Dortchen Wild has loved Wilhelm Grimm since she was a young girl. Under the forbidding shadow of her father and the tyranny of Napoléon’s army, the pair meet secretly to piece together a magical fairy tale collection.
The story behind the stories of the Brothers Grimm.
In 2013 I read and reviewed Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens, which is a retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale retelling interwoven with the historical life of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, one of the first female writers of literary fairy-tales. I absolutely adored the book, even nominating it for a World Fantasy Award that year. So when I learned that Forsyth’s next book was a story about the girl that told Wilhelm Grimm many of the stories he and his brother gathered in their collection of folk tales I was quite excited. I was also lucky enough to get a review copy for it. Unfortunately, The Wild Girl fell prey to the reviewer’s curse of too many books, too little time and languished on my review pile. For this year’s historical fiction month I decided I would make sure to read it. A decision that proved to be a good one as The Wild Girl was every bit as magical and powerful as Bitter Greens was from its arresting opening scene until its final glorious line.
Almost every child has grown up on Grimm’s fairytales, even if only through the Disney animation features. But what most people don’t realise is that the stories the Grimms transcribed and published were often far more gruesome than the happily ever-after versions we grew up on. Forsyth echoes this phenomenon in The Wild Girl, which does have a happy ending, but not before the heroine has to overcome many obstacles and survive trial and tribulation. I really liked this look at how the stories we know as Grimm’s fairytales came to be known as such. But while the Grimm family is important and Wilhelm is the leading man of the book, The Wild Girl isn’t about the Grimms. The heart of the story and its heroine is Dortchen Wild.
Dortchen is the fifth of six daughters and characterised as the wild one, not because she is undisciplined or badly behaved, but because she loves being outdoors and walking the woods. Dortchen is a good person, who goes out of her way to help her friends and family, but with an independent streak and longing for a life of her own. A longing that isn’t hard to understand as the Wild family isn’t one of the happiest. Herr Wild is a tyrant and becomes more and more demanding and restricting during the course of the book. Frau Wild, Dortchen’s mother reminded me of Austen’s Mrs Bennett, racked by her nerves and usually confined to her bed or the resting couch. While the six sisters share a close bond, they are each identified by a particular trait, their beauty, their musicality, their intellect, etc. And in a way that feels very fitting to a fairy tale, these traits clearly have all shaped them and their actions. Yet, in the end, it is Dortchen, the wild one, who has to suffer for the actions of her sisters and is designated by her father to remain single and to take care of her parents in their old age. She is a victim of circumstance and becomes a virtual prisoner in her own home and even worse becomes the victim of sexual abuse. I found the scenes in which the abuse is related harrowing to read and for those who have a hard time dealing with the subject, this might serve as a trigger warning.
Dortchen finds escape in stories, whether telling them herself or hearing them from the family housekeeper, Old Marie. It is this love of story that first brings Dortchen and Wilhelm Grimm closer together, even if they’ve know each other since childhood, having grown up as neighbours. Dortchen is best friends with Lotte, Wilhelm’s younger sister, and they are in and out of each other’s houses all the time. Dortchen has had a crush on Wilhelm for years, but it is the stories that bring them together once Wilhelm and his brother Jacob start collecting them. Their love doesn’t seem fated for a happy ending though, as Wilhelm’s law degree becomes all but worthless when Hessen-Cassel is occupied by Napoleon’s army and the old laws are abolished in favour of the French ones. And without money and the prospect of employment, Wilhelm can’t marry. It is in the marriage politics that the difficult position of the young women of the time comes most to the fore. All six sisters have their own path to marriage and none of them is smooth. None can marry without their father’s consent, no matter what their age, not and still be welcome in the parental abode. In fact, some of them are married off in order to gain advantage for their father’s business. And there was no way of leaving home other than through marriage, not if you wanted to retain your reputation and good name.
All of this is set against the threat of war. The story starts in 1805 and carries us through the next two decades, which means it takes us through the turbulent final years of Napoleon’s reign as French Emperor and sees him extending his borders to occupy much of Europe, including Hessen-Cassel. We see what occupation meant for its citizens and about the costs of war as their young men are slowly taken away to fight Napoleon’s wars. It is the Napoleonic wars from a very different perspective than I’m used, having previously only read books from the French, British, or Dutch perspective, but I found it very interesting. And once the threat of war has abated and Napoleon is defeated, Forsyth doesn’t give Hessen-Cassel a happy ever after either; the reader witnesses the blood, sweat, and tears that go into rebuilding the principality.
As with its predecessor, I fell in love with The Wild Girl. Forsyth’s writing is lush and evocative and her characters always entice. The fairytales that are interwoven throughout the narrative were the cherry on top of the beautiful tale of Dortchen and Wilhelm, a tale that shows that sometimes, just sometimes, fairytales do come true. I cannot recommend this book highly enough and I predict that The Wild Girl will make an appearance on my favourite reads of the year list come December.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.