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Marvels & Tales 17.1 (2003) 161-164
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The Queen's Mirror: Fairy Tales by German Women, 1780-1900. Edited and translated by Shawn C. Jarvis and Jeannine Blackwell. European Women Writers Series. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. xii + 374 pp.
As a result of their centuries-long dominance of public awareness as well as their being the recurring object of scholarly effort and cinematic adaptation, the fairy tales of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm have functioned as models of what the fairy tale was thought to be. In the late twentieth century, however, this dominance began to fade (at least within scholarly circles) as an alternative fairy-tale literature gained attention. As a major impulse in this redefinition of focus, Jack Zipes's anthology, Beauties, Beasts and Enchantments: Classic French Fairy Tales (1989), offered new English translations of French literary fairy tales, written primarily by women who were contemporaneous with or subsequent to Perrault. By incorporating the word "classic" into his subtitle, Zipes acknowledges these women's contributions to the fairy-tale canon.
In their anthology, Bitter Healing: German Women Writers from 1700-1830 (1990), Jeannine Blackwell and Susanne Zantos point out that in the field of German literature in general, women authors have been [End Page 161] "more consistently excluded from the canon than in England, France, or the United States" (1-2). This exclusion affected the publication and translation of their fairy tales as well. As was the case with Perrault's tales in France, the succinct and economical narratives of the Brothers Grimm took center stage, resulting in the canonical exclusion of the more elaborate fairy tales written by German women.
The Queen's Mirror intervenes in this neglect by bringing to view, in English translation, a selection of the fairy tales produced by German women between 1784-1896. The intention of editors Jarvis and Blackwell is to present a historically-based survey that gives "background and resonance to today's feminist fairy tales while critically revising the notion of the female tale-teller" (4). The editors have done a praise-worthy job not only in selecting the individual tales, but also in contextualizing them, making them easily accessible to readers.
Each tale's headnote situates the author and thus the tale in terms of folkloric, literary, social, and/or political environments. For example, two of the women included in the anthology contributed tales to the Brothers Grimm. Far from today's popular stereotype of the brothers' informants as illiterate peasants, Ludovica Brentano Jordis was related to prominent literary figures Bettina Jordis, Clemens Brentano, and Sophie von la Roche, the latter the first widely-acknowledged German woman novelist. The family of the second Grimms' contributor, Anna von Haxthausen, was notable as part of the landed aristocracy of north-central Germany. As märchen, Jordis's and von Haxthausen's narratives situate the other tales as intentionally artistic productions. However, the fact that Jordis and von Haxthausen had lives of relative privilege raises the issue (for class discussion, for example) that the Grimms believed the folk spirit resided not in their informants, but in the tales themselves.
Many of the women included lived distinguished lives, circulating in the "Weimar court, German Romantic circles, children's educational establishments, the literary salon, the Kindergarten movement, and the women's emancipation movement" (1). A typical representative is Fanny Lewald, an important member of Berlin's salon culture, a prolific author, and "one of the most important voices of German-Jewish women in nineteenth-century Germany" (183). Her involvement in the literary and political movement "Young Germany," with its criticism of arranged marriages, and of the social, educational, and legal situation of women (interestingly, topics that concerned the French women authors of fairy tales in the late 1600s) is reflected in her story, "A Modern Fairy Tale" (1841). This piece addresses the superficiality of the "marriage market" for young women at the time. Atypical of the women included because of her especially high rank, [End Page 162] German-born Catherine the Great of Russia produced...