No story was just a story, though. It was a suitcase stuffed with secrets.
One of the more enigmatic figures in the history of fairy tales is Dortchen Wild, the woman who told Wilhelm Grimm many of the most brutal tales he collected in Household Tales, and who later—much later—married him. In her novel The Wild Girl, Kate Forsyth pulls from history and fairy tale to try to reconstruct Dorchen’s life.
Most of the novel is told in a lengthy flashback, explaining exactly how lovers Dortchen and Wilhelm found themselves desperately in love but unable to be together as the novel started, in 1814—right after her father’s death, and shortly after Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm had published their first, scholarly edition of Household Tales. Forsyth’s answer can be more or less summed up by “money” and “trauma,” though, as in so many fairy tales, the answer is more complicated than this.
The Wild Girl is set against the background of the Napoleonic Wars—a time of transition, trauma and change. Dorchen Wild lives with her abusive father, sick and ineffectual mother, nearly as ineffectual brother Rudolf, and five sisters, three of whom—complainer Gretchen, free-spirited, musical Hanne and clever, devout Röse—stand out against the rather bland Lisette and Mia, oldest and youngest. They also have a servant, Old Marie. When Dorchen is twelve, they are relatively prosperous, thanks to their father’s work as a pharmacist, a skill that he is—mostly incidentally—training Dortchen to do, since someone needs to help farm and gather the herbs and plants of his trade.
Next door live the considerably less prosperous Grimms, financially struggling thanks to the premature death of their father, political connections to those opposing Napoleon, and, later, the drug addiction of a brother, who quietly steals household items and funds to feed his laudanum habit—a habit shared by Dorchen’s sick mother, and supplied by Dorchen’s father. Dorchen becomes friends with Lotte Grimm, and, at the age of twelve, meets Wilhelm Grimm for the first time (he’s been away, studying) and instantly falls in love.
This bit—having a crush on Wilhelm when she was just twelve—is taken from history; Dortchen confessed the crush in a letter to Lotte written at the time, which survives. But it also works within the book: Wilhelm is handsome, considerate, helpful, quotes poetry, and—once Dortchen is a bit older—rather good at making out. He has only three flaws: he fails to credit Dortchen properly in the first edition of Household Tales—although he does credit other women. He initially falls—in a casual sort of way—for Dortchen’s older, more age appropriate sister, and later comes rather close to having relationships with other women. And he has absolutely no money, a situation that does not improve for years, which means that he cannot marry Dortchen and remove her from her family, even as Dortchen’s home situation continues to deteriorate.
Dortchen’s father keeps strict rules, harshly punishing any who disobey, but particularly his three youngest daughters, and particularly Dortchen, someone her father wants to tame. After Dortchen falls out of a window trying to watch the French army marching into her town—an occasion she feels she must witness—her father savagely beats her, to the point where blood is rushing down her back, and she can still feel the pain after a dose of laudanum. It’s the first of many beatings she receives from Wild. Her sisters depart for marriage, one by one: the oldest three to suitors of their choosing, the fourth to an elderly man chosen by their father. The servant leaves. Dorchen’s brother, Rudolf, is conscripted into the French army and sent to Russia, where he sends back harrowing stories of the destruction of Moscow. Dortchen is left with no shield between her and her father—weak as those shields were even when they were there.
In an endnote, Forsyth explains that she was inspired to write The Wild Girl in part by comparing the two different versions recorded by the Grimms of All Kinds of Fur, a version of Donkey-Skin, a tale of incest and recovery. In the initial version, the difference between the incestuous king and the charming suitor is at best ambiguous, with some readers interpreting the tale to suggest that the princess marries her own father at the end. A later version clearly separates the incestuous king and the charming prince, providing an ambiguously clear and happy ending.
This was not the only story the Grimms severely edited in later versions, often to make the tales more acceptable to parents concerned about their children’s reading material, but the changes for this particular tale have led at least some scholars to speculate that someone in the Grimm household, perhaps Wilhelm Grimm, suffered abuse as a child. Forsyth suggests that this “someone” was Dortchen Wild, with Wilhelm editing the tale out of consideration for his wife—speculation that could explain both why the real life Dortchen and Wilhelm did not marry for years after their first meeting, and the violence and hints of the pain of daughters found in the tales that Dortchen told Wilhelm.
That speculation leads Forsyth to draw explicit parallels between many of the stories told by Dortchen and the tale she tells about Dortchen. Several of the stories are interwoven into the text, either as brief excerpts to introduce a chapter, or in dialogue, as tales told by Dortchen and others, or in some cases, as tales Dortchen compares to her own life. As presented, it’s a plausible theory. Though, also as presented, the theory that they simply waited until they had enough money to live comfortably, and until Dortchen’s family of young nieces and nephews were a bit older (her sister died young, leaving behind a young family and infant daughter), also seems plausible.
Forsyth also adds in other, less speculative, historical characters and events: the time when the Grimm brothers met the poet Ludwig Achim von Arnim and his wife, novelist Bettina von Arnim, (von Arnim was the source for some of the Grimms’ best known tales, including The Fisherman and his Wife, and Wilhelm Grimm would later write the introduction to von Arnim’s collected works); the other storytellers who added tales to the collection; Napoleon’s doomed invasion of Russia, no less traumatic for being told second hand; the various famines and deprivations caused by the war; and the spendthrift incompetence of Napoleon’s brother Jerome, turned King of Westphalia. It emphasizes the very real deprivations known to the tellers of Hansel and Gretel and other tales—middle class men and women who enjoyed comforts, but also knew what it was like to go without them and wonder where their next meal might come from, thanks to decisions made by other, more powerful people.
The story does falter a little towards the end, when it seems even Forsyth has problems understanding why Wilhelm and Dortchen—mostly Dortchen—continue to wait, and begins skipping over several years of their tale. Then again, those years lack the historical drama of the Napoleonic War, and the personal drama of desperately trying to get a beloved book published, reviewed and read when your potential audience is deeply distracted by more immediate political issues. (I feel a number of writers can deeply relate to that particular subplot in the book.)
This is not an easy book. Readers should be aware that The Wild Girl contains scenes of physical and sexual abuse that may be disturbing for some readers. The book also contains graphic descriptions of the effects of frostbite (after reading this, you will never, ever, ever want to fight a war in Russia in the winter, ever, ever again) and drug abuse. But it heavily features one of my all time fairy tales, The Singing, Springing Lark, fascinating bits of herbology and herbolism, and a deeply sympathetic protagonist. Readers of historical fiction, and those looking for an understanding of the underpinnings of the often dark tales collected by the Grimms, should find much to enjoy here.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.