Thursday, March 4, 2010

Women in Folklore Month: Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baronne d'Aulnoy

It would be impossible for me to not devote a post to Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baronne d'Aulnoy this month. After all, she is one of the reasons we talk about "fairy tales" instead of "wonder tales" or "märchen." The term used to label her stories, "contes de fée," literally translates to "fairy tales." And, yes, her own tales often had fairies in them, so it was not the misnomer it is today.

In the late 1600s, the French Salons were filled with fairy tale writing, primarily by women writers. Many of the tales were influenced by oral traditions, but most did not end up influencing oral tradition directly. The most prolific and influential author was Marie-Catherine D'Aulnoy. She published four volumes of fairy tales. Her most famous tale today is The White Cat. Her work influenced that of Charles Perrault and others.

From Terri Windling's article, Les Contes des Fées: The Literary Fairy Tales of France:

D’Aulnoy, as her contemporaries note, was a major force behind the fairy tale vogue and the first to publisher her salon tales, but she was soon followed by a number of other writers (Mme. de Murat, Mlle. L’H’éritier, Mlle. Bernard, Mlle. de la Force, etc.), most of whom knew and were influenced by each other to varying degrees. Although d’Aulnoy’s name is largely left out of the canon (you’ll find numerous Perrault collections, for example, and none devoted to d’Aulnoy), her tales are still retold today, republished in modern bowdlerized forms: The White Cat, The White Deer, Green Snake, The Yellow Dwarf, Bluecrest, The Royal Ram, and other magical works.

Madame d’Aulnoy’s own history is almost as fantastical as any of her stories. Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville was born in Normandy in 1650, and received a modest convent education . . . arranged for her by Francois de la Motte, Baron d’Aulnoy, a wealthy aristocrat who was thirty years her senior. When Marie-Catherine was 15 or 16, the Baron abducted her from the convent (with the connivance of her father, who profited financially) and a forced marriage ensued -- from which, in that time and place, there was no possibility of divorce. The Baron was famed for his dissolute habits, including drunkenness, an addiction to gambling, and sexual irregularities. Three long years later, it looked as though the girl might be freed from her odious husband when the Baron was arrested and charged with a crime of high treason against the king. Then the two men who had implicated the Baron recanted their testimony under torture. These men were discovered to be the lovers of the young Baroness and her beautiful mother, and it was now believed that the whole affair had been cooked up between the four of them. The Baron was released, the men were executed, and d’Aulnoy and her mother fled to Spain. The two adventurous women spent the next several years traveling the Continent, and may have been spying for Louis XIV as a way of regaining his favor. Baroness d’Aulnoy received royal permission to return to Paris in 1685, where she promptly set up a literary salon in the rue San-benoit. Intelligent, beautiful, and tinged with an aura of mystery, she soon formed a glittering group around her of nonconformist women and men (and then became embroiled in another scandal when a close friend killed her husband).

There is one English translation collection of some of d'Aulnoy's tales, The Fairy Tales of Madame D'Aulnoy (1892). A few years ago I painstakingly scanned and published it on SurLaLune. The book appears on SurLaLune's Marie-Catherine Baronne d'Aulnoy page. On the same page, I've also included a guide and links where available to other English translations of her tales.

This is also timely since one of the few retellings of d'Aulnoy's The White Cat will appear in May as White Cat by Holly Black. There is also one picture book of the tale, by the way, The White Cat by Robert San Souci and Gennady Spirin. One of the only other retellings I am aware of is by Anne Thackeray Ritchie.

Since I have limited time and space to write as much about d'Aulnoy as I would like--such as her philosophies and motivations--I also HIGHLY recommend Jack Zipes' Beauties, Beasts and Enchantments: Classic French Fairy Tales if you want to read more about d'Aulnoy and the French Salons as well as the tales of other women writers from the salon fairy tale movement.

1 comment:

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