Kate Forsyth, that modern bard spinning and reweaving the old, old tales so they regain relevance in the world as we know it has applied her magic once again. Although the parallel to Dortchen’s life is cast as “The Singing Springing Lark, to my mind, the tale of Dortchen Wild is a retelling of Cinderella; Dortchen grows up under the heel of her tyrannical father, and her situation becomes worse and worse until it seems utterly hopeless. However, her love for her neighbour, Wilhelm Grimm is the light in her darkness, even if at times it is a light from a guttering candle. It is a frustrated and frustrating love story – the two are destined, but my lord it takes them an age to overcome the hurdles and finally, finally get together!
The personal story is set against the history of the region, at the times of the Napoleonic invasions and the fall of the old Kingdoms. Forsyth does a terrific job of conveying what it might have been like to live through those times in those circumstances; the town of Hessen-Cassel is steeped in the old ways, some of which aren’t so marvellous, and the ‘modern’ thinking of the invaders is shocking to some, welcome to others such as the newly liberated serfs. It was of course hard, frightening and replete with loss and grief as the country’s resources are depleted and plundered to fund the war and the unchecked royal extravagances.
“In the meantime, the town was full of French soldiers. They drank and gambled and danced, taking what they wanted forth shops and houses, and paying with paper assignments that were virtually worthless.” …
… “The Grimm family was suffering even more. Jakob had quit his job at the War Office, exhausted by the demands upon him and unable to bear working for the French. He had applied for a job as the librarian at the palace, but had been passed over for someone with fewer credentials but nobler blood.”
Both the Wilds and the Grimms were ‘good’ families, something akin to our middle class I imagine, but even so, they were poor and hungry most of the time, and the girls had to hitch up their petticoats and get on with the endless rounds of chores and hard work. Next door, in the Grimm household things are indeed grim, and only get grimmer – Wilhelm and Dortchen cannot marry because he is too poor to seek her hand, and her hard, pragmatist father will not release her without ‘prospects’. Besides, he wants her home for more sinister reasons.
The portrayal of family life is richly detailed and educational – day to day life is made accessible and we readers get a vicarious taste of life back then. Forysthe has done her homework particularly well int his respect. . Each Wild sister is a finely rendered individual, although I did find them a touch stereotypical – the spoilt, materialistic Gretchen who marries a rich man as early as she can; the pious, religious, pain-in-the-proverbial Rose, who, when the sickly, opiate-addicted mother needs tending, says she wants to “immolate myself on the altar of filial duty” (she’s the most eye-roll inducing sister. Burn away Rosie!), the rebellious Hanne who throws over the mores of the time to defiantly fall in love with an unsuitable boy and elope; the ever naive and vulnerable younger sister, Mia, who Dortchen protects at great cost to herself.
Dortchen ends up being the only one left at home, working like a navvy and fending off her increasingly drunk and abusive father. Once it’s just her in the house, she suddenly finds a backbone she totally lacked up to that point. Perhaps it has to do with a sudden telescoping of time in this later part of the novel. Father finally dies (three cheers!), perhaps unwittingly helped along by Dortchen’s sleeping potions that keep him out of her bed. Eventually, after further tribulations – it takes nearly two decades altogether to get to the altar, with plenty of misunderstandings and unspoken feelings -she finally marries Wilhelm. The end. This unrequited love thread was just a bit too overdrawn for me. I found myself wanting to give Dortchen a good shove Wilhelm-ward every now and then. Of course, the ever-glowering father didn’t help, but really the years spent not talking to each other could have been avoided! Forsyth has obviously created a reality from a few scant bits of information about these two, and has added a goodly measure of artistic interpretation to bring it to life. It seems it may well have happened like this, so when they DO finally get together I was most relieved. Anyway, everyone ends up more or less where they deserve to be, and that’s the least likely aspect of the book, but very true to fairy tales as we know them. That Dortchen ends up with the life she wanted is what it makes me think of Cinderella – grinding harshness, endless work, an unattainable prince, a fairy god’mother’ (ok, brother in law) and in the end all is redeemed by love. She even gets a new dress for the ball.
Within this overarching story, Dortchen tells the folk stories of the region to the brothers Grimm for their new book. It seems the writers life has changed little in the intervening centuries; the brothers Grimm lack money to live on, and lack a publisher or the means to publish their work themselves, so the project stalls repeatedly for the want of a benefactor or champion. Dortchen carries on anyway, telling Wilhelm all the old tales and stories she knows, just to keep talking with him. Of course, in the telling she tells us too – it’s very interesting to see these well known fairy tales in their original forms – they have barely a fairytale ending between them, and are very dark and dire, for the most part being cautionary tales, moral principles, a how-to behave-or-else. The darkness of those old tales is paralleled in the dark turn in Dortchen’s life – there are parts of the story that some people may well find highly confronting, but Forsyth handles it well, using a russian doll technique to tell us about Dortchen telling Wilhelm the old tale ‘All Kinds of Fur’ to try to signal to him what is happening to her at home.
This is a big book, some 530 pages of rich immersive reading. Forsyth is a proficient and efficient storyteller and a master at story-structure, so it’s a pleasurable read, not an unwieldy or overly weighty one. As in Bitter Greens she brings a woman story teller out of the thick fog of obscurity laid down by history, and makes it clear that the Brothers Grimm owed a hell of a lot to the Sisters Wild, particularly Dortchen. At the end, Forsyth draws on the tale of Sweet Roland and The True Bride – and has Wilhelm propose to Dortchen on Christmas Day. Thank God. And, in splendid fairy tale mode, the book ends with “I told you love works magic.”
And, so it does.