Fairy Tale Emotion and the Tragedy of Romantic Love

Bronwyn Reddan, a postgraduate candidate in SHAPS (the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies) at the University of Melbourne, spoke about her research on seventeenth-century fairy tales at the Methods Collaboratory. Here, she summarises her project for Histories of Emotion.

Photograph of my copy of Charles Perrault’s Contes des Fées. Paris: Bernardin-Béchet et Fils, c. 1863 – c. 1901.
Photograph of my copy of Charles Perrault’s Contes des Fées. Paris: Bernardin-Béchet et Fils, c. 1863 – c. 1901.


I began to study fairy tales via a slightly meandering route.   In 2011, while taking an extended break from my work as a dispute resolution lawyer, I wandered into a second hand bookstore in La Rochelle, a small city on the west coast of France. I had just started developing ideas for an honours thesis examining the material culture of fairy tales when, as fate would have it, the first book I picked up was a nineteenth-century edition of Charles Perrault’s Contes des Fées. Inspired by my serendipitous discovery, I delved deeper into the provenance of my little red book of tales and was delighted to meet a fascinating cast of characters involved in the publication of more than 100 fairy tales between 1690 and 1715.

Title page of Perrault, Contes des Fées, c. 1863 – c. 1901.
Title page of Perrault, Contes des Fées, c. 1863 – c. 1901.

Fast forward almost two years later and I am still enchanted by these marvellous tales and their wittily subversive authors.  And a project which began life as a short thesis examining the construction of elite female identity in seventeenth-century France has now morphed into a PhD project analysing representations of romantic love early modern contes des fées.  My research focuses on the historical value of these tales as sources illustrating early modern debates about the nature of women and the importance of emotion in shaping people’s experiences.  The emotion I am focusing on is romantic love.  I have chosen to focus on this type of love because it is both a prominent theme in the contes and an emotion with a particular historical meaning in seventeenth-century France.  At this stage, my project centres on the tragic tales written by Marie-Catherine le Jumel de Barneville, Comtesse d’Aulnoy and Henriette-Julie de Castelnau, Comtesse de Murat in which falling in love is a disaster to be avoided at all costs.  I am particularly interested in how these tales represent romantic love as a disappointing experience rather than the happy ever after ending we have come to expect from fairy tales.  I am using this ambiguity in early modern attitudes to love to challenge the popular idea of romantic love as a largely positive experience and to develop a more complex picture of historical attitudes towards love.

Unknown illustrator, “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge” in Perrault, Contes des Fées, c. 1863 – c. 1901.
Unknown illustrator, “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge” in Perrault, Contes des Fées, c. 1863 – c. 1901.


I am very grateful to the CHE for providing me with the opportunity to discuss my work, and I found the feedback I received from my presentation at the methods collaboratory extremely useful.

Posted by Bronwyn Reddan

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