Enchantment and Distrust: Marie-Jeanne L’Heritier’s The Discreet Princess

It perhaps says something that one of the most remarkable aspects of the life of Mademoiselle Marie-Jeanne L’Heritier de Villandon (1664-1734), at least on the surface, was just how unremarkable it was. While most of her fellow French salon writers of fairy tales and novels alike were busy conducting scandalous affairs, travelling throughout Europe, dabbling in intrigue, entering and escaping dire marriages, and finding themselves exiled from the court of the none-too-tolerant Louis XIV, and often Paris itself, L’Heritier lived a comparatively quiet and, apparently, chaste life—if one that still had a touch of magic.

The niece of fairy tale writer Charles Perrault, daughter of a historian, and sister of a poet, she met and befriended several fairy tale writers in the salons of Paris, and was inspired to write tales of her own. Her talent and erudition eventually earned her a patron, the wealthy Marie d’Orleans-Longueville, Duchess of Nemours, which eventually turned into a small annuity after the Duchess’ death. Equally important was a friendship with the formidable and controversial Madeleine de Scudery, these days renowned as the probable writer of Artamene ou le Grand Cyrus, one of the longest novels ever published, but at the time noted for her scholarship and fierce defense of women’s education. De Scudery not only befriended the considerably younger woman (De Scudery was born in 1607) but left the fairy tale writer her salon at her death in 1701.

This bequest may have been prompted in part by L’Heritier’s Oeuvres meslees, a fairy tale collection published during 1695-1698—the exact same time that her uncle Charles Perrault was publishing his best known tales (The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods in 1696, and Histories ou contes du temps passé, which included Sleeping Beauty again, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Puss in Boots).

Indeed, the timing later led some scholars to suspect that Charles Perrault was the actual author of at least some parts of Oeuvres meslees, including its best known fairy tale: The Discreet Princess, or the Adventures of Finette. The tales do contain some similarities: a rather arch tone, an insistence that they occurred, not in some distant fairy land, but in a very real part of Europe at some point in the past, and comments on the manners of their French contemporaries. But The Discreet Princess is not only longer and more intricate than most of Perrault’s tales, it also contains a rather unusual motif for him: a princess dropping a prince into a sewer.

Unusually enough for a fairy tale, “The Discreet Princess” is set in a very specific time period: the First Crusade (1095-1099), though admittedly this is less to make a point about the medieval and crusader periods, much less provide an accurate description of those times, and more to provide a convenient excuse for sending the king away for a few years—something that the tale only emphasizes by noting, just a few sentences later, that “people were quite simple during these happy times,” a description that would have startled most of the people involved in the First Crusade. About the only realistic part of this is that the one crusader in the story stays away on crusade for a number of years, fairly typical of many crusaders. Anyway.

The king, hearing about the Crusade, decides to go off to it, noting only one problem. No, not the cost of the crusade, or the potential issues with leaving his kingdom under the care of ministers, or even the ongoing conflicts that would be sparked by this and later crusades. No, he’s worried about his three daughters. Nonchalante is extremely lazy; Babillarde (often called “Babbler” in English translations) will not stop talking; and Finette, as befits the youngest of three fairy tale daughters, is practically perfect in every way, right down to discovering financial cheating by a king’s minister. (To repeat, oh king, why aren’t you worried about these ministers, who HAVE been caught attempting to screw you over?) Despite Finette’s cleverness and near perfection, and, as the tale will later reveal, a general fondness for her sisters, these are not, the king decides, girls that can be left behind on their own, so, worried about their honor, off he heads to a fairy for some help. The request presumably reflects L’Heritier’s Paris experiences, where nobles and others frequently requested assistance from more powerful patrons, but I couldn’t help thinking that just maybe the king should have listened to more fairy tales, with their pointed warnings that asking for help from a fairy often lands people in trouble.

The king asks the fairy for three glass distaffs that will magically break when and if any of his daughters lose their honor, which, look, king, I get that you feel your options are limited, but I gotta say: not exactly the most practical choice here. I mean, I get the nod to at least attempting to honor what was often seen as women’s work, but even I, in the post-industrial age, have seen plenty of women with distaffs, and you know what happens with pretty much all of them? That’s right: they fall on the ground. A lot. Making it more than likely that the princesses could be models of excellent deportment and honor and still shatter their distaffs. Though, that said, since distaffs are also generally wrapped with fiber, it’s equally possible that the princesses could end up doing something terribly dishonorable and yet find their distaffs left completely whole, protected by the fibers. SPOILER THAT DOESN’T ACTUALLY HAPPEN but it could, oh king, it could.

I should note at this point that by “honor” both the king and L’Heritier mean “virginity,” not “honesty” or “keeping promises” or “killing lots of Orcs” or “having Brutus explain that really, you are an honorable man” or “standing up for what’s right” or any of the sorts of things that we might associate with honor these days. This will be important.

Anyway, perhaps realizing that the glass distaffs are not exactly a foolproof solution, the king also decides to lock the three girls away in a tower, in an echo of the women sent to convents, not always willingly, that L’Heritier had known. Incidentally, at this point even the king admits that none of his daughters really done anything—other than Finette, who, as it turns out, has managed to infuriate a neighboring prince, Rich-Craft, by uncovering his attempt to deceive their kingdom in a treaty, something Finette’s father, with her agreement, responded to by deceiving Rich-Craft in return. The other two are guilty only of laziness and gossip, certainly nothing that would justify imprisonment. But honor is honor, so off the girls head to the tower to be locked up.

Naturally, the two eldest sisters soon become extremely bored, a common fate of princesses locked up in towers in a pre-Netflix age. Equally naturally, Rich-Craft, now out for revenge, decides to take advantage of this. Disguising himself as an old woman, he convinces Babillarde to let him up into the tower. Nonchalante goes along with this in a nonchalant sort of manner, and look, that’s L’Heritier’s pun, not mine, so I’m leaving it. It does not take him too long to shed the disguise and convince first Nonchalante, then Babillarde, to “marry” him (without the benefit of clergy, I should note). Their distaffs shatter. He then turns his attention to Finette, who responds by waving a hammer.

This would convince most men to back away, but not Rich-Craft, who particularly wants revenge on Finette. Thinking fast, Finette carefully makes a bed for “them” on top of a sink with a large drain leading directly to a sewer. She doesn’t get on the bed.

Rich-Craft does.

Getting dumped into a sewer does nothing to calm Rich-Craft’s temper. After a much needed bath and some time to recover from his wounds, he begins a battle with Finette—who, in the meantime, has fallen into a clinical depression because her sisters have lost their honor, like, Finette, you just dumped the guy who seduced them into a sewer. Cheer up. Plus, you have a lot of other things to focus on, like, getting kidnapped by Rich-Craft’s servants, pushing Rich-Craft into a barrel studded with nails and rolling him down a mountain, sealing your new little nephews into boxes (with air holes, I hasten to add, but still), and disguising yourself as a doctor so you can leave the boxes with Rich-Craft, claiming that the boxes have “medicine” instead of “babies” which you’d think the sounds coming from the boxes would have alerted nearby people to the difference, but maybe these were unusually quiet babies. Or very terrified babies, whichever. Oh, and welcoming your father home—whose response to all of this is to send his two oldest daughters off to the fairy, who sends them out to do some gardening, which kills them.

No, really. The Discreet Princess is mostly a warning about the dangers of losing your virginity to any guy who decides to enter your tower dressed as an old woman, but it’s also, I think, a bit of a jab about aristocrats, or at least French aristocrats, trained to do so little that even pulling weeds kills them. And, admittedly, a hint of the author’s lack of interest in either character, once their moral purpose has been met: they’re dispatched in two quick sentences.

Finette, you’ll be glad to know, ends up happily married to Rich-Craft’s brother, Bel-a-Voir, if not before some more Fun Stuff with a sheep’s bladder and some blood, which is all to say, if you’ve ever felt that your fairy tales just did not have enough seriously gross things like falling into sewers, sheep’s bladders, babies sealed into boxes, and blood, this is your kinda tale.

It’s also a tale that, for all of its seeming focus on the importance of virginity and honor, primarily focuses on the virtue of distrust. With the arguable exceptions of the king and the fairy and some barely-in-the-story fishermen, those who trust others—Nonchalante, Babillarde, Rich-Craft and Bel-a-Voir—all end up suffering greatly for the error of trusting someone’s word. Three end up dead; the last loses a brother and has an issue with that sheep’s bladder. The fairy sums everything up with her remark Distrust is the mother of security.

The tale also showcases the way seemingly proportional responses to conflict can escalate that conflict—in this case, going from a minor deception involving a treaty, to three dead people and one smushed sheep’s bladder and quite a lot of blood. Sure, part of the point here is “lying during treaty negotiations will not, in the long run, go well,” but I also can’t help but think that it is possible—just barely possible—that had Finette and the king responded to Rich-Craft’s initial attempt to deceive them over a treaty by, say, simply declining to sign the treaty, instead of deciding to trick him in return, Rich-Craft might not have decided to come after the three daughters in revenge.

In this, for all its happy ending, The Discreet Princess presents a decidedly bleak picture of court life: a life where women can be sent away and locked up on the mere suspicion that they might do something; a life where exposing issues in a treaty can later make you a political target; a life where someone else’s actions might make you a political target; a life where your children can be taken from you (by the good guys) and never seen again; a life where your mother might be killed by gardening. Quite a contrast from the court life presented by L’Heritier’s uncle, Charles Perrault, who found success in Louis XIV’s court at Versailles, and described court life as a place where even commoners like Cinderella and Puss-in-Boot’s human could succeed, if only they had the right manners, and, ok, yes, a fairy godmother or a talking cat.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the entire collection was dedicated to Henriette Julie de Castalnau, Countess of Murat (Madame de Murat) banished from Versailles in 1694 for writing political satires.

L’Heritier does not offer the options of fairy godmothers or talking cats. Instead, she warns readers to distrust everything, except for self-education. Finette’s sisters, who spent their time either in gossip or lazing about, end up dead. Finette, who studied diplomacy, reading, music and needlepoint, is able to keep herself focused and amused in the tower—and thus, able to withstand temptation, and survive. It’s a powerful argument for the education of women, though it’s a bit of a two-way sword: Finette becomes a target largely because that education and focus brings her into the political side of court life. On the other hand, her less educated sisters aren’t spared, becoming targets thanks in part to their family’s political manipulations—and end up dead. Finette survives.

I’m left with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the death sentences dealt out to Nonchalante and Babillarde seem overly harsh, to put it mildly. I can quite see that Nonchalante would have been a burden to her servants, but prior to getting locked up in a tower, Babillarde’s fondness for gossip hardly seems to have hurt anyone except herself, and even then, the real wrongdoer here is Rich-craft—who probably wouldn’t have succeeded had the princesses not been locked in a tower, away from everyone. Babillarde spends time searching for and helping her older sister, and all three of them appear to be genuinely fond of one another. And speaking as a person who has often succumbed to both, the idea that an affinity for laziness and gossip should result in death—well, my skin is crawling a bit over here.

Nor am I all that thrilled that for all of the punishment doled out to Nonchalante, Babillarde, Rich-Craft and Bel-a-Voir, that the other prime mover in all of this—the king—gets away with virtually no consequences whatsoever. Virtually—his two oldest daughters are dead—but this doesn’t seem to bother him very much. Otherwise, his reward for responding to deception with deception, locking his daughters away in a tower and then sending two of them off to their deaths, and marrying off his youngest daughter without consulting or even notifying her? Living happily ever after. Er.

And if you’re wondering what happened to those little babies in the boxes, well, I am too. About all I can tell you is that the boxes were opened. What happened afterwards? It’s a fairy tale, filled with unfairness. I can’t reassure you.

But I can say that for all of this, The Discreet Princess gives us a fairy tale princess who isn’t afraid to swing a hammer at a foe, drop unworthy princes into a sewer or push them into barrels studded with nails, dress up as a (male) doctor and trick unworthy patients, or use sheep’s bladders when necessary. Sure, she also nails babies up in boxes and leaves them with mostly strangers, and sure, she has a tendency to fall into major depressions more than once, but she can still swing that hammer, and warn us that princesses might need more than glass slippers to survive court politics. It’s something.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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