This novel offers the reader an enormous surprise. What seems a simple but richly told story of enduring love arising in childhood opens into an imaginative and wrenching examination of violence and its effects.
Dortchen Wild was one of several sisters who lived next door to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm – famous, of course, for their collections of folktale and story. They were, however, not famous at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, which is when the novel is set – they were desperately poor.
The Wild Girl tells the story of Dortchen’s love for Wilhelm, which begins when she is 12 years old.
Contrary to the belief that the Grimms toured throughout Austria and Prussia collecting their stories from peasant farmers, here it is the Wild sisters and other middle-class women who are responsible for telling many, if not most, of the tales to the Grimms, stories which had been, in turn, told to them by their servants and nannies. The tales are included in the narrative of The Wild Girl in a way that underlines and counterpoints some of the events in the real lives of Dortchen and her sisters. The Wild girls and others tell the wonderful stories, the whole panoply of European folktale and myth – ‘Snow White’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, and so many others – to Wilhelm as he transcribes them with cold ink-stained fingers. Dortchen gives Wilhelm an immense dowry of these narratives, some of which have powerful significance indeed for her own life.
In 1807 Hessen-Kassel, where the Wild and Grimm families lived, was invaded by the French and became part of the Kingdom of Westphalia under the rule of Jerome Bonaparte:
The park had suffered under the French occupiers. Marble statues had been toppled and smashed, or used for bullet practice. The beautiful stone arches of the aqueduct were broken. Trees had been hacked down for firewood, and the meadows churned up by galloping hooves. Dortchen had always loved the beautiful park, with its sparkling cascades and fountains, and its stands of ancient trees.
The Napoleonic Wars provide a rich background to the story, but the real charm for me is that Forsyth steadfastly stays with the Wild girls and demonstrates their responses to their times. Their domestic lives are lovingly shown. Social gatherings, warm and affectionate relationships between the sisters, daily forays into the surrounding gardens and landscapes, are all carefully recorded and their conversations trenchantly reveal world events as well as the powerlessness of the women of those times. In fact, as I look back over the novel, I see how cleverly Forsyth has made the conversations carry much of the story:
Unripe berries were clustered on every twig. ‘I’ll come back in August and gather a basketful to make elderberry cordial for you. It will help your cough.’
‘You know so much about trees and flowers and herbs,’ Wilhelm said in wonder. ‘However did you learn?’ Dortchen shrugged her shoulders uncomfortably.
‘It’s about all I know. We learnt practically nothing at school, except how to recite our catechism and how to knit. I wish I had your book learning.’
‘It’s not much use to me is it? I spend all day poring over old manuscripts and trying to ignore the ache in my fingers, while you make bread out of acorns and tea out of linden blossoms. What you do is at least helpful to people.’
‘Stories are important too,’ Dortchen said. ‘Stories help make sense of things. They make you believe you can do things.’ Once again she felt a sense of frustration at not knowing the right words to express what she meant. ‘They help you imagine that things may be different, that if you just have enough courage … or enough faith … or goodness … you can change things for the better.’
Herr Wild, Dortchen’s father, is an apothecary. He is depicted as a stern patriarch, repressive, irascible, worried about finances, and vindictive. He is opposed to any suggestion that a daughter of his might marry one of the impoverished Grimm brothers. Forsyth’s depiction of Herr Wild takes what could be a simple story of thwarted love into some surprisingly dark and violent emotional spaces.
Does Dortchen find enough inner strength to overcome her father’s malevolent legacy? Does she achieve her own fairytale ending, featuring flowers and fine clothes, just like the heroines of her stories? Perhaps Wilhelm’s and Jakob’s growing success with the publication of the two volumes of Children’s and Household Tales, followed by other editions, and Wilhelm’s employment as tutor to the young prince, will mean a happy ending for them all, unlike the outcomes of many of the stories the brothers recorded?
I found this novel very moving and I respect the writer’s personal generosity in going to such sad and emotionally painful places in order to write Dortchen’s life. Like a fairytale, The Wild Girl gives us an explosive and evocative set of truths set within a deceptively simple and delicately written story.
Kate Forsyth The Wild Girl, Vintage, 2013, PB, 560pp, $32.95
Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
Hear Kate Forsyth talk about writing The Wild Girl in this interview.
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