French Fairy Tales

This week I had the opportunity to speak with a member of my meeting who recently graduated from Colby College with a BA in Francophone Studies. She had written her senior thesis on French fairytales, so I was hoping to leave with some advice on how to get started and some suggestions for reading material. I was beginning to realize at point an exhaustive analysis of French society would be overwhelming, especially in the midst of the college process, and I wanted to narrow my focus somehow. I was strongly considering concentrating my research on gender dynamics, so I was pleasantly suprised when the young woman I met with introduced me to the salonniéres, a group of aristocratic french women in 17th century france who launched a feminist movement in their own living rooms and were pioneers in the craft of French storytelling. While Charles Perrault is considered the Father of the French fairytale, much of his material draws heavily on the work of the salonnières. Although stories such as “Cinderella”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “Bluebeard”, and “Donkeyskin” are now shared and recognized on an international level, the story of the women behind it is one that is seldom told.

In 7th century France, salons were oases of  conversation and intellectual banter where upper class men and women would meet to discuss matters such as art, politics, and philosophy. While women played a prominent role in salon life–they hosted the meetings and facilitated the discussions–they were not allowed to publish work, and their opinions were considered less valid than those of their male counterparts. Many women felt restrained by strict rules of conduct between the sexes that prevented them from engaging fully in the dialogue. Many of these women began assembling regularly in their own living rooms to partake in intellectual discourse, often with a feminist twist. Women’s issues such as marriage, adultery, and divorce laws; girls’ education; and independence often worked their way into the conversation. The concern for these issues can be seen in one of the most important aspects of salon life: storytelling.

In order to demonstrate wit, creativity, and oratory skills, the salonnières would take turns composing and sharing stories, often reworking  themes and motifs from traditional oral folklore. The good/evil dichotomy that is so prominent in fairy tales often showed up  in these tales in the form of strong, cunning female protagonists struggling against oppressive male authority figures. The delivery of these stories was glazed in elaborate, baroque language that concealed bold social commentary. Many of the tales were, in fact, hidden attacks on the male-governed court life, and even on contemporary patriarchal figures. The plot device of the fairy-godmother was very popular among the salonnières, as she represented a powerful, independent woman. From these salons emerged popular fairy tales such as “Beauty and the Beast” (Madame de Villeneuve), “Donkeyskin” (Henriette-Julie de Castelnau), and “Blue-Beard” (also by de Castelnau); as well as more obscure works such as “The Discreet Princess” (Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier), “Riquet of the Tuft” (Catherine Bernard), and “The White Deer” (Madame d’Aulnoy). Many of these women were a source of inspiration for Charles Perrault, who, although often referred to as the “father of the French fairy tale,” was actually a newcomer to a movement that was already in full swing.

So why do we never hear of these women  alongside big names such as Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Anderson? Unfortunately, prominent figures in French society such as Rousseau and emerging fairytale collectors such as the Brothers Grimm, who were disdainful of their subversive social commentary and ornamented language, wrote disparagingly of the salonnières and their work, accusing them of being lazy and frivolous. By the turn of the century, the social and intellectual status of women’s salons had greatly diminished, and the belief that these women were imitators of well-known male storytellers such as Perrault had become firmly established. Their work was heavily simplified and marketed to children and parents under the name “Mother Goose.” The modifications made to these tales often weakened and stereotyped the original female characters. It is only recently that scholars have rediscovered the history of the salonnières.

I am very excited to have discovered this goldmine inside the French fairytale scene. As a longtime lover of folklore, I am surprised that I never knew about these women! I know that this is somewhat divergent from my original proposal, but I think that writing about salon life and gender dynamics will add an interdisciplinary level to my studies and allow me to write a more focused, in-depth paper. Right now the main issue is getting my hands on the resources that my Friend recommended for me. Most of the research done on this topic has been conducted in English, so finding french sources might prove to be difficult. Nonetheless, I checked out some interesting books on French feminist movements and folklore at the French Cultural Center in Boston, and I have access to all the fairy tales themselves in French. I’ll most likely be posting about individual women or stories over the next few weeks. I’m really thrilled to have this research opportunity and I’m looking forward to sharing more with everyone!

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