a metaphorical narrative much like fairy tales themselves. This could come across as strained or twee in clumsier hands, but Warner is a confident and self-possessed writer. The great history of storytelling comes to flourishing life under her deft touch. In chapter three, Voices on the Page, while discussing the essence of fairy tales, she writes:

Think of it as a plant genus, like roses or fungi or grasses, which seed and root and flower here and there, changing species and colour and size and shape where they spring. Or think of it as a tune, which can migrate from a voice to a symphony to a penny whistle, for a fairy tale does not exist in a fixed form or medium. The stories’ interest isn’t exhausted by repetition, reformulation, or retelling, but their pleasure gains from the endless permutations performed on the original. (Loc 606)

I have a confession to make. Often, while reading academic writing, my mind tends to wander; my eyes skip over the words. I can get to the end of a piece of writing and hardly be able to tell you anything I just read. I may make something up. Not so in this case. Warner’s language is clear and poetic. She leads you along an open forest path with sure footing and a bright torch. We see fairy tales as they are; not a dusty collection of old and irrelevant stories, but stories that travel, adapt and take on new meanings. She reminds us, on every page, why fairy tales are still relevant and important today. They have never existed in solitude, and Warner leads you through their connections to psychology, feminism, fantasy and the supernatural. She evaluates their history, their meaning, and the way they have woven (and been woven into) our very lives.

The chapters in Once Upon a Time are divided into themes. They range from the factual ‘Voices on the Page’ which introduces many of the tellers, writers and translators of fairy tales, to the barely constrained rally cry of ‘In the Dock: Don’t Bet on the Prince” which details the post-war feminist subversion of the fairy tale. Interestingly, the title references Jack Zipes’ book of feminist fairy tales Don’t Bet on the Prince. Here she celebrates, among others, the feminist works of theoreticist Ruth Bottigheimer, poet Anne Sexton and all-round-fairy-tale-feminist-superstar Angela Carter. One thing that makes this work so engaging is Warner’s refusal to stay neutral. In her dissent from fusty academic writing, she gives us sentences like “Aroused by Freud’s question, ‘What do women want?’, which lies at the centre of conjectures made by (mostly male) analysts, [feminists] seized hold of fairy tales and shook them till the stories choked, spat out the poison, and sat up ready for a different day… Fairy Tales were denounced as a blunt tool of patriarchy, the bourgeoisie, cosmetic surgeons, the fashion industry, physchoanalysts bent on curbing girls’ energies and desires.” (Loc 1522)  I heard a whoop in there, didn’t you?

The ideas in this book run deep. If you’re after light bedtime reading, this is no Disney-esque romp. Like tales of old, Warner’s book does far more that skim from ‘once upon a time’ to ‘happily ever after’. There is darkness with the light, and deliberation and passion in her words. While Warner’s writing isn’t hard to read, you’ll still need to put the book down every now and then, to take a walk or stare out the window, to allow the information to sink in. The path she leads us on is clear, but the forest is dense. Your head will fill quickly with new ideas and information. But don’t see this as obstacle. You will finish this book wiser about, and more in awe of, fairy tales, human nature and the many threads that tie our world together.

Thank you to NetGalley and Oxford University Press for the advance reading copy of this book.

Fairy Tales and Narrative Structure

As you all know, I’m working on a project about the lost strong girls of fairy tales. The project involves searching out old tales with strong female protagonists, and illustrating them with my artwork. Another aspect of the project, and a part I’ve only just begun working on, is the rewriting of some of the tales. I tossed up whether to leave them as they were, or re-write, for a long time. I like the idea of keeping them as they are, in their own culture context. Unfortunately the cultural context is all over the place. Some were recorded in the 1700s, some early last century. All were originally taken from the oral tradition, removed from their true context anyway, as a story told in the moment; to a group of listeners, a child caught wandering to close to the woods, around the dying embers of a fire. The storyteller was the holder of these stories, a role vastly different to the author. A storyteller brings stories into everyday life, an author sweeps you away from it. Many of the stories were rewritten several times over several generations, to fit the fashion and morals of the time. Some stories I’ve found are on webpages that look like they haven’t been updated since 1998; without references, and with no mention of whether the story is taken directly from an old (and out of copyright) collection, or written in 1998 by the owner of the website, and therefore very much in copyright.

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All of this has lead me to a point where I feel, I think, that I’d like to start afresh; to take the framework of the stories and weave my own narrative between the bones. One, because it feels like it will be a more cohesive book; two, because I want children to enjoy reading them (some of the stories are pretty hard to wade through, or written for a vastly different era); and three, because it’s fun! Really fun.

It has also got me thinking about things like narrative structure, all that cultural context (as above), and the difference it writing between eras. When I write fiction, I usually write short stories. That’s the genre I’m most comfortable in, so to me it’s important to frame my ‘new’ fairy tales within the appropriate constructs of short story. Not in all cases, but often, fairy tales go something like “Intro to characters, moral supposition, this happened, then this happened, then this, the bad people die, the good ones get married and/or untold riches, moral conclusion, everyone live happily ever after”. That, you cannot get away with in a contemporary short story. Readers want to know what characters are feeling, and why they are feeling it; they need to be shown and not told, and they don’t want to see everything laid out in black and white. The best short story, to me anyway, is made up of a whole lot of shades of grey. But not, ahem, fifty.

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I feel I’m going to have a whole lot more to say about all of the above, but for now I’m still grasping for ideas, writing, and thinking about writing, and frankly, having a lovely time.