Like the return of the repressed, fairy tales come back to haunt us, especially during troubled times when ideological and institutional rationalism fosters anxiety and insecurity. Looking at the “New Release” section of any video- or bookstore, one cannot help but conclude that in our fin de siècle, all things marvelous thrive, from Ever After, Fairy Tale, new and revised productions of Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella or Midsummer Night’s Dream, to feminist, gay and lesbian rewritings of our childhood stories. Remembering the past but unsure of a future best symbolized by the Y2K syndrome, we dream of better times, of stories that we know and where all goes well that ends well.
Fairy tales are of course hardly new, and it is impossible to identify a unique origin of the oral tradition. Yet the birth of the written or literary fairy tale coincides with another fin de siècle informed by absolutism, by increased rationalism in the aftermath of Descartes, and by the insecurity generated by the onset of Enlightenment. Spinning fairy tales had been a very popular oral practice in French salons throughout the seventeenth century, but fairy tales only became a genre in the 1690’s, after Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy published the first literary example, “The Island of Happiness,” a tale embedded in her novel The History of Hypolite. “The Island of Happiness” was so popular that it was immediately translated into English as The History of Adolphus, Prince of Russia; And the Princess of Happiness (London, 1691). In the space of eight years, fifteen other known writers followed suit, eight male conteurs and seven female conteuses writing a total of 114 known tales. It is quite possible that many more were written but never published. The memory we have of this spectacular literary phenomenon is often limited to three titles, “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Sleeping Beauty,” and one name, that of their author, Charles Perrault (1628–1703).
In Fairy Tales, Sexuality and Gender in France, Lewis Seifert repairs three centuries of canonical favoritism and finally gives justice to the conteuses. Starting from the premise that “the ambivalence between nostalgic and utopian desires corresponds to the ambiguity or ambivalence between conservative notions of gender roles on the one hand and more or less unconventional gender roles on the other” (14), he explores “how this historically specific use of fantasy. . . wavers between romanticized past traditions and unacknowledged future possibilities.” Part I (chapters 1–3) deals with the period’s literary, cultural and more broadly ideological background of the period in order to contextualize our understanding of the fairy tales: the famous Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns that pitted Boileau against Perrault, the Quarrel of the Marvelous, the Querelle des femmes and debates on women’s education.
In the second part, Seifert analyzes how fairy tales’ conteurs and conteuses searched for love, demystified masculinity, and tried to imagine femininity. Seifert focuses on the representation of sexuality and gender differences ranging from “the most to the least traditional and acceptable” (221). Written at a moment of socio-cultural transition that recalls our own, the first fairy tales are caught between the desire...