The women who created the first fairytales were far more radical than the Brothers Grimm have led us to believe.
Performed and recited in literary salons, from 1697 the fairytales of D’Aulnoy, Comtesse Henriette-Julie de Murat, Mademoiselle L’Héritier and Madame Charlotte-Rose de la Force were gathered into collections and published.
D’Aulnoy and her peers used exaggeration, parody and references to other stories to unsettle the customs and conventions that constrained women’s freedom and agency.
The conteuses created the archetypes of our classic fairytale heroines: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel. They were bestselling writers in their day, their popularity continuing into the 18th century, circulated throughout all levels of society by publication in the Bibliothèque Bleue, a series of cheaply printed and readily affordable chapbooks.
In the 19th century, when the Brothers Grimm began their project of collecting and publishing folktales, they dismissed the conteuses as inauthentic, as not representative of the voices of the common volk. But the Grimms’ theory that fairytales had a linear relationship to folktales has been exposed by scholars as a nationalist – and masculinist, as the teller was usually an illiterate female – bias. A furphy.