Aussie Book Review: The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth
My Rating: 5 / 5
Format: Paperback courtesy of Random House
and The Reading Room
Publication Date: 18 March 2013
Category: Contemporary Fiction
Publisher: Random House Books Australia
Imprint: Vintage Australia
Extent: 560 pages
“One of the great untold love stories - how the Grimm brothers discovered their famous fairy tales - filled with drama and passion, and taking place during the Napoleonic Wars.
The Wild Girl tells the story of Dortchen Wild. Growing up next door to the Grimm brothers in Hesse-Cassel, a small German kingdom, Dortchen told Wilhelm some of the most powerful and compelling stories in the famous fairytale collection.
Dortchen first met the Grimm brothers in 1805, when she was twelve. One of six sisters, Dortchen lived in the medieval quarter of Cassel, a town famous for its grand royal palace, its colossal statue of Herkules, and a fairytale castle of turrets and spires built as a love nest for the Prince-Elector's mistress. Dortchen was the same age as Lotte Grimm, the only girl in the Grimm family, and the two became best friends.
In 1806, Hesse-Cassel was invaded by the French. Napoleon created a new Kingdom of Westphalia, under the rule of his dissolute young brother Jérôme. The Grimm brothers began collecting fairytales that year, wanting to save the old stories told in spinning-circles and by the fire from the domination of French culture. Dortchen was the source of many of the tales in the Grimm brother's first collection of fairy tales, which was published in 1812, the year of Napoleon's disastrous march on Russia.
Dortchen's own father was cruel and autocratic, and he beat and abused her. He frowned on the friendship between his daughters and the poverty-stricken Grimm Brothers. Dortchen had to meet Wilhelm in secret to tell him her stories. All the other sisters married and moved away, but Dortchen had to stay home and care for her sick parents. Even after the death of her father, Dortchen and Wilhelm could not marry – the Grimm brothers were so poor they were surviving on a single meal a day.
After the overthrow of Napoleon and the eventual success of the fairytale collection, Dortchen and Wilhelm were at last able to marry. They lived happily ever after with Wilhelm's elder brother Jakob for the rest of their lives.”
Opening in December 1814 and set against the backdrop of the French Revolution which affected the kingdom of Hessen-Cassel in Germany, where the Grimm and Wild families lived, this novel pays homage to Dortchen Wild, the woman who went on to share her stories with the Grimm brothers and enabled them to become famous for the treasury of fairytales that most of us grew up with.
One of six children, five sisters and a brother, Dortchen and her family live across the lane from the impoverished Grimm family and her best friend, Lotte, their only daughter. Gentle but headstrong, Dortchen is full of life and vitality and finds peace in the forest and garden where she eagerly gathers herbs and plants for the mixtures and tinctures that her father, an apothecary, mixes for the retail shop attached to their home. Her knowledge of these herbs as well as the mixing of the remedies is vast and goes a long way in assisting this selfless young girl, at the risk of angering her father, to secretly aid the Grimm family in times of hunger and sickness.
Herr Wild is a tyrant and, along with their incapable mother, a weak Laudanum-dependent woman who constantly bows under the pressures of her husband’s controlling and violent behavior, all the Wild girls find themselves slaves to their parents’ demands and maladies, having to clean, cook, mend, wash, assist in the retail shop and basically run the household with Old Marie, their only servant – and at times, the only source of motherly love in Dortchen’s dark life.
When Lotte’s two older brothers, Jakob and Wilhelm, arrive home amidst the escalating war, Dortchen, at the tender age of twelve, finds herself smitten with the much older Wilhelm.
With the events in this novel taking place over many years, we get to see Dortchen grow into a beautiful albeit physically and mentally abused young woman whose feelings for Wilhelm strengthen and become more than just a fanciful teenage crush.
Wilhelm, a literary scholar who is unable to find work amidst the turmoil of war and, in trying to keep the German customs, language and heritage alive, as well as sustain his family, begins the process of gathering and transcribing all the German folk tales handed down from generation to generation for publication into a book. When he approaches Dortchen and asks her to share the stories that she knows, he doesn’t realise at the time that her input will be tremendous.
Spending many happy hours with Wilhelm and other town folk translating their old stories for Wilhelm’s quill to record and, with her imaginative storytelling abilities, Wilhelm eventually begins to see her as a young woman and no longer merely just Lotte’s best friend.
However, as Dortchen’s older sisters marry and move out of home to create their own lives and her brother is called to serve in the war, life in the Wild household begins to change and, left behind with her youngest sister and an incapable mother, becomes subjected to life in her father’s oppressive shadow. While her feelings for Wilhelm strengthen and it becomes apparent that he feels the same way, she is all too aware of the fact that her father will never approve of any union between the two of them, not only because of Wilhelm’s penurious circumstances, but because of his intense dislike for the Grimm family.
As the wages of war begin to show their true colours, so, too, does Herr Wild, who deteriorates into a bluebeard of that time and, whilst he doesn’t physically murder, this supposedly pious man stealthily begins to smother Dortchen’s beautiful nature with acts of abuse and humiliation. Forbidding her to have anything to do with Wilhelm and, knowing that they can’t be seen together, secret trysts between the two become the only opportunities open to Dortchen to tell Wilhelm her stories and, there are times when, through tales such as “All Kinds of Fur” (the origins of which are deeply incestuous) Dortchen tries to convey her misery and oppression to Wilhelm - but the true meaning is lost on him.
Nonetheless, it’s not all dark and, as with all fairytales, there is a happy ending in which we see both Dortchen and Wilhelm finally overcome the adversity to which they have been subjected all their life.
Let me start off by saying that I absolutely loved this book and, while I am extremely embarrassed to admit that it is the first novel I have read by Kate Forsyth, it certainly won’t be my last! Although I was initially overwhelmed at the sheer length of it, Ms Forsyth’s deft hand, rich imaginings and storytelling abilities immediately sucked me into a world where I became so emotionally invested in the plight of Dortchen that there were many times when the awful things that she suffered at the hands of her cold and abusive father, who took religious teachings just one step too far, had me wanting to climb into the book and give him a dose of something lethal from his own apothecary supplies!
For Wilhelm, I could feel only sadness at the poverty that he and his family lived in, and, even though he was quite sickly, I was most in awe of the strength and determination he showed in trying to free himself from the clutches of his dire circumstances. Of course, prior to reading this story, I had never thought of the Brothers Grimm as youthful with romantic conquests in their lives, having always pictured them as decrepit old men sitting at their antique secretaires transcribing their stories into massive tomes by candlelight, never once giving thought to their circumstances nor that these works were done in the midst of the ravages of war, so thanks should surely go to Ms Forsyth for educating me.
Like many others out there I, too, was brought up with the tales of the Brothers Grimm and, whilst I was introduced as a child to Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin (to name a few), Kate Forsyth reveals through this novel that there are so many more which found their way into the world albeit with far grimmer beginnings. Who knew that the original works were so gruesome!
I also didn’t’ realise the depth of destruction that the Napoleonic wars left in their wake and, while I wish I had listened more intently to my school history lessons about Napoleon, Kate Forsyth provided me with an illuminating historical backdrop and, through her extensive research, has done a brilliant job in exploring the little known historical facts about Dortchen Wild’s life and blending it with fiction.
Ultimately an enduring love story spanning almost two decades, Ms Forsyth does weave some terribly dark and disturbing scenes into this novel and, while the subject matter is dealt with skillfully and sensitively, leaving it to the reader’s imagination rather than plying us with a graphically articulated narrative, we are given a glimpse into Dortchen and Wilhelm’s lives which, long after the final page was turned, profoundly impacted this reviewer’s thoughts.
Rich and imaginative, Kate Forsyth vividly evokes the scenery, the depth of human emotion, the violence of war and some fascinating herb lore as her characters attempt to overcome life’s adversities, and I do believe that she has gifted us with a memorable literary exploration of the life of a girl who lived her own dark fairytale!
I wish to thank both Random House Australia and The Reading Room for providing me with a hard copy of this novel.
A Little about the Author (taken from Random House's website)
Kate Forsyth is the internationally bestselling author of more than twenty books, including The Witches of Eileanan and Rhiannon's Ride series for adults, and The Puzzle Ring, The Gypsy Crown, and The Starthorn Tree for children.
She has won or been nominated for numerous awards. Her books have been published in 13 different countries, including Japan, Poland, Spain and Turkey, and Kate is currently undertaking a doctorate in fairytale retellings at the University of Technology and recently published Bitter Greens, a retelling of the Rapunzel story.