The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth (Allison & Busby 2013, £12.99)
Reviewed by Katherine Langrish
Kate Forsyth’s novel The Wild Girl is the story of Dortchen Wild, who would marry Wilhelm Grimm—literally the boy next door—after a long, thirteen-year courtship. Dortchen was just one of several young women who recounted tales—of princes and swineherds, lost children and lucky fools, ‘hungry witches and murderous sausages’—to Wilhelm and his brother Jakob, two ardent but poverty-stricken young scholars living in the war-torn principality of Hesse-Cassel during the time of Napoleon.
‘Wild by name and wild by nature,’ Dortchen’s father used to say of her. He did not mean it as a compliment. He thought her headstrong, and so he set himself to tame her.
The day Dortchen Wild’s father died, she went to the forest, winter-bare and snow-frosted, so no one could see her dancing for joy. She went to the place where she had last truly been happy, the grove of old linden trees in the palace garden. … Tearing off her black bonnet, she flung it into the tangled twigs and drew off her gloves, shoving them in her coat pocket. Holding out her bare hands, embracing the cold winter wind, Dortchen spun alone among the linden trees, her black skirts swaying. [p13]
With this opening image of the wild girl dancing for joy at a death, in a forest which is immediately qualified and tamed as ‘the palace garden’, Kate Forsyth sets the tone for the book. It’s not a fantasy. Dortchen Wild is a real girl inhabiting a real, and difficult, society and time. Her life is constrained by family and domestic duties. In the early chapters, her crowded home reminded me of Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’: like Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth, the Wild girls are simply but firmly characterised. We meet Gretchen, the pretty one, Röse the clever one, Hanne the musical one, Lisette the eldest, ‘her mother’s prop’, Mia the little one, Dortchen, the ‘wild’ one—and a wayward brother, Rudolf. But there the comparison ends. Dortchen’s mother is a feeble invalid dependent on laudanum, and the family is ruled by a bullying tyrant of a father, Herr Wild, around whom they walk on tiptoe.
Dortchen falls in love with her friend Lotte’s gentle, handsome young brother Wilhelm Grimm. And she has something that will make him notice her, something he wants and needs: stories for his collection. As their unspoken love develops—for Herr Wild dislikes and disapproves of the Grimm boys—the tides of war wash across Hessen-Cassell. The Wild and Grimm families struggle to survive in the face of illness, conscription, invasion and starvation. One by one Dortchen’s sisters leave home, and her mother dies. Then Herr Wild becomes an ogre whose feet on the stairs or whose hand on the doorknob is listened for with dread. And it is impossible to ask for help, impossible for Dortchen to share her suffering even with Wilhelm—except allusively, darkly, through the telling of a fairy tale like ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, about a princess whose father wants to marry her. But Wilhelm does not understand. For him the fairy tales are a scholarly project which may lead to success and advancement:
“I’m sure such stories have very deep roots,” Wilhelm said. “They go far back into the past. It would be fascinating to collect them and save them from disappearing.” [p92]
Dortchen is wiser. She has a deeper and richer understanding of what the tales mean. She knows that they are alive, that they still speak: they are more than fascinating old stories. Hardship and suffering is the soil from which they spring. This is knowledge which Wilhelm will not understand for years.
In her Afterword to The Wild Girl, Ms Forsyth makes clear that there is no direct historical evidence that Dortchen’s father abused her: but she makes an interesting case for it nevertheless, partly based on differences between the first, 1812 version of ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, and the later, edited version published in 1819. ‘The later version very carefully made it clear that the father-king and the bridegroom-king were different men. The first story was identified as a tale of incest fulfilled. The second was a tale of incest diverted.’
Jack Zipes [has] speculated that the that the reason Wilhelm Grimm changed that particular story and other incest tales such as ‘The Maiden Without Hands’ was that he himself had been abused as a child. But… it occurred to me that perhaps it was Dortchen, his future wife, who had been abused, and that Wilhelm, once he realised this, had changed the story as a kind of gift to her. He certainly included a reference to her as a ‘Wild deer’ in the final version of ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’. [p488]
This helped Ms Forsyth find a fictional solution to the puzzle of ‘the long gap between the beginning of [Dortchen’s] romance with Wilhelm and their eventual marriage, in May 1825’, ten years after her father’s death.
Of course The Wild Girl is fiction: an imaginative reconstruction, a what-if of Dortchen’s life. It is nevertheless well-anchored in its historical context. And it re-establishes the importance of women in the creation of the most influential collection of fairy tales of all time.
Reading ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’ as a child, I imagined the twin masculine entity responsible for them as two old men who probably didn’t smile much. There seemed to be no single personality stamped upon the stories, which were too diverse to conform to any specific agenda—unlike Hans Andersen’s, whose despondent, craggy figure was so often pictured in my books that I could recognise him. The Little Mermaid, The Little Match Girl, The Snow Queen: I could see—or feel—what made Andersen’s tales so individual: the beauty, the melancholy, the pessimism. A few years later, reading Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, I could sense the link between his tales and Andersen’s: except that Wilde took the pessimism much further. These were authored tales, and the personalities of their authors came through strong and clear.
In the Grimms’ tales, however, I sensed not an authored but an authentic magic. These were real fairy tales, the standard for all the others. Mother Holle, Briar Rose, The Bremen Town Musicians, Hansel and Gretel, The Frog Prince… Even though the original title, Kinder- und Hausmärchen [Children’s and Household Tales] is commonly abbreviated in English to the possessive—Grimms’ Fairy Tales, as if the brothers owned them—the tales themselves remain obstinately generic, anonymous.
And despite editing, rewriting and censoring, Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm never claimed authorship or ownership over them. That would have been false to their whole purpose. They wished to rescue the authentic voice of the people, the ‘volk’—but the consequence of using a generic term like that is that no single individual can represent it. It may also be that, as men of their time, the brothers subconsciously felt that women could not represent the people, either. However it was, Ms Forsyth tells us that although Wilhelm scribbled his contributors’ names in the margins of the stories—Dortchen, Gretchen, Marie, Frederike—he never formally acknowledged them in print.
A notable moment in The Wild Girl takes place one day in December 1812, Wilhelm brings Dortchen his little book, Kinder und Haus Märchen. She brings it indoors and turns the pages:
First was the story of the Frog-King, which she had told Wilhelm. ‘A tale from Hessen’, the notes read. There was ‘Cat and Mouse in Partnership’, and then ‘Mary’s Child’. Both stories that Gretchen had told him. There was a long note about other stories of forbidden doors, but not a single word about who had told the Grimms this one.
She turned the pages faster. There was ‘The Three Little Men in the Wood’, and the one she had named ‘Hansel and Gretel’. There was ‘Frau Holle’ and, a few stories after it, ‘The Singing Bone’. …But not a word about who had told the Grimms the tales.
Dortchen jumped up, clutching the book to her heart. Without changing her shoes or putting on her bonnet, she ran out into the garden and through the gateway, with nothing but her shawl to keep off the snow. She ran across the alleyway and up three flights of stairs to the Grimms’ apartment and banged on the door with her fist.
Wilhelm opened the door to her. “Why, Dortchen,’ he cried in pleasure, opening up his arms to her.
“Where are our names?” she cried. “Why aren’t we named in the book? We told you the tales. Our names should be there too!”
He was taken aback. “Jakob thought it best,” he stammered. “The tales belong to no one. They are a genuine expression of the spirit of the folk –”
“Rubbish,” Dortchen said.
He took a step away. “But Dortchen –”
She pointed to her mouth. “I told you those tales. I told them. Does that mean nothing?” [p339]
We understand her fury. It doesn’t in the least detract from the achievement of the Brothers Grimm in collating and collecting the tales, to honour the names of the women who supplied them. Plainly yet passionately written, The Wild Girl is not only a fine historical novel and a vivid, touching love story. It repositions the fairy tales as the collaborative productions they really were.
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