Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beauty…I’ve known all of these stories since my childhood, but I’ve never really thought about where they came from. Yes, they all appeared in my big book of Grimms’ Fairy Tales but how exactly did the Brothers Grimm come up with all these wonderful stories? What was their inspiration? Kate Forsyth’s new novel, The Wild Girl, shows us how Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm spent years collecting and writing down old tales told to them by their friends and neighbours. One of these friends was Dortchen Wild, a young woman who grows up next door to the Grimm family in the small German kingdom of Hessen-Cassel. The Wild Girl is Dortchen’s story.
Dortchen is one of six daughters of an apothecary and his wife, described on the back cover as “the pretty one (Gretchen), the musical one (Hanne), the clever one (Rose), the helpful one (Lisette), the young one (Mia) and the wild one (Dortchen)”. As there are six sisters to get to know – and a brother, Rudolf – giving each of them one or two strong characteristics made it easy to remember which was which, even if it meant that not all of them felt as well-rounded as Dortchen. The Grimms are also a large family but in a worse position than the Wilds financially, as Frau Grimm is a widow and with the Napoleonic Wars raging throughout Europe, her sons are struggling to find work. Dortchen has been in love with Wilhelm Grimm from the age of twelve, but knows that her father will never allow them to marry – partly because of Wilhelm’s poverty but also because he just doesn’t seem to want Dortchen to have any happiness in her life.
As I read The Wild Girl I was desperately hoping for Dortchen and Wilhelm to get the happy ending they deserved, but I don’t want to give the impression that this is just a romance novel, because it’s not. Another thing that I loved was the historical setting – I’ve never read about the Napoleonic Wars from a German perspective before and Kate Forsyth has helped me to understand what it was like for the people of Hessen-Cassel as they were invaded first by the French then by the Russians. The violence of the war and the horrors experienced by the soldiers are described in vivid detail – sometimes a bit too vivid for me! There are also lots of lovely descriptions of cobbled streets lit by lanterns, medieval market squares and dark forests, as well as of Dortchen’s work in her father’s apothecary shop, gathering plants and herbs and preparing medicines.
This is quite a dark book and what makes it particularly disturbing is the depiction of Dortchen’s suffering at the hands of her abusive father, Herr Wild. As the novel progresses and he becomes more and more violent and cruel, it’s sad to see how Dortchen, who begins the book as “the wild one”, has her spirit crushed and her confidence destroyed. The darkness of the novel means that we can look forward to the fairy tales as a way to escape, even if only briefly, from the harsh realities of the world being described. The fairy tales are cleverly woven into the novel at relevant points so that they feel like an important part of Dortchen’s story rather than being randomly included just for the sake of it. I found that some of the tales told by Dortchen and other characters could easily be identified as the stories we all know and love; others were new to me but had several elements that felt familiar. While the brothers’ original aim was to try to preserve the old stories that had been passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, they were eventually forced to edit their tales to make them more suitable for children and easier to market to the public.
Finally, I think the publishers, Allison & Busby, deserve a word of praise for the way this book has been presented. The hardback edition was a pleasure to read with that pretty blue cover!
This post is part of the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. I’m the last stop on the tour, but if you’d like to read more about The Wild Girl you can find a list of previous reviews and interviews here.