The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

July 7, 2015 § 1 Comment

Despite their responsibility for some of the most fantastic and, in some cases, romantic fairy tales in the western world, one doesn’t usually think of the Brothers Grimm themselves as dashing figures. Sickly and studious, both brothers have more of a reputation for their industriousness than their ability to make hearts melt.

wildgirl_forsythBut in Kate Forsyth’s new novel, The Wild Girl, younger brother Wilhelm is given the full romantic hero treatment, and a viscerally imagined love story between him and his eventual wife Dortchen Wild emerges.

Inspired by Valerie Paradiz’s 2005 book Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales, Forsyth paints a portrait of young Dortchen Wild, one of five sisters who lived next door to the Grimms when they began collecting stories for their soon-to-be famous collection. As a girl, Dortchen becomes smitten with Wilhelm and contributes many tales to their growing collection. The novel follows their relationship over the span of twenty years; the two did not marry until Wilhelm was 39 and Dortchen 31, an old maid by 1825 standards, and in The Wild Girl, Forsyth offers a possible explanation as to why.

If you’re a scholar of fairy tales or even just a voracious reader of them, you’re likely familiar with Bruno Bettleheim’s Freud-inspired book The Uses of Enchantment, which examines fairy tales’ usefulness in understanding child psychology and proposes that fairy tales can be a balm to children who have experienced trauma of one kind or another. Maria Tatar and Jack Zipes have also written about the themes of abandonment and abuse that run rampant through fairy tales, and it’s even been suggested that the Grimms may have been subject to such abuse themselves.

You see, despite the common use of the term “fairy tale” as meaning something lighthearted and idealistic, fairy tales and trauma have always gone hand-in-hand. After all, as I’ve written in the past, we can read “Cinderella” as a “happily-ever-after” love story between a maiden and a nameless prince, or we can read it as a tale of a seemingly powerless girl overcoming trauma and finding a way out of an abusive situation through magical help. Inspired by this link between fairy tales and trauma, Forsyth took a closer look at the tales told to the Grimms by Dortchen Wild, such as “All-Kinds-of-Fur” and “Sweetheart Roland”, and perceived a narrative of victimization hiding in those stories. Thus, in The Wild Girl, Dortchen is both a teller of beautiful tales and a victim of unspeakable abuse at the hands of her strict and menacing father. Traumatized and ashamed, she pushes Wilhelm away, and it is not until she is able to come to terms with her ordeal, many years later, that she can finally allow Wilhelm and his stories to help heal her. This “untold story” behind some of the Grimms’ most beautiful tales may not be entirely factual, but Forsyth’s tale of love and trauma does present a plausible explanation for the long length of Wilhelm and Dortchen’s relationship before marriage, and it also delicately exposes the darker themes that color the roots of many of the Grimms’ fairy tales.

While I had a little trouble imagining sickly Wilhelm Grimm and swooning the way young Dortchen does throughout the first half of The Wild Girl, I found Forsyth’s treatment of Dortchen’s victimization and its long-term effects very powerful. Her devastating home life, pitched against the poverty and danger of Napoleon’s war with Russia, is the beating heart of this historical romance. Dortchen and Wilhelm’s love story is sure to appeal to the targeted YA crowd, but I would wager that adult readers and fairy tale enthusiasts will also enjoy curling up with this well-researched and vividly imagined novel.

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