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Misperceived Perceptions: Perrault's Fairy Tales and English Children's Literature
Ruth B. Bottigheimer
The place of Charles Perrault's fairy tales in the development of English children's literature has been both misunderstood and overrated. This view of Perrault's role in children's literature has a history. In the libraries I've scoured for books written for and read by children in eighteenth-century England, Perrault's fairy tales have been more an absence than a presence. This observation, however, is not enough to support so fundamental a redefinition of the early history of English children's literature. What can-and does-support my argument is book history, whose perceptions and methodologies I use here.
Let me offer one example of how book history is able to correct misperceptions that have arisen from the way books are listed in published library catalogs. Catalogs take their data from title pages, but title pages can be misleading. For example, what if one publisher, after a year of dismalsales, sold his books to another publisher, who then inserted a new title page and sent the books newly titled but otherwise unchanged out into bookshops? The catalog would record two dates of publication for one printing. Book history, in contrast, would use its resources to identify the book's text and its title page and to recognize that only one printing had, in fact, taken place. This is not an imagined example; it actually happened with a 1764 printing of Perrault's tales.
Unraveling an eighteenth-century printing practice like the reissue of 1764/65 requires a methodology and a vocabulary uncommon in the study of children's literature. "Printruns," "sheets," and "fingerprints" all play a role in explicating the relative popularity of individual books in the eighteenth century. The argument that follows has a slow pace, and for that I apologize. I am urging a fundamental change in long-held views, and I want to build my case carefully and persuasively.
With clockwork regularity literary anthologies and course textbooks imply, suggest, or assert that eighteenth-century English children's literature was rooted in fairy tales, specifically those of Charles Perrault. HarveyDarton, whose richly documented history of English children's literature has provided the guiding direction for countless other accounts, wrote that Perrault's tales "have been naturalized citizens of the British nursery" since they were translated by Robert Samber in 1729 (88). In Classics of Children's Literature, John Griffith and Charles Frey put five of Perrault's tales-"Sleeping Beauty," "Little Red Riding-hood," "Blue Beard," "Puss in Boots," and "Cinderella"-front and center and claim that they "grew steadily in popularity" once they were translated into English (3). Little wonder that Geoffrey Summer-field could comfortably state without further proof or elaboration that "these tales of Perrault soon passed into England, and in Robert Samber's translation were frequently reprinted throughout the eighteenth century" (44). Summerfield's easy acceptance of the Perrault paradigm characterizes both lay and scholarly perceptions.
The chronology of the publishing history of Perrault's tales in England would appear to substantiate such claims. Translated by Robert Samber and published in London in 1729, those tales preceded the 1740s printings of children's books by London's Thomas Boreman, Mary Cooper, and John Newbery by a good ten to fifteen years. But this simple chronological sequence has made it all too easy for generations of literary historians to leap directly to the conclusion that Perrault's prior appearance represented a point of origin. Exploring late seventeenth- and early- to mid-eighteenth-century English children's literature presents a disturbing disjunction between scholarly claims of Perrault's precedence and the mood evident in the literature itself.
Over the past several years I have undertaken a journey of discovery to research libraries in the United States, Canada, and England. My study of hundreds of books published for children between 1670 and 1770 has led, among other things, to a sense that it is necessary to revise fundamentally the place that Perrault's fairy stories occupy in the early history of English children's literature. The history of fairies and fairy literature in England encourages such revision; scholarship in such newly emerging fields as book and publishing history supports it; and most significantly, the evidence of children's literature itself requires it.
The fairies of Charles Perrault's Histories were preceded by centuries of England's own imps and phantoms as well as by decades of Mme d'Aulnoy's supernaturals (Palmer, Palmer and Palmer, Verdier). By the time Perrault's supernatural protagonists arrived on English soil in such fairy tales as "The Fairy," "Sleeping Beauty in the Wood," and "Cinderilla" [sic], they represented England's third generation of fairies, one which eventually overlaid both England's native fairy population (calendared by Reginald Scot) and Mme d'Aulnoy's successfully imported and disseminated fairy traditions. Perrault's tales provided the basis for the modern canon of fairy tales. That is not in doubt. But the ultimate success of Perrault's fairy tales has blinded generations of scholars to the fact that they conquered the field with near-glacial slowness. The reasons for Perrault's tardy success implicate genre and gender, while more far-reaching explanations rest on patterns of book consumption and book marketing.
Perrault's fairy tales differed fundamentally from the traditional fairy fictions of Mme d'Aulnoy. Unlike her tales, Perrault's stories generally obfuscated sex. And differing even more fundamentally from a dystopic tale like Mme d'Aulnoy's "History of Adolphus," in which Time brutally strangled the hero in the concluding paragraphs, Perrault's (rare) violence was wrought only upon the wicked. ("Red Riding Hood" is, of course, not a fairy tale but a warning tale.) Best of all for late-eighteenth-century propriety, every one of Perrault's fairy tales had a hero or heroine who was virtuous, at least in formal terms, and ended with a clearly set out moral. The morals themselves were sometimes wry, sometimes ironic, and always worldly, yet on the surface they and the fairy tales' endings regularly stressed the importance and utility of goodness. Whatever internal contradictions might on occasion disturb the smooth flow of a moral, the overt message of the majority of Perrault's tales was that happy endings crowned virtuous lives.
Mme d'Aulnoy further explored the narrative consequences of human intrusions into fairyland and of fairy entries into human life in stories like "Graciosa and Percinet," "The Fair One with Golden Locks," and "The Hobgoblin Prince." Perrault, in contrast, examined the social life of human beings, the obstacles to whose easy success were swept away either by earthly kings or by fairy magic. In his stories a fairy made roses, pearls, and diamonds fall from the mouth of a kindly but ill-treated daughter ("The Fairy"); a fairy godmother created a coach from a "pompion" ("Cinderilla"); and another fairy made the hideous Riquet appear handsome and transformed his beloved but stupid Princess into a sensible woman ("Riquet a la Houpe"). Only one of Perrault's fairy tales-"Sleeping Beauty in the Wood"-resembled Mme d'Aulnoy's stories in that a good fairy and a malevolent one pitted their magic against one another in a contest of wills that produced repercussions in the lives of the tale's human protagonists.
The date of Perrault's first translation into English, 1729, is generally cited as themoment of its initial success in England. It is easily demonstrated that Perrault's tales were translated and published in London in 1729, but many important facts in conjunction with its fallaciously claimed success have been eagerly, perhaps willfully, overlooked. To explore the question of the popularity of Perrault's tales, we need to return to the world of print as it existed in publishing centers in Paris, the Lowlands, and London at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries.
Within a few months of the January 1697 appearance of Perrault's fairy tales in Paris, his stories had been pirated by the Amsterdam publisher Jaques [sic] Desbordes. Desbordes's book claimed to be a faithful copy of the French edition ("suivante la copie a Paris"), yet its publisher misspelled the author's name ("Perreault") even as he added Perrault's illustrious title ("de l'Academie François"). Desbordes's book sold well enough on the Continent to justify a second printing in 1700 and a third in 1708. In 1711 Estienne Roger, another Amsterdam publisher, produced a six-volume compendium of French fairy fictions and fairy tales. Volume 5, entitled Les Chevaliers Errans par Madame la Comtesse D, included Perrault's tales and five others by Mme D'Auneuil; the sixth volume bore the title of Perrault's oeuvre, Histoires ou Contes des Temps Passé, and was attributed to "Perreault," but with an insouciant disregard for authorship, it contained not a single one of Perrault's tales!
Perhaps it was volume 5, Les Chevaliers Errans, in Estienne Roger's set of fairy tales that caught Jaques Desbordes's eye and led him to calculate that Perrault's tales could be made even more attractive by adding a traditional and lengthy fairy fiction. Whatever his reason, in 1716 Desbordes added "L'adroite Princesse ou les aventures de Finette," which had been written by Perrault's niece, Marie-Jeanne L'Héritier de Villandon. Desbordes finally spelled Perrault's name correctly and published Histoires ou Contes du temps Passé, Avec des Moralitez. Par M. Perrault. Nouvelle Edition augmentée d'une Nouvelle, à la fin. Suivant la Copie de Paris. His successor firm republished it in 1721 and 1729.
In 1729 Robert Samber's word-for-word translation of Perrault's tales appeared in London. It included, in the printer's fanciful typography, "THE Little red Riding-Hood," "THE BLUE-BEARD," "The FAIRY," "THE SLEEPING BEAUTY in the WOOD," "THE MASTER CAT: OR, PUSS in BOOTS," "CINDERILLA: OR, The little GLASS SLIPPER," "RIQUET A la HOUPE," and "LITTLE POUCET, AND His two BROTHERS." Samber worked from Desbordes's Dutch edition, similarly including Mlle L'Héritier's "Discreet Princess; or, the Adventures of Finetta. A Novel." Mlle L'Héritier had originally addressed "L'adroite Princesse" to another French author of fairy fictions, Mme de Murat. Samber's Englishing of the book extended to the novel's dedicatee, and so on the separate title page that preceded the "novel," he addressed "The Discreet Princess" to "The Right Hon. Lady Mary Montagu," daughter of John, Duke of Montagu.
Perrault's own tales are so familiar that I needn't repeat their plots here, but Mlle L'Héritier's "Discreet Princess" has fallen from the canon and requires a brief retelling so thatmodern readers may understand the full reach of Samber's book as it appeared in London in 1729:
Once upon a time there were three princesses, idle Drone-illa, prattling Babillarde, and virtuous Finetta. After their mother's death, their father feared both for his daughters' well-being and for their virtue, and so having had a fairy make a glass distaff for each of his daughters that would break if its owner acted dishonorably, he locked them all into a high tower and forbade them to receive guests. Lazy Drone-illa and prattling Babillarde were distraught at their isolation, but Finetta spent her days contentedly, reading and sewing.
One day Drone-illa and Babillarde hauled up a wizened old woman who had begged entry to their tower. The "old woman" was, in fact, the crafty Prince Riche-cautelle, who easily seduced first Drone-illa and then Babillarde. The virtuous Finetta, however, repulsed his advances and defended herself with Boccaccian trickery, dropping him into a stinking sewer. To avenge his honor, Riche-cautelle had Finetta kidnapped and carried to a mountaintop, down which he proposed to roll her in a barrel studded with knives and nails. Instead, Finetta kicked him into the barrel and rolled him down the slope. When Finetta returned home, she found that her two sisters had each given birth to a son born of her "marriage" night with Riche-cautelle. To conceal her sisters' shame Finetta, dressed as a man, carried the two children in boxes to the capital, and left them behind as "ointment" for the prince's wounds. Once again bested by Finetta, Riche-cautelle made his noble brother, Prince Bel-a-Voir, swear to marry Finetta and kill her on their wedding night.
Finetta, whom a fairy had warned to always be on her guard because "distrust is the mother of security" (141), substituted a straw dummy for herself in the marriage bed. From a hiding place she saw her husband stab it murderously, even though in so doing he lamented his act and declared that he intended to kill himself afterward. Finetta hindered his suicidal resolve, and they lived long and happily together.
Robert Samber claimed that the story, "though entirely fabulous ... wrap[s] up and infold[s]most excellent morality, which is the very end, and ultimate scope and design of Fable" (140). At its conclusion, he repeated his warm approval of the novel's "great deal of good morality," for which reason, he said, it "ought to be told to little children in their very infancy, to inspire them betimes with Virtue" (201-2). A strange sort of morality, we may well conclude.
Few London parents, however, seem to have told, or read, these stories to their infants, as the following publishing history will demonstrate. Montagu and Pote, the book's publishers, took twelve years to issue a second English-language edition; a third appeared nine years after that, in 1750.
To counterbalance a century's baseless claims, it is worth carrying out a simple mathematical calculation based on reasonable numbers and rational assumptions. In the eighteenth century a print run of 1,000 books was the general maximum for the commercial market. Smaller print runs were common, but larger print runs were generally reserved for subsidized Bible printings and the like. Rational commercial practices dictated that publishers would not and did not reissue a book while stocks remained unsold on their shelves. Conversely, publishers quickly reprinted sheets when they had sold out.
Based on the commercial premises that guided publishing and republishing, we may reasonably conclude that 1,000 copies of the English-language edition of Perrault's Histories were sold between 1729 and 1741. That works out to about 83 books of Perrault's fairy tales sold per year over a twelve-year period (1729-41). Between 1741 and 1750 the rate of sale increased slightly to 111 books per year. Before declaring this a bestseller, however, one must remember that England's population numbered approximately seven million with large numbers of English-speakers in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Perrault's book in its English translation reached a very small fraction of England's population, approximately 1/3,500. When James Hodges, at the Looking Glass, facing St. Magnus Church, London-Bridge, re-issued Histories or Tales of Passed Times in 1750, his sales of all-English Perrault tales plummeted. It took average sales of 52.6 copies a year to clear the shelves to make way for another such edition nineteen years later, in 1769!
Excerpted from Children's Literature Volume 30 by Elizabeth Lennox Copyright © 2002 by Hollins University. Excerpted by permission.
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