Madame d'Aulnoy - a fairytale life?

15 January 2021

Cultural Studies | History | Literature

This blog includes temporary free access to "Fawn in the Wood / 1882" from the Adam Matthew resource Children’s Literature and Culture. Click here or on the image of the text below to view this document for free until 14th February 2021.

Children’s Literature and Culture, which launched last year, is packed with wonderful adventures and fantastical stories. Surprisingly, though, some of the most captivating and colourful narratives come not from the books, but from the lives of the authors who wrote them: a quick look through the Biographies feature reveals at least two authors who possibly worked as secret agents. Today I would like to look at one of my favourite authors from Children’s Literature and Culture, the pioneering fairy-tale writer Marie-Catherine le Jumel de Barneville, commonly known as Madame d’Aulnoy. d’Aulnoy first enchanted our Editorial department with the enigmatic ‘wicked Crab-Fairy’ from The Fawn in the Wood. Published by the McLoughlin brothers, this volume is accompanied by stunning illustrations from Walter Crane.

Fawn in the Wood / 1882, 1882, Content compilation (c) 2020, by the American Antiquarian Society. All rights reserved. Click to view this item free for 30 days.

The Fawn in the Wood tells the story of a princess cursed by the ‘wicked Crab-Fairy’ to turn into a doe in the light of day. The princess is kept indoors by her controlling parents until, travelling to meet a foreign prince, she is betrayed by her lady-in-waiting and released into the daylight. Transformed into a fawn, she hides in the forest until discovered by her prince. d’Aulnoy uses this narrative to subvert the restrictive climate of Louis XIV’s court. Further, by using metamorphosis to free the princess from these constraints, d’Aulnoy explores her sexual awakening. Such themes are typical of d’Aulnoy’s fairy tales and hint at their origins in the salons of 17th century Paris.

Fawn in the Wood / 1882, 1882, Content compilation (c) 2020, by the American Antiquarian Society. All rights reserved. Click to view this item free for 30 days.

Born in Normandy around 1650, d’Aulnoy was married at a young age to a local aristocrat, the Baron d’Aulnoy. He was much older than her, and a notorious gambler. It would be fair to say that this marriage was unsuccessful: Marie-Catherine conspired to have him arrested and accused of treason. When this plot was exposed, she was forced to flee the country.

The next years of her life were apparently spent touring Spain and England. Her travel memoirs from this time recount adventures such as a narrow escape from a flash flood while travelling south from France. Modern critics, however, have questioned whether these travels even happened, pointing out that many details are borrowed from other sources. Most spurious are her claims that she spent these years working as a spy to curry favour with Louis XIV.

Once the scandal from her marriage had died down, d’Aulnoy returned to Paris, where she established a literary salon at her home on the rue Saint-Benoît. Such salons, which first emerged in the early 17th century, acted as a means for disaffected aristocratic women to create a feminocentric discourse and challenge the traditional values which associated womanhood with compulsory family duty. This context was crucial in informing d’Aulnoy’s style as she became France’s foremost fairy-tale author.

Fairy Tales / 1855, 1855, Content compilation (c) 2020, by the American Antiquarian Society. All rights reserved.

These fairy-tales emerged out of a game played at the salon, le gage touché, wherein the participants would compete to see who could craft the best story. Many salonnières began to incorporate folktales into these narratives, which they used to discreetly subvert the ideology of Louis XIV’s court. At first, such stories were considered a frivolous parlour game; d’Aulnoy cemented their position as a valid literary genre with her transformative novel, Histoire d'Hippolyte, comte de Duglas (1690), which featured a character telling a story evocative of the salon fairy-tales. Through the framing of this interpolated story, d’Aulnoy encouraged her audience to use this new literary genre to explore their identity and take greater control of their lives.

d’Aulnoy was implicated in one final scandal in 1699, when her friend Angélique-Nicole Tiquet was executed for the attempted murder of her husband. Subsequently, d’Aulnoy withdrew from public life until her death in 1705.

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About the Author

Alex Barr

Alex Barr

I formally joined Adam Matthew’s editorial team in November 2019 after completing a three-month internship. Since then, I have had the opportunity to work on a number of exciting projects, including ‘Sex and Sexuality’ and 'Early Modern England'. My personal interests lie in classical literature and history.