The Five Women Who Created Fantasy – GUEST POST by Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier
The Five Women Who Created Fantasy
By Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier
Fantasy as a separate literary genre could be said to have begun with the Contes de Fées, or Fairy Tales, of the French Siècle des Lumières, or Age of Enlightenment. This started with the reign of the Sun King Louis XIV in 1643, when France entered a period of political, artistic and scientific grandeur, before settling into the decadent reigns of Louis XV (1710-1774) and Louis XVI (1754-1793), and ending up with the French Revolution.
The undeniable popularity of fantasy at the time was, in great part, attributable to the fact that it was safe; it did not imperil the soul—a serious concern for a nation which had just come out of an era of great religious persecution—and it appropriately reflected the grandeur of the Sun King’s reign.
We have singled out here five women who, because of their talent, originality and genuine inventiveness, could have a claim to be declared the founders of modern fantasy.
The great precursor in the genre was the Baroness Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy (1652-1705) who, in 1690, introduced in her rambling novel Histoire d’Hyppolite, Comte de Douglas [Story of Hippolyte, Count of Douglas] a fairy tale entitled L’Île de la Félicité [The Island of Felicity]. She followed suit with a remarkable, three-volume collection simply entitled Contes de Fées [Fairy Tales] (1698), and then Contes Nouveaux ou Les Fées à la Mode [New Tales or Fashionable Fairies] (1698). Unlike the better-known Charles Perrault, Madame d’Aulnoy used her tales for satirical purposes, deliberately aiming them at a more adult readership. As a result, her stories were more complex and sophisticated. Her best-remembered tales are L’Oiseau Bleu [The Blue Bird], La Chatte Blanche [The White Cat] and Le Nain Jaune [The Yellow Dwarf], which spawned a popular board-and-card game. L’Oiseau Bleu introduced one of the very first “Prince Charmings” in the world of fairy tales.
From the 1690s onwards, Madame d’Aulnoy was an active member of a literary salon where she and the Comtesse de Murat (see below) became the most prolific contributors to the new genre of the contes de fees, which they helped invent, shape and develop. Like almost all of the other members of her coterie, she became a renegade female aristocrat writing tales for the select consumption of other renegade female aristocrats about a world the corrupt glamour of which they understood only too well, with a depth of sarcasm that the innocent could not be expected to comprehend.
One should regard these women as significant writers of Decadent fantasy, and one wonders what they might have done had they been allowed to continue with their work. Given that both had extraordinary imaginative range, it is hard to imagine that they would have run out of inspiration, had they not been violently stopped in their tracks. We have to be grateful that they contrived to publish as much as they did during their brief window of opportunity, leaving behind fugitive material that could be recovered once the worst of the repression had blown over.
Considered separately Madame d’Aulnoy and the Comtesse de Murat were great writers of imaginative fiction, but as a competitive collective, they are unique in literary history, and it is as part of that collective endeavor that Madame d’Aulnoy is fully entitled to her classic status today. They were the first to virtually define the boundaries of modern fantasy. After them, magicians, ogres, dragons, dwarves and fairies became fully integrated in the realms of modern fantasy.
Comtesse Henriette-Julie de Castelnau de Murat (1670-1716)’s Les Contes de Fées [The Fairy Tales] (1697) and Les Nouveaux Contes des Fées [The New Fairy Tales] (1698) are first set in the time of the fays, a remote mythical past, but her later stories take place contemporaneously in countries that are only separated pseudo-geographically from France. Her works are remarkable for the imaginative extravagance of their plots; the superbly surreal depiction of magical civilizations, the extreme trials to which she subjects her heroes and heroines, caused by jealous rivals intent on breaking the amorous bond between them, and their often deliberately atypical conclusions.
Charlotte-Rose Caumont de La Force (1654-1724), with Les Fées: Contes des Contes [The Fairies: Tales of Tales] (1698), was a pioneering writer, perhaps the one who took the greatest imaginative license from the freedom to make arbitrary inventions and narrative moves. Her tales tell a story that is very different from the historical fantasies built on Perrault’s moralistic tales for children. The morals attached to her tales are certainly not aimed at children. In fact, what distinguishes her tales from those of her most famous contemporaries is their evident moral unease. By far the most famous of her tales is “Persinette” which was plagiarized by Friedrich Schultz, who retitled it “Rapunzel” (1790).
As the contes de fées suffered a decline in fashionability in the 1750s, they began to rely on hybridization with Oriental and Medieval fantasies. The tales continued to be replete with fays, ogres, magic swords and other motifs, but they also revolved around a series of moral dilemmas, provided with fanciful magically-aided resolutions, although reflecting real philosophical debates of the times. (Not coincidentally, the classic Thousand and One Nights was first “translated” into French at that time, with some stories quite possibly having been made up from thin or non-existent sources, as no earlier Arabic manuscripts of Aladdin and Ali-Baba are known to exist.)
After a twenty-or-so years’ pause, a second wave of fairy tales hit the market in the mid-1700s, this time written by such notable authors as:
Marie-Madeleine de Lubert (1702-1785)’s first fantastic tale, published in 1737, was the striking original Tecserion in which the eponymous king of the Land of Ostriches is madly in love with Belzamire, Princess of Flowers, who herself dotes on the King’s nephew, Melidor. The story is replete with elaborate descriptions of strange societies, including one located on Venus. The fascination extravagantly displayed in her stories with the metamorphoses of humans into animals is reflected in the ambiguous naming of realms and individuals. Such metamorphoses are a common motif within the genre, but no other writer ever deployed it with the same intensity and fascination as this author. Both Princess Camion and Prince Frozen and Princess Sparkling (1743) strike a better balance between surreal extravagance and narrative discipline, but remain flamboyant and intent on defying conventional expectations. There is justice in the fact that Princess Camion is now her best known work by virtue of the availability online of a video of a 2014 dramatization by a French theater company.
Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (1685-1755) created the story of La Belle et la Bête [Beauty and the Beast] in her collection Les Contes Marins ou La Jeune Américaine [Sea Stories or The Young American Girl] (1740). It was later abridged and rewritten by Madame Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1711-1776) and published in London in 1757—it is that version which is best known today. The main interests of the original tale lie two sections, one in which the Beast explains how he came to be transformed and why it was forced to act as he did in regard to the Beauty; and the other in which the fay who contrived his liberation from his curse explains how and for what motives an evil rival placed her in that elaborate necessity. This original account of the organization and politics of the world of Faerie is of considerable interest, as well as completing the explanatory schema of the enigmatic fundamental tale.
The Naiads, published 100 years after Madame de Villeneuve’s death, is one of the earliest fantasy novels. It is set in a distant past in a fictitious realm with a religion based on elemental spirits. While it uses the stock motifs of the fairy tale, featuring a Prince Perfect who falls in love with a shepherdess, unaware that she is really a Princess, as well as a wicked stepmother and an ugly sister bent on persecuting the beleaguered heroine, it also looks behind those motifs and provide them with elaborate explanatory schemas, such as the strange story of the Mill of Misfortune and the revelation of the Prince’s true identity by the Gnome Queen.
In this fashion, the literary evolution of fantasy paralleled that of French Royalty, with the decadence and corruption of Louis XV replacing the aristocratic grandeur of Louis XIV. Eventually, the French Revolution came and, in an act tantamount to a literary execution, guillotined the heads of, if not the fairies and the little people, but many of the people who had become so much associated with this Ancien Régime genre.
Fantasy was a genre in which many women excelled. Other notable authors included:
Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier de Villandon (1664-1734) included several fairy tales in her Oeuvres Mêlées [Mixed Works] (1695). A relative of the better-known Perrault, she originally published four stories in 1696, a year before Tales of Mother Goose, then penned the classic La Tour ténébreuse et les Jours Lumineux [The Dark Tower and the Luminous Days published in 1705, as well as an essay written in the form of a letter, in which she casts more light on the detail of her thinking, the process by which the tales came to be written and the various things that she was attempting to achieve. Her stories may well be the source material that inspired Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskin, amongst others, and are not an adaptation of folklore, but an attempt to recycle literary inventions attributed to the medieval troubadours.
Catherine Bernard (1662-1712), the first woman to have written a play performed by the Comédie française, was also one of the originators of the genre, with The Rose-Bush Prince, Riquet with the Crest and The Origins of the Fays (c. 1696)
The anonymous “Comtesse D.L,” wrote La Tyrannie des Fées Détruites [The Tyranny of the Fays Abolished] (1703). She disappeared from view, censored out of history, and to this day, she has only been replaced in the official record by a phantom who probably originated as a spelling mistake. In her own peculiar fashion, however, she was a heroine. Her story’s representation of marriage as a matter of innocent young women falling into the brutal hands of disgusting Ogres who abuse them is only par for the course, but what is unusual is the conclusion, in which the bold Prince, eager to do battle against the monsters guarding the cave where his beloved princess is being held captive, is told to put away his sword, this particular rescue being women’s work. When the rescue is complete, the prince is graciously permitted to continue adoring the princess, provided that he never lays a finger on her, while she enjoys a perfect bliss with her steadfast female best friend, under the tutelage of their benign protectress, the fay Clementine.
Marie-Antoinette Fagnan (1710-177) wrote Kanor (1750), Minet-Bleu et Louvette (1752) et Le Miroir des Princess Orientales [The Mirror of Oriental Princesses] (1755), which demonstrate that fantasy could be a useful instrument in the advancement of Enlightenment, because rather than in spite of its absurdity. The author’s sardonic narrative points out the absurdity of the fairy tales, and emphasizes that the age of the fays, if ever there was one, reached its twilight long before history became possible. Her work as a whole asserts that fays are not, and never could be, up to the task of providing miracles, because the inevitably corrupting effects of their power would always lead them to indifference toward human suffering, if not to the malevolence of causing it. That, rather than any scientific skepticism relating to the workability of magic, is the Enlightenment that hammered the nails into the coffin of the genre, and although the final nail had yet to be added, that coffin was already sealed by 1755.
Finally, Catherine de Lintot (1728-1816)’s stories Timandre and Bleuette, Prince Sincere and Tendrebrun et Constance (1735) show a marked evolution in the genre, each being more substantial, and more imaginatively innovative than its predecessor. Although they clearly attempt to take up where Madame d’Aulnoy and the Comtesse de Murat had been forced to leave off, in terms of their imaginative extravagance, their use of metamorphoses and their quirky employment of allegory exhibit a further development in the direction of the calculatedly absurd and the surreal. These are not the only works of the period to extrapolate its licensed disorder to the chaotic brink of surrealism, but they do so more self-consciously than most. The stories gathered herein provide an intriguing kaleidoscopic pattern and can justly be reckoned to be more than the sum of their parts.
All available from the Black Coat Press Website
Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy: Tales of the Fays (2 volumes), Black Coat Press, ISBNs 978-1-61227-836-0 and 978-1-61227-837-7.
Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve: Beauty and the Beast * The Naiads, Black Coat Press, ISBN 978-1-61227-626-7.
Catherine Bernard: The Queen of the Fays, Black Coat Press, ISBN 978-1-61227-814-8; The Origins of the Fays, Black Coat Press, ISBN 978-1-61227-821-6.
Charlotte-Rise Caumont de La Force: The Land of Delights, Black Coat Press, ISBN 978-1-61227-760-8.
Comtesse D.L.: The Tyranny of the Fays Abolished, Black Coat Press, ISBN 978-1-61227-792-9.
Marie-Antoinette Fagnan: The Enchanter’s Mirror, Black Coat Press, ISBN 978-1-61227-820-9.
Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier de Villandon: The Robe of Sincerity, Black Coat Press, ISBN 978-1-61227-732-5.
Catherine de Lintot: Funestine, Black Coat Press, ISBN 978-1-61227-812-4.
Marie-Madeleine de Lubert: Princess Camion, Black Coat Press, ISBN 978-1-61227-796-7.
Henriette-Julie de Murat: The Palace of Vengeance, Black Coat Press, ISBN 978-1-61227-774-5.
Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier. The Handbook of French Fantasy & Supernatural Fiction. Black Coat Press, ISBN 978-1-64932-165-7.
Brian Stableford. Tales of Enchantment and Disenchantment. Black Coat Press, ISBN 978-1-61227-838-4.
Black Coat Press was born in 2003 as a logical development in our desire to bring out the best of French popular culture into the English language. First, there was our massive French Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror & Pulp Fiction encyclopedia published my McFarland in 2000; then there was our coolfrenchcomics website, and finally our two non-fiction Shadowmen books which, with our translation of Doctor Omega, were the first books published by Black Coat Press.
We had been working for Starlog and in comics for years prior to our desire to become publishers. We had, in fact, been translating a number of award-winning French comics for Marvel (the Moebius series) and Dark Horse (works by Tardi, Andreas, Druillet, Schuiten and others). So moving into books was a natural extension. We had already co-authored over a dozen books about movies and television series, such as The Doctor Who Programme Guide, Into The Twilight Zone, Science Fiction Filmmaking In The 1980s and The Dreamweavers, the latter two from McFarland.
It had always been a source of profound frustration to us that, because of the language barrier, the knowledge of many outstanding French works was denied to the American public. There was a time when French novels and French films were widely imported in the United States. People were mobbing the New York harbor waiting for the latest installment of Alexandre Dumas’ novels. Yet in the age of the global village, this cross-cultural exchange has shrunk to next to nothing, and I think America is the poorer for it. The purpose of Black Coat Press was to help remedy this sad state of affairs by providing a fairly comprehensive selection of the best and/or the most representative works, with proper introductions, bibliographies, etc. Because science fiction, fantasy, etc. are often regarded as minor genres by “serious” scholars (on both sides of the Atlantic!), we felt that publishing works of this nature would be more useful than publishing classic or mainstream novels, for which there are at least a few outlets available.