France’s fairytale queen: Who was Madame d’Aulnoy?

PUBLISHED: 13:49 21 January 2021 | UPDATED: 14:25 21 January 2021

Madame d'Aulnoy; Honfleur, Normandy. Pic: dvoevnore/Getty

Madame d'Aulnoy; Honfleur, Normandy. Pic: dvoevnore/Getty

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Once upon a time, this 17th-century author invented the term ‘fairy stories’ and was a pioneer of the genre

The fairytale author Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy is one of 21 historic figures from Normandy who have been honoured in the Garden of Personalities in Honfleur. The mysterious stone bust of an enigmatic figure shrouded in ivy feels like an apt tribute to the French woman who brought us the classic fairy tale.

But who was this motherly figure who now stands alongside such greats as the artist Claude Monet, navigator Binot Paulmier de Gonnevill, French statesman Jean-Baptiste Colbert and King Charles V le Sage?

A quick introduction

Princess Belle Etoile, one of Madame d'Aulnoy's stories. Pic: WikimediaPrincess Belle Etoile, one of Madame d'Aulnoy's stories. Pic: Wikimedia

A daughter of the Normandy town of Barneville-la-Bertran, it is believed d’Aulnoy, born in 1652, was one of the first to coin the phrase contes de fées (‘fairy tale’ or ‘fairy story’). She wrote a number of fairy stories which were published in her collections Les Contes de Fées (1697) and Contes Nouveaux ou Les Fées à la Mode (New Tales, or Fairies in Fashion, 1698). After Charles Perrault, she is regarded as the most famous French writer of fairy stories. You may be familiar with the Bee and the Orange Tree, The White Cat, The Elf Prince and The Blue Bird?

D’Aulnoy’s first fairy tale to be published was ‘The Island of Bliss’, which was incorporated into her novel History of Hippolyte, Count of Douglas (1690). Though written in the style of those by Charles Perrault, d’Aulnoy’s fairy stories are shot through with sardonic wit and commentary, long-winded digressions, and some have unsatisfactory or unhappy endings. Her tales also often feature a powerful and active heroine.

Early life

Madame d'Aulnoy's bust in Honfleur. Pic: Kamel15/WikimediaMadame d'Aulnoy's bust in Honfleur. Pic: Kamel15/Wikimedia

A member of the family of Jumel de Barneville, at age 13 d’Aulnoy was forced by her father into an arranged marriage with Baron d’Aulnoy, a member of the household of the Duke of Vendôme (and some 30 years her senior). The Baron was a reputed gambler and allegedly was abusive to his bride, while Mme d’Aulnoy – who had four children before she turned 18 – reportedly carried on liaisons with various suitors during the stormy match.

In 1669, two men who might have been romantically involved with Mme d’Aulnoy and her mother (who was by this time the Marchioness de Gadagne), in an alleged scheme to denounce the Baron accused him of treason for his criticism of taxation imposed by King Louis XIV. The Baron was imprisoned for three years in the Bastille, but was exonerated and his accusers were executed. Mme d’Aulnoy and her mother were implicated in the plot, and a warrant was issued for their arrest. When officers came to seize her she slipped out through a window and hid in a church. Her mother escaped to England.

A fugitive or spy?

During this period of intrigue, d’Aulnoy possibly fled from France and spent a number of years in Holland, Spain and England, perhaps working as a spy for King Louis XIV. She returned to Paris in 1685, a move which she might have been granted permission for due to her services rendered to France. At her home in rue Saint-Benoît, d’Aulnoy established a literary salon which was attended by royals and aristocrats. A regular visitor was the poet Saint-Evremond, a close friend of d’Aulnoy’s.

D’Aulnoy was again drawn into a controversy when her friend, Angélique-Nicole Ticquet, was beheaded in 1699 for her involvement in a plot against her husband. Though d’Aulnoy was suspected of having played a role in the scheme, she avoided prosecution and removed herself from Paris’ high society.

Folklores and legends

When it comes to her literary output, besides fairy stories d’Aulnoy wrote historical novels and travel memoirs. Though her travel memoirs describing her supposed experiences of court life in London and Madrid were regarded as fictionalised and contain plagiarised extracts, they became some of her most popular works.

In d’Aulnoy’s time, fairy stories and tales of the marvellous were popular with adults as well as children. As the Oxford University Press blog noted, ‘In late seventeenth-century France the fairy tale became a “legitimate” genre of literature for the educated (adult) classes to read.’ D’Aulnoy’s fairy stories had sophisticated aspects for adult readers, such as allegorically and satirically reflecting the goings on in the court of Louis XIV.

D’Aulnoy based her fairy stories on and used elements from traditional folktales and legends (her tale ‘Cunning Cinders’ for example uses components from ‘Cinderella’), but shaped them so that their characters and events related to then-current affairs and situations. Most of d’Aulnoy’s stories are set either primarily in a fairy world, or in a familiar medieval period into which a supernatural world intrudes. Themes of enchantment, magic and metamorphosis recur throughout the tales.

Madame d’Aulnoy died in Paris on 13 January, 1705 but her bust was placed near her childhood home and is well worth a visit next time you’re in Honfleur.

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