The Wild Girl was an unexpected delight. I loved Forsyth’s Witches of Eileanan series, and I loved the Rhiannon series even more. But those were both fantasy and she could do whatever she wanted in those worlds. I was a little bit alarmed? taken aback? Maybe even a bit worried? To see that she had turned her pen to historical fiction. Would her research be thorough? Would the tale be interesting, or would it fall flat, as happens with so many historical fiction novels? Would it plain old boring? Worst of all, would it be such an inaccurate history that it would actually make me love her fantasy novels less for it? I’d be lying if I said these thoughts hadn’t all crossed my mind.
Here be spoilers….
I am delighted that such was not the case! This was a masterfully crafted novel, the characters well developed, the research extensive. From the start, I was captivated, and Forsyth kept me in her thrall like so many wizards and witches from the fairy tales the Brothers Grimm wrote about.
The novel opens with Dortchen Wild dancing alone in a snowy wood, rejoicing in the death of her father. At length, we learn why she was glad when he died, and anyone else who knew about him would have been dancing right alongside her. Certainly I did a happy dance in my chair as I read. My only regret was that his death hadn’t come a good 15 years earlier than it did. Vile bastard.
The relationship between Dortchen and Wilhelm Grimm was so entirely human. It was full of love and pain and life. It had many wasted years, though as Wilhelm said, perhaps they were not wasted. If their path had been smoother, maybe he wouldn’t have had so much time to write what is now one of the most beloved collections of children’s fairy tales in the world. Maybe, too, Dortchen wouldn’t have had the time to exorcise the demons her father created in her and her marriage to Wilhelm wouldn’t have been as happy. Who knows. But in a sad way, it also seems completely appropriate that the source of so many of the Grimm’s tales had such a terrible childhood, such a horrible father, such horrific events to have lived through. Because, really, as GK Chesterton reminds us, what else do fairy tales teach us but that dragons can be killed, that evil can be overcome?
Dortchen’s life is depicted throughout the novel in wonderful, sometimes brutal and painful detail. I can almost smell the stillroom where she prepared herbs for her father’s apothecary shop, see the garden where she grew her vegetables and plants, the forest that was so often her refuge. Cassel sounds like a lovely little village, and I am determined to visit it if possible next time I go to Europe.
I confess I don’t know a whole lot about Napoleon. What immediately comes to mind is the line from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: He’s a short, dead dude. The rest of my knowledge of Napoleon comes mostly from British history on the topic – a biased source if ever there was one! So I hadn’t known that in some ways, the changes he made to the laws were actually considered favorable, or that they were missed when he finally abdicated. It was interesting to learn how people in small towns might have reacted to him, how he might have influenced their daily lives, how they might have reacted to his abdication or to the Russians. It was interesting to see how it affected Dortchen’s life, and how it wove its way into her interpretation of the stories she told to Wilhelm.
Prior to reading The Wild Girl, I had never even heard of Dortchen Wild, nor understood her importance to the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. Certainly I never knew that Wilhelm Grimm ended up marrying his primary source! The cynic in me says he did so in order to have direct access to her for his own work. Fortunately, his own writing and diaries prove otherwise, that he genuinely loved his Wild girl. I am glad that, at least for Dortchen, fairy tales do sometimes come true.