Today is the birthday of Charles Perrault who was born in Paris on this day in 1628. Perrault trained as a lawyer, became a tax collector, then finance minister and wound up being in charge of some of the building works at the palace of Versailles for King Louis XIV. When the king was having a labyrinth (a hedge maze) built in the gardens, Perrault suggested adding fountains on the theme of Aesop’s fables. It was a grand scheme that was completed between 1672 and 1677. There were thirty-nine fountains made up from three hundred and thirty three animals. To carry the water three quarters of a mile from the Seine required fourteen waterwheels and two hundred and fifty three pumps. All this was intended for the education of the king’s son. Each fountain bore a plaque on which the relevant fable was printed, in verse. It was from these that the young Dauphin learned to read. The labyrinth was not only a hit with the royal family but also anyone else who was allowed to see it. In 1675 Perrault published a very popular guide: ‘Labyrinte de Versailles’ that was reprinted many times.
It’s really what Perrault did after he (rather against his will) retired that made him famous though. In 1695 he published a book called ‘Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé’, Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals, which all sounds a bit dull. But the book was a collection of fairy tales, re-told for, what was then, a modern audience. It is on his stories that most modern versions of Sleeping Beauty, of Cinderella, of Puss in Boots are based.
Prior to the seventeenth century, the French aristocracy thought of Fairy Tales as just a bit of vulgar nonsense that belonged to the peasant classes. They still knew the stories though because their nurses had told them when they were small. But then salons started to spring up in Paris, they were places where people could meet an discuss whatever they wanted, away from the formal setting of court. Also in Paris were many disaffected upper class women who were denied a university education and could expect to sold in marriage to the highest bidder. They had no real control over their own lives. A salon was a place where both women and men could come together, talk about art or anything they wanted really. They were often run by women and what they really aimed for was for women to be treated as the intellectual equals of men.
It was a laudable aim, but they had fun too. It became very fashionable to take traditional folk tales and re-tell them in a new and exciting way that demonstrated their verbal dexterity and imagination. In much the same way that the Brothers Grimm wanted to make their tales about ordinary, but heroic German people, the stories told in the salons were aimed at an aristocratic audience. They were peopled with kings and queens. Even the lowliest shepherd might secretly be a prince. Perrault was really only part of a movement to revive and retell these stories but his work is now the best remembered.
Perrault’s stories start with Once upon a time… and generally and with ‘…happily ever after. He is often derided in modern times for writing his princesses as rather insipid characters and I wish I could defend him, but it seems to be true. It’s odd when you think he must have spent so much time hanging out in salons with strong independent women. Also, as you can tell by the title of his book, he’s rather fond of adding a moral at the end. Little Red Riding Hood – young ladies should beware of strangers. Sleeping Beauty – don’t hurry to get married. Bluebeard – curiosity is a bad thing.
Many of the other writers of fairy tales from this time were women. One was his own niece Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier who wrote a fine story about a princess who sees off the unwanted attentions of a prince by threatening to crack his skull with a hammer, in a story called ‘The Discreet Princess’. We also have the opportunity in the works of Perrault to compare two versions of the same story. One by him and one by a woman called Catherine Bernard published in 1696. The story is called ‘Riquet à la Houppe’ Ricky with the tuft. Perrualt’s tale is about an ugly prince called Riquet who falls in love with a beautiful but stupid princess. He is able, because of a fairy, to bestow on her the gift of intelligence but in return she must promise to marry him in exactly one year. The princess agrees but forgets about her promise until the day before their wedding, when she meets him again. She tries to use her cleverness to get out of the bargain but Riquet tells her that the same fairy who visited him gave her a gift too. That if she will only agree to love him, he will become handsome. She agrees and he is transformed. Perrault suggests at the end that he was not really transformed except in the eyes of the princess when she agreed to love him. The moral is that ‘everything is beautiful in the one we love’.
Now let’s look at that story again told by a woman who is searching for a life as a writer, independent of a husband. In Catherine’s story there is no uplifting moral and no happily ever after. A lovely, but stupid princess meets an ugly bossy gnome called Riquet who is king of an underground gnome kingdom. He gives her a spell to make her intelligent then tells her that she must marry him in one year. The princess goes away and falls in love with someone else. At the end of a year, she doesn’t want to marry the gnome. He gives her a choice. She can marry him and stay clever, or go back to her father but be stupid again. She chooses to marry the gnome rather than give up her intelligence. She hates him and is very unhappy, but then she uses her cleverness to sneak her secret lover into the gnome’s kingdom. But the gnome finds out about it. As a punishment he turns her lover into a person who looks exactly like him. Now the princess has to live with two ugly gnomes One that she loves and one that she hates and she never knows which is which. Catherine’s story ends with a warning: “In the end, lovers turn into husbands anyway.”