The genre of fairy tales may have the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Perrault remembered as literary icons, but it is the humble nurse, the doting grandmother, or the spinster aunt who may have more to do with the tales and their emergence than has been hitherto examined. Marina Warner, in her book From the Blonde to the Beast, produces many references to support women having been important sources of tales that were later documented by writers.
In chapter 2 of her book, titled "The Old Wives’ Tale: Gossips I," Warner writes of a time around the end of the sixteenth century, when popular entertainment in England began to incorporate the oral fairy tale. Thus, playwrights like George Peele and William Stevenson wrote The Old Wives’ Tale and Gammer Gurton’s Needle, in which an old garrulous character—a “gammer,” or grandma—is used to push along the plot. Peele’s play even incorporates some tales ascribed to “old wives,” such as Three Heads In A Well.
In the twentieth century, Italian writer Italo Calvino brought out a collection of tales in 1956 called Fiabe. He acknowledged that many of the nineteenth-century folklore anthologies from which he had drawn and adapted the tales had cited female sources for the stories. Giuseppe Pitré, the Sicilian scholar and collector of tales, heard his stories from his nurse Agatuzza Messia, the woman with such a phenomenal memory that she never forgot what she had heard, from childhood onwards. Karel Čapek was a Czech writer who spoke of having heard fairy tales from his mother and grandmother “as if they had stepped out of a fairy tale.”
Warner points out that many literary figures had acknowledged material sourced from women and had used it to create their own stories. She gives examples from the fourteenth century, like Giovanni Boccacio, and later Geoffrey Chaucer.
Boccaccio, and his admirer and emulator (to some degree) Chaucer, voiced the stories of women, and some contain folk material which makes a strong showing in later fairy stories; the Venetian Giovan Francesco Straparola (the ‘Babbler’) reported the stories told by a circle of ladies in his entertaining and sometimes scabrous fantasies, filled with fairytale motifs and improbabilities, called Le piacevoli notti (The Pleasant Nights), published in 1550; the Neapolitan Giambattista Basile, in Lo cunto de li cunti (The Tale of Tales), also known as Il Pentamerone (The Pentameron), published posthumously in 1634–6, featured a group of wizened and misshapen old crones as his sources.
Perhaps the most revealing evidence for the role of women in storytelling, in the context of fairy tales, concerns how the Brothers Grimm came by their material. As Warner describes it, Wilhelm Grimm’s mother-in-law, Dorothea Wild, provided thirty-six stories for their collection. The three sisters of Ludwig Hassenpflug, who was married to the Grimm Brothers’ sister, provided forty-one tales for them to retell and include in their collection. The Brothers also collected sixty-six of their tales from an artistic literary circle that included Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, the poet, and her sister Jenny.
In chapter 14 of her book, Marina Warner provides evidence of how women are linked to the content of fairy tales, not just their form. She does this by looking at the figures that are often seen in fairy tales, such as the wicked stepmother, the malevolent witch or fairy, and the crone who delivers a prophecy. Interpreting these to be reflective of social conditions in which women were given away in socially arranged marriages of convenience, she shows us how the wicked stepmother could actually be a young woman narrator’s attempt to characterize someone whom she perceived as her tormentor in domestic terms—her mother-in-law.
Taking the story from one vantage point, and imagining that the storyteller is remembering her own life, and is speaking as a daughter-in-law, we can hear her venting all her antagonism against the older woman who as it were bewitched her and her potential allies, including the man she married...
Warner examines the wicked stepmother/mother-in-law angle from a number of tales, then brings up an interesting counterpoint. When an older narrator is telling the story in the context of her own anxieties about the place she occupies in the household, whether she will be cared for by her son and daughter-in-law, whether her grandchildren will have a place for her in their hearts, the weight in the story shifts to the older woman’s advantage.
Reversing the angle of approach, and coming at the matter of fairy stories from another vantage point, imagining that the teller speaks instead as an older woman, as herself a grandmother or a mother-in-law, we can then discover in the tales the fear she feels, the animus she harbours against her daughter-in-law or daughters-in-law: when the mother disappears, she may have been conjured away by the narrator herself, who despatches her child listeners’ natural parent, replaces her with a monster, and then produces herself within the pages of the story, as if by enchantment, often in many different guises as a wonder-worker on their behalf, the good old fairy, the fairy godmother.
Another point of view in fairy tales appear when it reflects the insecurity felt around unattached older women who are seen as needy dependents. They represent a threat to the family that may be countered by their depiction in fairy tales as malevolent threats when the narrator is a person from within the family. Or, they may cast themselves as beggars, crones, or powerful fairies who can reward the protagonist of a story, or make vital prophecies. When it is the latter, it is clearly an attempt to gain some relevance and importance in the home once again.
It is not difficult to see that such a storyteller may be speaking from a position of acute vulnerability, the kind that makes enemies in the heart of the family.
Aging nurses, spinsters who were once housemaids or cooks but now serve no recognizable function except a link with the past, and unmarried or widowed relatives were all likely to craft tales in which they tried to produce in the children of the family a respect and affection for the older, unattached woman. Warner brings home how many issues fundamental to the lives and rights of women have found expression in fairy tales