Madame d'Aulnoy—the Mother of Fairy Tales?

Updated on May 25, 2020
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Tolovaj is a small publishing house that specializes in children's literature. We especially love to explore fairy tales.

Portrait of Countess d'Aulnoy, old engraving, colored in 19th century
Portrait of Countess d'Aulnoy, old engraving, colored in 19th century

Unclear Biography

Madame d'Aulnoy's date of birth is unknown. She was born as Marie-Catherine Le Jumel in Barneville-la-Bertrand, to one of the oldest and most respected families of Normandy, around 1650. Her mother was about 16 years old.

Being the only child, she was raised by her grandmother as an heiress. When—at about 11 or 12—she had a baby brother, her parents switched to plan B: they sent her to a nunnery. In those days, nobility didn't spend too much precious time with their own children.

Marie-Catherine wasn't happy about the idea, so she persuaded her father to find her a husband. At about 15 years of age, she married Baron d'Aulnoy. He was a heavy drinker, gambler and abuser. He also had financial difficulties and was at least three decades older than his bride.

The young Baroness gave birth to three girls (two died soon after birth) in the first three years of her arranged marriage. She had at least one lover. With the help of her mother and two gentlemen, she entered into a conspiracy against her husband. He was subsequently accused of treason. Baron d'Aulnoy was cleared of accusations and both false witnesses were executed. Madame d'Aulnoy had to flee Paris.

Princess Belle-Etoile, picture by Walter Crane
Princess Belle-Etoile, picture by Walter Crane

We can only speculate what happened to her in the next few decades. She probably spent some time traveling. There is a possibility that she lived for several years in Spain and England. There are even rumors she became an international spy, but we have no hard evidence to rely on.

The story about espionage is pretty believable because she was in disgrace for many years but eventually returned to France and immediately became one of the stars of salons. There's no need to repeat the well-known fact that fairy tales were born exactly there.

Blue Bird, picture by Clinton Peters
Blue Bird, picture by Clinton Peters

While d'Aulnoy's memoirs mention another (illegitimate) daughter, a son, a new husband, and several lovers (another widely accepted practice of the time), it is very hard to say what really happened. Facts in her writings are always fused with imagination. In general, it is believed she was survived by four daughters.

She was also involved in another conspiracy, resulting in the beheading of her friend Madam Angelique Tiquet, who was convicted for plotting the murder of her husband. Again, it's unclear what exactly was the role of d'Aulnoy.

Because her brother died young, Marie-Catherine inherited a fortune after all. We know for sure she lived in Paris from 1690 to 1701, when she died.

Mme d'Aulnoy's Works

Memoirs from Spain and England brought immediate fame to Countess d'Aulnoy, as she signed her literary works. They were written in the fashion of the time. This means a lot of lively descriptions of exotic places and rituals without too much bothering with the facts.

Her memoirs have many elements of novels with long, imaginary passages. There are even fairy tales inserted in the basic frame of narration. The first fairy tale written by Madame d'Aulnoy ("The Island of Happiness") was published in 1690, a year before Charles Perrault's Tales of Mother Goose. Her first collection was published only a few months after Perrault's.

If we can say Perrault is the father of fairy tale as a literary genre, then she is the one who coined the term 'fairy tales' (French: 'contes de fées', which actually means 'tales of fairies'). Thanks to the huge influence of her salon, she can be credited as the mother of the genre. Her fairy tales were obviously influenced by folklore, with a dominant theme of animal brides or bridegrooms. She was probably introduced to them by Straparola's The Facetious Nights and Basile's Pentamerone, not from oral tradition.

None of Madame d'Aulnoy's works were written for children. They were actually all penned as romantic novels, sometimes formed as travelogues, often with fantastical elements, and always in a conversational tone with a live audience in mind.

White Doe in the Wood, picture by Brinsley Le Fanu
White Doe in the Wood, picture by Brinsley Le Fanu

Historical Context of d'Aulnoy's Fairy Tales

Despite the fact that her works were internationally popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, all of them are nearly forgotten today for at least three reasons:

  1. Fairy tales became popular material for collectors (the brothers Grimm being the most famous of all) who presented them as a part of the cultural heritage of certain nations, in times when nations were not yet fully formed. These collections were written by scholars who wanted facts, not imagination.
  2. The genre entered mass production during the 19th century. As with any business, this was a world of power, dominance and competition. In short, a world for men. Yet, d'Aulnoy's fairy tales were still printed then. With the rising demand of educating messages (like those of one of her literary successors, Madam Le Prince de Beaumont), they slowly vanished from the bookshelves.
  3. The narrative style of d'Aulnoy fell out of favor. When the audience expanded to include lower classes with less free time, readers started to prefer more 'to the point' written stories. Her fairy stories are pretty lengthy (from 12 to 44 printed pages each), and her narration lacked the dramatic suspense we are still used to today.

While the fairy tales of Madame d'Aulnoy will probably never gain global popularity again, they represent an important milestone in the development of genre and literature in general. They are full of emotion and with many complex powerful female characters. She deserves a place right next to another master of storytelling: Hans Christian Andersen.

Princess Belle Etoile, picture by Walter Crane
Princess Belle Etoile, picture by Walter Crane

Are you familiar with any of Catherine d'Aulnoy's fairy tales?

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© 2020 Tolovaj Publishing House

What is your favorite fairy tale by Madame d'Aulnoy?

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    • TolovajWordsmith profile imageAUTHOR

      Tolovaj Publishing House 

      5 weeks ago from Ljubljana

      Thank you, Marie Flint. The pleasure was all mine:)

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 

      5 weeks ago from Jacksonville, FL USA

      When I saw the word "fairy tales" in the title, I had to read this. I was not disappointed.

      Thank you for sharing this virtually forgotten, yet very impressive woman.

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