Love, Power, and Gender in Seventeenth-Century French Fairy Tales (Women and Gender in the Early Modern World Series)

By Bronwyn Reddan. 2020. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 264 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4962-1615-1 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Sarah N. Lawson, Indiana University

[Review length: 629 words • Review posted on September 1, 2021]


[Cover ofLove, Power, and Gender in Seventeenth-Century French Fairy Tales]

Bronwyn Reddan’s examination of the context of the production of the French salon fairy tales in the late seventeenth century follows in the vein of Lewis C. Seifert and Elizabeth Wanning Harries, providing useful background and literary analysis to deepen the understanding of the contes de fees. She also introduces new terminology which is useful for examining the complex moral, social, and political context of the tales.

The introduction of the book outlines her term “emotion script,” which she derives from the existing methodological framework of Barbara Rosenwein and Monique Scheer, who hold that emotions, as well as the expression and practice of these emotions, can provide insight into the cultural norms and social dynamics in a given society. Given the complex emotional content of the contes de fées at the end of the seventeenth century, examining these tales through the lens of emotional practice and expression is a fruitful mode of interpretation. Reddan uses the idea of an emotion script to illuminate the relationship between the social environment of this period in France and the way in which the tales reflect it. Reddan also takes time to distinguish the difference in how the conteuses conceived of emotion as being a bodily experience, stemming from the heart, as compared to the Cartesian dichotomies of mind/body and reason/emotion. For the conteuses, Reddan argues, reason and emotion are inextricably linked to the mind and body, and the emotion script is a method by which this complex milieu is navigated from person to person.

The first chapter of the book describes how the conteuses formed a literary community centered on the need for women at the end of the century to navigate the social and cultural landscape of their time. Reddan charts the timeline of productivity among these authors as well as the individual productivity of the most notable writers. This visual representation allows the reader to understand just how vibrant the salon scene was at the time, and also usefully drives home how productive women writers were, specifically compared to their male counterparts. Reddan takes time to profile a few of these writers in order to illustrate why writing tales as a means of criticizing the themes of gender, marriage, love, and power was of such interest to them. Chapter 2 describes the shared vocabulary the conteuses developed for use in their tales, which emphasizes how ultimately collaborative the process of creating the contes de fées was.

Chapters 3 and 4 turn toward literary analysis to examine how this shared vocabulary is actually expressed in the tales, and how this in turn reflects the conteuses’ attitudes about the complex nature of marriage and social conduct. Contrary to what many laypeople (and some scholars) believe about fairy tales and their drive toward the happily-ever-after, the conteuses’ tales reveal that, without the strict or consistent ordering and expression of emotion scripts, otherwise potentially happy marriages and relationships crumble. However, the available emotion scripts and social codes are not taken at face value, and several of the conteuses, particularly Catherine Bernard and Marie-Jeanne Lhériter, use their tales to illustrate how these codes still impose patriarchal power structures on heroines and how this, despite upholding the norm, does not guarantee a happy ending. Chapter 5 discusses the ways in which happy endings were not the priority of fairy tale writers at this time.

Reddan’s book examines social codes and emotion scripts—such as gift-giving, declarations of love, gratefulness, and modesty—that combine to create dynamic expressions of love and marriage in the form of the contes de fées. The combination of social critique and literary analysis in the book provides a fresh and useful examination of often-underestimated literary fairy tales as they were written during the salon period at the end of the seventeenth century in France.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.