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Friday Fun: Madame d’ Aulnoy, the Godmother of Fairy Tales

Happy Friday readers and welcome to the end of the week! We hope you’ve been kind to yourselves this week and that you find the time to take a breath and find a moment of mental peace for yourselves during these stressful times. Today we are getting our word nerd on and delving into the past to talk about the very boss and totally B.A. Godmother of Fairy Tales: Madame d’ Aulnoy.

The Modern Fairy Tale

What is a fairy tale? According the mighty Google the most straightforward definition is:

A children's story about magical and imaginary beings and lands.”

Today’s fairy tales take on a few different connotations compared to their origins. We’ve coined phrases like ‘fairy tale ending’ and ‘fairy tale romance’ to denote fantastically over the top scenarios and happy endings. We think of fairy tales as tales of wonder and magic. Thanks to modern entertainment factories like Disney, original fairy tales were watered down, until their cheerful, whimsical examples became the new normal.

In reality fairy tales were messed up. Fairy tales had their roots in oral tradition and folklore. Many contained dark elements and cautionary anecdotes as they were stories about morality and what happened to ‘people behaving badly’. Sure, Cinderella got her prince, meanwhile her stepsisters cut off parts of their feet and had their eyes pecked out by birds, but that part was edited out of the Disney version.

However, Madame d’ Aulnoy’s fairy tales were also ahead of her time.

The Baroness

Born in the 1600’s, Marie Catherine d’ Aulnoy was married off at fifteen to a man three decades her senior in an abusive marriage. At a time where women were locked in a punishing patriarchy that forbade them from working/ inheriting money in their own name or marrying for love, Marie Catherine rebelled through writing.

"She subversively wrote against some of the cultural norms for women at the time. She was incredible." - Melissa Ashley, author of The Bee and the Orange Tree.

Madame d’ Aulnoy penned her stories during the initial golden age of fairy tales, a contemporary of Perrault though her stories were published in 1690, a full seven years before Perrault’s Tales of Mother Goose collection. It was d’Aulnoy who actually coined the term ‘Fairy Tale’, conte de fée, and wrote the very first one with ‘The Isle of Happiness’.

In the Madame’s fairy tales, the female characters were completely independent. They resisted arranged marriages, they were intelligent, had their own agency, resourceful, and made changes to their own lives. The characters in the Madame’s fairy tales played out everything that was denied to women at the time. Her stories were a critique of the establishment, a huge risk when writing any sort of royal censer could earn you jail time or worse. So how did the Madame get away with it?

The Legend

Madame d’ Aulnoy’s stories were subversive and rich in detail. She wrote her messages under the very noses of the patriarchy she opposed using whimsy and magic to disguise her ideas. She even offered the Prince Charming prototype in the idea of women choosing who they married.

Decades after her death, Madame d’ Aulnoy’s legacy was nearly lost and discredited when the Grimm’s Brothers published their fairy tales. Now, thanks to the efforts of scholars to resurrect the story of her life and her work, we have a chance to re-familiarize ourselves with the stories of a woman who dedicated her life to fighting for independence.

If you wish to read more about Marie Catherine d’ Aulnoy’s remarkable life, the fictionalized account of her story was written by Melissa Ashley in The Bee & the Orange Tree.

Resources & Further Reading

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