Happily Ever After: 17th Century Women and Marriage Reflected in Charles Perrault’s Fairy Tales (Paper)

 

edmund dulac

Illustration by Edmund Dulac

In modern day, when people think about fairy tales, the mind immediately jumps to the books that were read to generations of children or as movies that many might have grown up with. They are viewed as entertainment and they are viewed from the basic perspective that they are just fairy stories without depth. The audience enjoys these fictions of the late 17th and early 18th century as an escape from reality and appreciates them as “tales as old as time.” However, if these fairy tales are looked beyond the surface–the current view and present knowledge of them–they can thus be viewed as much more than just what the mind can immediately read and absorb. Of these fairy tales were Charles Perrault’s Contes—or Fairy Stories—where there are layers of depth and morals that taught children societal conduct. From The History of Griselda to Cinderella to The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood to Donkey Skin, Perrault’s Contes are filled with morals that helped many young children, especially young girls, begin their social lessons by warning them of potential dangers to those who don’t follow society’s rules or by illustrating the rewards for those who do.

 1. The Narrator: From an Oral Telling to Paper Reiterating

     On January 12, 1628, Charles Perrault was born in Paris as one of twin boys, of which the other died only after a couple of months (Betts, xlviii). Around the age of fifteen, Perrault abandoned school with a friend and continued his education outside of the traditional education sphere. By 1653, he published his first book and soon after became a clerk after his brother bought a position as a tax official (Betts, xlviii). His career with writing grew as Perrault became a part of and later a secretary for the “petite académie,” which glorified the achievements of King Louis XIV’s reign (Betts, xlviii-xlix). In 1665, Perrault was appointed to the rank of First Commissioner of Royal Buildings and in 1671 he became a part of the French Academy where he reformed some procedures and hastened the publishing of a “delayed Dictionary” under the role of Chancellor of the Academy and eventually Director (Betts, xlix). He continued to write and by 1691 he published The History of Griselda, one of his fairy tales, and it was read at the Academy (Betts, l). This was soon followed by his other well-known fairy tales, which are still well-known of today even after his death in 1709 (Betts, li).

Perrault wrote his fairy tales in both forms of prose and verse. However, the stories he wrote were not necessary his own per say as much as they were his own versions of the stories that were orally handed down. As Betts wrote, “Perrault did not create the story, he merely gave us one more version, albeit an important one” (Betts, ix). Originally, these stories were handed down from generation to generation orally. Perrault put them on paper with his own input of the originals, and they became the stories that are known of today. Many of these stories had many versions initially and did not come from a specific origin or a known author (Betts, ix). In order to fully understand these stories, it is best to understand how they were originally told and, more importantly, who told them.

As the specific origins of these tales are not fully known, it is assumed that the French fairy tales were originated by peasants —particularly women—who eventually spread their stories not only among the lower classes, but also with the children of upper-class families they interacted with (Bottigheimer, 18-20). These stories were thus spread orally to children between all classes. Women would also tell oral stories “in spinning and weaving circles [and] in quilting bees” besides also in salons (Harries, 104). Salons were cultures of thought where women were in charge. Different intellectuals of different areas of thought and different social standings would come together and discuss topics. For example a topic could be narratives such as, later, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, so there is a possibility that these oral tales were not only told, but discussed about. As they were discussed about, they reached different social classes—including possibly Perrault himself as he was of high academic standing within the French Academy (Palmer, 150).

There is an implication within the book that fairy tales were and still are told by women to children. As shown, in the beginning of The Complete Fairy Tales by Perrault, edited by Betts, a picture of an older woman (as shown below [Figure 2])—such as a grandmother—and a woman—perhaps a mother—is surrounded by children, both male and female from little to their pre-teens. This is the frontispiece, which gives us a version of to what audience would read the book (Harries, 101). Even here we see that women are the ones telling the story, here via book. However, this is similar in notion to the frontispiece of the 1697 published version of Perrault’s Contes (shown below [Figure 1]) where an older woman tells stories orally to some young girls (Harries, 101). In the original published piece, the frontispiece is viewed as the potential audience of the oral tales and this book publishing is the more educated version—as only those that were educated to read could read the book—of them. But this does not mean that men could not read the stories to their children, but, rather, emphasize the female’s place of reading these stories to the children. By emphasizing on the possible and implied woman’s relationship with the fairy tales, there is a chance that the fairy tales were devalued and not viewed as literature until written down by Perrault, a male. This can be due to women being less educated at this point of time and if they did write, it was viewed as not serious or highly respected work. Similar, in this 2009 version, this frontispiece is a flashback of the potential audience of Perrault’s book from 1697, which still solely shows women telling the tales. This book is the 2009 edition that relishes the accomplishment that Perrault’s tales are still being read today.

Frontispiece of The Complete Fairy Tales (1697 Edition)

Frontispiece of The Complete Fairy Tales (1697 Edition)

Frontispiece of The Complete Fairy Tales (1697 Edition)

Frontispiece of The Complete Fairy Tales, translated and notes by Christopher Betts (2009 Edition)

Besides reading the text itself, but between also the understanding the historical contexts of woman being the initial orators of these tales and by having visual evidence of the frontispieces of both the 1697 book and the 2009 book, it can be shown that Perrault is constantly balancing between the “practices of writing” and the “supposed ‘oral’ transmission” of a “more aristocratic mode of reading” (Harries, 102). As he writes in an “oral format,” there is a chance that Perrault is taking on a feminine narrator voice as he tells his stories (Harries, 102).

 2. The Reader: From Women to Women

     It is not only important to understand who created these oral tales and the book tales, but whom they are written for. As discussed earlier, women were the ones who told these oral tales to young children and other women—and potentially men—of social gatherings, such as salons. When these stories converted from oral tales to written fictions, the gendered ideas that were related to them continued on also. When Perrault recreated these oral tales and made them into published book tales, he not only takes on a feminine voice as his narrator, but he continues to write for children—particularly young girls.

After each of his verse and prose works, Perrault adds a moral verse to the end of each to continue and reinforce plainly the lesson behind each story. These lessons focus on beauty and virtues that would be admired by society. These lessons are teaching girls to conform to contemporary ideals that would later lead them to find husbands and be useful during marriage life. By the 1600s, there were different expectations for husbands and wives within marriage. For example, the works detailing the duties of the men were less common and shorter such as in “The Bride” (published in 1617) (Palmer, 5). The poem states that the wife should have “domestic cares,” not to be a gossip, understand her place and job within the home, be knowledgeable of entertaining, be modest, and be faithful amongst other virtues (Palmer, 5-11). It can be seen that what virtues are looked highly upon by potential husbands of young women do not really change between the early and late 1600s, much the hard-working housemaid and the polite and kind Cinderella before she finds her prince.

Also, the cover letters–which discuss virtues to women of society—in the front of the stories point out what feminine virtues Perrault is emphasizing and gives cautionary examples to prove his moral points that are at the end of each story. For example, in The History of Griselda, the moral of the story is that when women have patience, they are sure to be rewarded in the end either by admiration, the acclamation of virtue, or by a rewarding act—not fully and realistically to the extent that Griselda was able to obtain, but an improving act nonetheless (Betts, 41). The ability to have patience is written to be rare, but she alone was able to show the “honour [sic] to her sex” (Betts, 41). Patience is also discussed through the moral of The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood whereas the moral of Little Red Riding-Hood is for young women not to talk to strangers she doesn’t know for very long, if at all while in The Fairies, it is that young women should be kind and respectful of those around them (Betts, 96-97, 103, 129). In Cinderella, however, the moral is not just to have the important virtues of charm, grace, “good breeding, courage, sense, [and] a ready wit,” but also the teaching of someone—such as a godmother or godfather—to help practice these virtues and be successful in the “quest of a prince” and what to do “in order to succeed” (Betts, 139-141). Young girls were able to learn from these stories the morals that could help them in life and, to a point, be the “godmother” or “godfather” of them as they show how to put certain virtues to work, even if they were fantasy examples that they could relate to.

Perrault includes letters—the cover letters—before some of his prose and verse compositions to women of society.  For example, before The History of Griselda, Perrault writes a short intro verse to “Mademoiselle…” (Betts, 9). The ellipses indicate that the name of the woman was to not be revealed and also to differentiate her from “the King’s niece, known simply as ‘Mademoiselle,’ to whom the prose tales were dedicated”—another indication that Perrault wrote the stories to women as if conversing with them through a paper-version salon (Betts, 198). It is a possibility that the woman he is writing to is not a specifically real person at all. It could be a synecdoche or, in other words, that the young, unmarried woman—as she is shown to be a mademoiselle and not a madame—is really the entire population of young, unmarried women of the time. He writes to the mademoiselle of some social problems regarding Paris of the day. In the verse it states that during the time when the story was written and published, the woman of Paris have become less and less patient and thus they “created to arouse desire” among the men (Betts, 9). Bad examples are constantly being put into action and a woman of true patience, similar to Griselda, would not only be a “marvel,” but also be necessary to match against the bad examples (Betts, 9). However, as she would be considered a “marvel” and as Paris viewed her actions as “old fashioned,” it might not be enough to truly erode the bad examples even though it is what the men need in society (Betts, 9). However, by writing this “letter” to “Mademoiselle…” it indicates that he means to write his stories in order to improve woman and society itself. By directly writing to the “source of the problem,” even albeit one that might not be as inpatient as others, he is talking directly to the person who could directly affect society’s improvements.

3. The Perspective: Which Opinion Is It Anyways

     Perrault wrote his Contes not solely to be a book of fairy tales, but to be stories for women and young ladies to learn from. It is important to question if these Contes could be interpreted by women for women to stay in traditional standings or if they can be interpreted as pushing women to make more of their lives. However, even though he is writing in a feminine oral-telling voice, that does not necessarily mean what he is writing is to be interpreted as convincing girls and women to conform to a society that makes them accept their place in life. Instead, it is possible that the stories could be interpreted to support women in creating themselves better options within society and thus make their lives better. These changes come from the act of women using their contemporary place in society and making it have more flexibility and freedom than before.

In Mary Wiesner-Hanks Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe it states that changes, such as that through petitions, were more likely to change if women stressed their places in the household and that the changes would help their children and husbands (Wiesner-Hanks, 286-287). Their “helplessness and the strength—tempered by charity—of the rulers” helped to give women more societal freedom through, albeit ironically, the emphasis of the use of the woman’s place (Wiesner-Hanks, 286-287). This can be seen in Perrault’s Contes where on the surface it looks like the young woman is doing what is expected of her in society—for example Cinderella is a good house-working servant who is kind and compassionate—yet looking beyond the surface level, she is actually going against what is expected of her and ending up in a better life situation—Cinderella chooses her own path, goes to the ball, and marries the prince by her decision solely. By incorporating this idea of women going against the grain of society, this level of depth helps to show that Perrault stories are not only trying to show how a young women to act, but can be interpreted of how to use it to their advantage and step away from societal boundaries.

 4. The Content: Determining the Perspective of Women of Society Within Contes

     Perrault’s Fairy Tales is a book reflecting a narrow view of 17th and 18th century French society, specifically that of the young women of it. Many of Perrault’s Contes—such as Cinderella, The History of Griselda, Donkey-Skin, Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, and The Fairies—tell of the time when the heroine is young and single and some end with marriage being the final goal for them. As mentioned before, the morals and each story are written to provide instruction for young girls. These morals focus on patience as in The History of Griselda and The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood; caution as is Little Red Riding Hood; charm, grace and whit along with societal guidance in Cinderella; and politeness and kindness in The Fairies. Each of these virtues is looked highly upon in each of these stories. The heroine that possesses them might go through trials and tribulations, but by the end of the story these virtues help her and she is rewarded by the end.

Earlier in the 1500’s, male opinions about women began to emerge in written texts such as in marriage advice books (Palmer, 3). At this time it was suggested that it was “more appropriate for the man to marry with his native than with the [female] outsider” (Palmer, 4). For women this was considered a good choice versus deciding to marry a man they have never met and promise them “oceans and mountains” but later find themselves in a situation of betrayal (Palmer, 4). Thus, if neighbors decide to marry there is none, if any, chance of being deceived by the other (Palmer, 4). At this time it was also a good decision as they were able to obtain animals, money, and even possibly land though marriage. As shown, marriage is an economic resource and decision made by the family and not solely by the husband and wife. It is not an exciting outcome for women to marry their neighbor, but it was a common act. The stories gave exciting opportunities to its female protagonists that only can be imagined what women might have wanted in life. And, in some instances, they came as close to fairy tale endings as they could.

Also, when comparing the ideas of the 1500’s to the fairy tales there seems to be a difference in regards to the woman marrying someone she does not know. They offer a fantasy of marriage that’s not based on economics, but rather personal choice or “fate.” A good example of this is shown in Cinderella: being born to a gentleman but later being put in the position of a service girl for her step-mother and step-sisters, the kind a gentle-hearted Cinderella finds herself in a position of capturing the heart of the prince and ends up marrying him. Cinderella is in a different position than other heroines as in Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, Donkey Skin, and The History of Griselda. Whereas the princess’ father allows the daughter to marry a prince or it is decided by fate (in Sleeping Beauty, the fate was decided before the king by a fairy), Cinderella’s parents are both dead and her “evil” step-mother probably had no say—and if she did it would have been probably “no”—so she is in the sole position of determining her marriage without anyone’s approval.

In “Marriage Contract for a First Marriage, France, 1546,” the girl who is going to be married is creating her marriage contract and arranging her future on her own without the consent of her father as he is elsewhere in France due to his job (Palmer, 21). This is very similar to Cinderella’s situation. For women of the late 1600’s and early 1700’s, by Perrault writing this story it gives a perspective that it is not only okay for women to make marriage choices on her own if her parents are dead or, as in the marriage contract example, elsewhere (the closest guidance Cinderella has is her fairy godmother, but really she only helps provide the gowns and transportation whereas Cinderella herself is really the one that contributes to her marriage) but almost necessary. It is necessary in terms of marriage is the golden ticket for Cinderella to leave her house-maid life to a life her virtues lead her to. Society seems to be shifting more and more liberally in terms of viewing and allowing different situations, but still somewhat traditional as marriage is still the happy goal for a woman.

Sometimes, women could exercise choice over whom they married, but this tended to be in exceptional circumstances. For example, in “Marriage Contract for a First Marriage, France, 1546,” the girl who is going to be married is creating her marriage contract and arranging her future on her own without the consent of her father as he is elsewhere in France due to his job (Palmer, 21). This is very similar to Cinderella’s situation. For women of the late 1600’s and early 1700’s, by Perrault writing this story it gives a perspective that it is not only okay for women to make marriage choices on her own if her parents are dead or, as in the marriage contract example, elsewhere (the closest guidance Cinderella has is her fairy godmother, but really she only helps provide the gowns and transportation whereas Cinderella herself is really the one that contributes to her marriage) but almost necessary. It is necessary in terms of marriage is the golden ticket for Cinderella to leave her house-maid life to a life her virtues lead her to. This is an option of individual decision making for both the French girl and Cinderella. Thus, society seems to be shifting more and more liberally in terms of viewing and allowing different situations, but still somewhat traditional as marriage is still the happy goal for a woman.

The “Marriage Market” section of Mary Wortley Montagu’s Selected Letters gives a first-hand experience of being a young woman who is in the process of getting married in the early 1700’s. Montagu writes letters to her lover and future husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, along with some female relations as her father arranges a marriage between her and Clotworthy Skeffington. Ultimately, she and her husband elope in August of 1712 (Montagu, 17-95). Throughout her letters it is apparent that Montagu wants to find happiness in a relationship and a man who would be considered as “paradise” or at least “limbo” instead of “hell” (Montagu, 17-95). This was the code between Montagu and Philippa Mundy, who she wrote letters to (Montagu, 79). Even though it goes back and forth between Montagu and her future husband that they should stop writing letters, yet they continue anyways, it was not necessarily love at first sight similar to many of the relationships in the fairy tales (Montagu, 17-95). The decision to elope with her husband was a “question where [her] whole happynesse [was] depending [sic]” (Montagu, 91). She was even preferring to live single, regardless if that was a possibility or not, if she could (Montagu, 69). She does view herself as romantic and constantly questions him if he loves her, which reflects the fairy tale side of their relationship as love was not necessary for a marriage (Montagu, 17-95). However, through Montagu’s writing, it can be interpreted that she wants a fairy tale and romantic relationship so much that she in the end acts upon it. The elopement is another fairy tale side of their relationship and she concludes that he had “found paradise…when she expected but limbo” (Montagu, 95). Much like Cinderella, Montagu took a chance to become happy and married her “prince.”

5. Conclusion

     The women of 17th and 18th century France did have some leeway when it came to making their own decisions, however looked down upon it might have been. However, by Perrault including some similar situations into his stories he is not only including morals that reflect society’s views but influencing young women to take their matters into their own hands. As he writes in a feminine narrator voice for young girls and women, his stories reflect not only society’s views but a more women-centered happiness perspective for his stories. It contributes to both a woman’s traditional perspective of owning certain virtues, but also contributes to a woman’s less traditional perspective of putting her happiness for her life into account, much like the woman in “Marriage Contract” and Montagu. Thus the perspectives shown in Perrault’s Fairy Tales are his own, society’s, and women’s. This shows that his Contes were wide varied and applied to many different people of society in subtle ways and has contributed to the book tales success.

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Bibliography

Cinderella In Film

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One thought on “Happily Ever After: 17th Century Women and Marriage Reflected in Charles Perrault’s Fairy Tales (Paper)

  1. Pingback: Happily Ever After: Cinderella in Film (Additional Background Material) | Women in European History

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