Fairy tales: How about a dose of reality?
This Spring, we will celebrate anew the ideals we first learned from fairy tales: true love, romantic harmony, and a soul mate with whom we are destined to be united for "happily ever after" by that most perfect of storybook unions, the "fairy tale wedding."
This fantasy surrounds us, if not in our own lives, then in store windows, on television date-and-mate "reality" shows like Joe Millionaire and The Bachelor, and on the big screen. In Hollywood's most recent Cinderella story, Maid in Manhattan, a hotel maid (Jennifer Lopez) dresses up in borrowed Dolce & Gabbana, heads off to the ball (a housing projects fundraiser), and snags a modern prince/politician (Ralph Fiennes).
But anyone who wishes for a real-life fairy tale romance might want to read their fairy tales again. The first published contes de fées, as they were called by the Parisian aristocracy at the end of the 17th century, did indeed revolve around courtship and weddings, but they told of unions that were anything but sweet and loving.
Charles Perrault's famous 1697 collection, Tales of Times Past with Morals, better known today as the Mother Goose Tales, feature cruelty, deceit, greed, murder and nasty in-laws. His pre-Disney Sleeping Beauty is not chastely awakened by a kiss, but rather impregnated by a passing prince and hidden in the woods. Years later, the prince's mother tries to eat her. (In an earlier Italian version of the tale, the prince rapes the heroine in her sleep.)
The young bride in Perrault's Bluebeard appears at first to have made a better match, by marrying a wealthy widower. Alas, it turns out her groom is a serial killer. One day when he's out on business, she discovers, in a secret chamber, the corpses of his former wives hanging on the walls.
As for Cinderella, Hollywood's Maid in Manhattan (and earlier send-ups like Pretty Woman, and Sabrina) may preach about true love transcending class, but in Perrault's original story, Prince Charming falls for Cinderella's gown and slippers but fails to recognize her face. (He mistakes her for her stepsisters, and has to rely on shoe size to be sure he gets the right bride.)
These early fairy tales suggest how much our expectations of love and marriage have changed in three centuries– for Perrault's "fairy tale wedding" was not entirely make-believe. It was based on the prevailing aristocratic marriage of the 17th century, the marriage de raison.
Orchestrated by parents, it was not a love match but a business affair, often no more than a crass exchange of assets. Take, for example, the noble but heavily indebted Grignan family, who traded their son to the daughter of a wealthy tax farmer for the sum of 400,000 livres. The young newlyweds in question did not meet until one week after the wedding contract was signed.
"Console yourselves for a mésalliance," urged a cousin of the groom's mother in a letter of 1694, "by the relief you will feel at no longer being harassed by creditors when you sojourn in your large, beautiful, magnificent château."
The idea that love or romance should lead to marriage would have been laughed at back in 17th century France, when a series of draconian laws consolidated parental control over the sexual and marital alliances of their offspring. Over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, the age of minority was raised, and raised again, until an ordinance of 1629 simply declared all offspring, regardless of age, sex or marital status, to be minors, subject to parental rule.
An edict of 1556 outlawed "clandestine" marriage, meaning marriage without parental consent. Witnesses, and wedding banns published announcements of intent to wed, intended to impede impetuous romantic unions were required by law, and in the event of a clandestine marriage, not only the transgressing couple but also the witnesses and priest could be severely punished.
Finally, elopement and rape the law made relatively little distinction between these terms were viewed as crimes against parental rights. Those convicted of "rapt" meaning either seduction or abduction (from the same roots we get both "rape" and "rapture") could be banished, disinherited, or even sentenced to death.
When Cinderella and her step-sisters are urged to go the ball to win the Prince's hand in marriage, when Bluebeard's bride finds that her wealthy husband comes with an unpleasant past, or when Sleeping Beauty's prince attempts to hide his lover from his parents in the forest (and when his mother later attempts to take Sleeping Beauty out of the picture), we're not reading pure fiction, but parables of 17th century aristocratic life, where newlyweds were often strangers, money more important than romance, and love was not the key, but rather an impediment, to successful marriage.
The modern romantic understanding of the fairy tale– and especially the romantic ideal of a "fairy tale wedding"– owes most to this century, when Americans began to glorify marriage and domesticity after World War II. In the 1950s, the age of first marriage dropped, as did the age of first childbirth and the divorce rate, while movie stars posed for ads holding mops, and the hours women devoted to housework increased.
Fairy tales came to capture these new ideals, immortalized by Walt Disney, whose first full-length animated feature in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, shows the cartoon heroine whistling and singing with rabbits and deer, while she cooks, darns socks, and scrubs the dwarfs' bachelor pad.
Similarly, in 1950 the heroine of Disney's Cinderella sings and dances with mice and birds while she cleans house and stitches her ball gown, chores that anticipate her future life as happy housewife to Prince Charming. Those films transformed the message of the fairy tale, just as today we continue to spin our own romantic wives' tales, recasting Cinderella as a hard-working hotel maid on her way to a housing project fundraiser, her original (and rather crass) mission to snag a wealthy husband totally, and romantically, forgotten.
Catherine Orenstein is author of" Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale." This essay originally appeared in the New York Times.