In the next few posts about French Fairy Tales, I’ll be writing a bit about some of the classic French fairytale-tellers who either wrote down, in their own words, stories they collected from anonymous folk sources; or who created new literary fairy tales using some elements borrowed from older stories.
France has had a long history of the writing-down of fairy tales: from at least the late seventeenth century onwards, French writers have interested themselves in le conte de fées, taking it from its origins in folklore and anonymous storytellers, and transforming it in the process into a huge literary phenomenon. In later posts I will write about some of the individual original writers of the tales I’ve retold, but in this post I want to briefly introduce an extraordinary late eighteenth-century series of books which collected together hundreds of these literary fairy tales from the previous 100 years as well as providing potted biographies of all their writers (more than forty in all). I’m speaking here about Le Cabinet des fées, which was compiled in 41 volumes by writer and editor Charles-Joseph Mayer (1751-1825), and published between 1785 and 1789. It is a hugely important series as it not only helped to preserve many of the classic tales abut also spark continued interest in them not only in France but across the world, in the process inspiring many other collectors and writers of fairy tales well into the ninteenth century and beyond.
I am fortunate enough to own one of the volumes from Le cabinet–volume 37, which is the one contained the potted biographies of the writers. It’s in an edition from 1786 which is pretty battered but whose pages are still eminently readable. It was one of my sources for details about three writers: Charles Perrault, Madame Leprince de Beaumont and Madame de Villeneuve, who
I will write about in a later post.
The style in these potted biographies is quite discursive and personal, and it’s fascinating to leaf through the book and read about all these many writers who formed part of such an important literary movement whose influence continues to this day. And one of the things that struck me as I did that was how many of those writers were women; this was a literary movement in which female writers could enjoy as much attention and inspire as many followers as male writers. And they could do so openly, under their own names, not under male pseudonyms.