Last week I briefly introduced Madame D’Aulnoy, by far the most well known of the conteuses, recognized by some fairytale scholars as the initiator of the French conte de fée movement, who elevated the common “old wives’ tale” to an aristocratic art form. Since a great deal of my resources concern Mme. D’Aulnoy and her work, and since I find her so intriguing, my mentor suggested that I further narrow my research and focus on this particular author, and idea that certainly appeals to me. If I want to follow through with this plan, it is important for me to answer the questions, “Who was Mme. D’Aulnoy, what are the major ideas present in her fairytales, and why were those ideas significant in her time?”
Some parts of this search may prove difficult; although D’Aulnoy published a large body of written work, we possess very little information regarding her own life.
Madame D’Aulnoy was born in 1650 in Barneville-le-Bertran to an aristocratic family. Originally Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, she became Madame D’Aulnoy at 16-years-old when she married François de la Motte, Baron D’Aulnoy, 30 years her senior, in an arranged marriage. In 1969, Mme. D’Aulnoy’s own mother tried to have de la Motte convicted of treason, but her accusations were disproven and she was forced to flee the country. Meanwhile, D’Aulnoy disappeared from Parisian court life until 1690, allegedly having fled to Spain. Upon returning to Paris, she frequented the salon of Mme. de Lambert before opening her own on rue Saint-Benoît.
After releasing several historical novels and travel memoirs that she had penned during her absence, Mme. D’Aulnoy quickly rose to prominence within aristocratic circles, while her salon gained prestige of its own. Although D’Aulnoy is known today primarily as a conteuse, it was her other works that originally granted her the recognition of her contemporaries. Less than a year after her literary début, Mme. D’Aulnoy published a novel with a short allegorical inserted into the main plot. Although oral folklore was certainly popular among the French peasantry, this was the first time anything resembling the literary conte de fée was recorded and published in France. At this time, the fairytale was foreign to French nobility and did not constitute in the least a literary genre. Following the publication of D’Aulnoy’s novel, fairy stories quickly became la mode amongst salon-goers, and within the next few years, over a dozen authors had published their own fairytales. By 1967, D’Aulnoy had published three volumes of fairytales. At the same time, some of her contemporaries such as Charles Perrault, Mme. de la Force, Mme. Lhéritier, and Mme. de Murat were gaining recognition for their own tales.
The years of 1697-1698 were effectively a golden age for the French fairy tale and for Mme. D’Aulnoy herself, who experienced outstanding success during this time. She published nearly a dozen volumes of fairytales, all of which were well received by the public. Le Mercure Galant, one the most widely read literary magazine in Paris, repeatedly featured and praised her work, writing in one issue, “Les contes continuent d’être en vogue, et Les Contes Nouveaux, ou Fées à la Mode, par Madame D’Aulnoy, sont du nombre de ceux qui ont le plus réussi. On n’en peut douter, puisque le public en a redemandé une suite.“ (Fairytales continue to be in fashion, and Les Contes Nouveaux, ou Fées à la Mode, par Madame D’Aulnoy, are by far among the most successful. There is no doubt of this fact, as the public has demanded more.) Fairy tale scholar Nadine Jasmine refers to D’Aulnoy’s experience as a “double success,” concerning both the success of literary that she in many ways initiated and her own personal success as an author.
As the practice of telling and recording fairytales became ubiquitous in French high-society, the conte de fée inhabited a variety of forms, as authors would rework tales to fit their own literary style or personal agenda. As for Mme. D’Aulnoy, she and her female compatriots developed the conte féminin, a tale written by women, for women, and about women. In fact, it was the salonnières who coined the term “conte de fée.” The fée, or fairy, in these women’s’ tales often served as a female power figure, possessing both vast wisdom and supernatural abilities. There is also reason to believe the image of the fairy was intended to evoke that of the conteuse. In an introduction to one her collections of fairytales, Mme. de Murat presents and contrasts two figures: the “ancient fairies,” whose “sole concern is to keep the house well swept, milk cows, churn butter…and a thousand other lowly things of that sort,” and the “modern fairies,” who are “beautiful, young, attractive,” and reside in, “the courts of kings or enchanted palaces.” Though this comparison is most likely in part an aristocratic jab at the lower class, it also highlights the emergence of the modern mondain woman, freethinking, intelligent, sociable, and well spoken. The conteuses apparently viewed themselves as “fairies,” giving the term “contes de fees”, or, “tales of fairies” a double meaning: referring to both tales about fairies and tales by fairies.
Each week I will be examining a different fairytale by Madame D’Aulnoy an looking that the ways that she celebrates the with and intelligence of “fairies” in her writing. Next week I will post about one of her most famous fairy tales, “The Bee and the Orange Tree.” I am already a fan of her work very grateful to have the opportunity to share her stories with all of you.