Love, Power, and Gender in Seventeenth-Century French Fairy Tales

By Bronwyn Reddan (Deakin University)

In the summer of 2011, I found a nineteenth-century edition of Charles Perrault’s Contes des Fées in a second-hand book shop in La Rochelle, a charming coastal city in western France. This discovery was well-timed as I had just started working on a project examining the agency of magical objects in fairy tales. But as I delved deeper into the French fairy-tale tradition, it was the tales written by Perrault’s female contemporaries, a fascinating group of women writers known as the conteuses, that captured my imagination. These tales were unlike the classic fairy tales I had read in which beautiful princesses and handsome princes marry and live happily ever after. Although love is the most important theme in tales by Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, baronne d’Aulnoy, Louise de Bossigny, comtesse d’Auneuil, Catherine Bernard, Catherine Durand (née Bédacier), Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, Marie-Jeanne Lhéritier de Villandon and Henriette-Julie de Castelnau, comtesse de Murat, their heroines experience love as an emotion that causes chaos, disappointment and disaster, as well as joy. And the more tales I read, the more I was struck by the nuance in the conteuses’ representation of love and the fact that their tales were not simple, didactic stories for children. I became fascinated by the way their tales developed a range of different perspectives on love and how this did not sit comfortably with the ‘love conquers all’ stereotype associated with the modern fairy-tale genre. My book, Love, Power, and Gender in Seventeenth-Century French Fairy Tales (University of Nebraska Press, 2020), and the PhD project that preceded it, reads the conversation about love in the conteuses’ tales as an important illustration of the nature of love as an emotion with a history that reflects the struggles and anxieties of the time in which it is felt and expressed.

The idealisation of love as the ultimate happy ending is a powerful cultural myth in the Western world. When I started working on the conteuses’ tales, I was surprised to find relatively little scholarship exploring the meaning of fairy-tale love. It was almost as if the cliché of fairy-tale love promoted by the wedding industry and countless films, television series and novels rendered questions about how fairy tales define love too obvious to ask. But deferring to the romantic cliché of love as the ultimate happy ending overlooks the significance of fairy-tale love as influential cultural scripts that reflect the power dynamics of the society in which they are expressed. In my book, I show how the conteuses’ tales develop a set of emotion scripts that provide insight into the gendered power dynamics of courtship and marriage in seventeenth-century France. In doing so, I draw on Barbara Rosenwein’s concept of emotional community and Monique Scheer’s theory of emotions as practices to explore how the conteuses’ tales reflect and contribute to early modern debate about the nature of love as an emotion with social, political, and gendered effects. This reading of the conteuses’ tales brings together history of emotions methodology and scholarship on women’s writing to analyse the conteuses as a literary emotional community engaged in a conversation about the effects of love on the lives of early modern women.

Between 1690 and 1709, the conteuses were the driving force behind the first French fairy-tale vogue. They produced two-thirds of a corpus of tales that inaugurated many of the conventional features of the modern fairy-tale genre, but their legacy has been overshadowed by better-known figure of Charles Perrault. The first part of my book aims to restore the conteuses to their rightful place in literary history by illustrating their role as an influential literary emotional community who drew on a shared vocabulary of emotion to critique the role of gender in shaping the experience of love. The second part uses three case studies to explore the connection between the conteuses’ scripts for love and contemporary debate about the social and moral codes of courtship and marriage. Each case study looks at a key moment in the conteuses’ conversations about love: first encounter, union, and endings.

Fairy tales are are often read as foundational myths providing universal truths about the human experience. But this is a superficial reading of the genre that overlooks the power of fairy tales to inspire belief in the possibility of change by showing us truths about who has power and who does not, and how those without power might negotiate the people and structures that restrict their choices. To the extent that the conteuses’ scripts for love reveal truths about love, those truths are historical and contingent. They illustrate the operation of gender politics in courtship and marriage in seventeenth-century France and compel revision of the ‘happily ever after’ narrative so often associated with the experience of love and the fairy-tale genre.

Dr Bronwyn Reddan is a Research Fellow at Deakin University. She completed a PhD in history at The University of Melbourne in 2016 and her publications include articles on gender and emotion in seventeenth-century French fairy tales. The research published in her book was supported by funding from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (project number CE110001011).

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