Elizabeth Wanning Harries,Twice Upon a Time: Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale (Princeton Paperbacks, 2001)

In this accessible academic study, Harries, a professor at Smith College, sets out to reintroduce 21st century readers to a "lost" fairy tale tradition — the rich, complex stories written by 17th century French women, or conteuses (French for female story tellers). These women, aristocratic habituées of the literary salons of the time, have been largely overlooked by history and readers alike, and their stories omitted from the traditional (largely male-authored) fairy tale "canon." Few well-read fans of fairy tales who are familiar with the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson and Charles Perrault have also heard of (let alone read) d'Aulnoy, Murat or L' Héritier (Perrault's niece). Harries seeks to reclaim their role and re-establish their significance by shaking up a few commonly held beliefs about fairy tales.

The first three chapters of the book focus on those commonly held beliefs — that fairy tales stem from oral traditions, they are simple and compact, and they're intended for children. Harries posits that there are actually two fairy tale traditions — the compact model exemplified by Grimm, Anderson, Perrault and others, and the elaborate stories of the conteuses. These women wrote fantastical, intricate tales for other aristocratic adults, often incorporating the story-telling styles of the salons (e.g., the use of framing tales, multiple narrators, etc.). Harries provides numerous illustrative examples, both pictorial (such as frontispieces) and verbal (excerpts in French and English), to compare and contrast their style from that of Perrault in particular.

In the third chapter, Harries veers away from France and hops the channel to England to discuss the 18th century "invention" of British folktales. She disputes the existence of an earlier oral tradition that led to the rise of written tales, and provides examples of the obvious influence of the conteuses on some of the didactic stories written for children in the late 1700s.

Harries' final two chapters leap forward to the 20th century to discuss how modern female writers — Anne Sexton, Angela Carter, Christa Wolf and Carolyn Steedman, among others — have reclaimed the conteuses' fairy tale tradition and made it their own, a tradition for modern women. These two chapters delve deeply into narrative and literary techniques (in-depth discussions of framing techniques and literary transliteration), and as such, are less accessible to non-academicians than the previous ones, but no less interesting. Again, Harries does not skimp with examples, choosing her sources well.

As a reader who was already familiar with the conteuses (knowledge courtesy of over a year spent editing a journal of 17th century French literature), I found this glimpse into their translated work — and the contrast with the better known Perrault — to be fascinating. The first two chapters of this book are an excellent, if brief, introduction to the world and literature of the conteuses for those unfamiliar with their talents. Harries' research is thorough and her arguments admirably supported by the examples she provides throughout. In Twice Upon a Time, she has achieved a delightful, accessible academic work that deserves to be widely read by all fans of fairy tales.


[April Gutierrez]

Harries' Smith College bio can be found here