The Making of THE WILD GIRL
by Kate Forsyth on 2 April 2013
I stumbled across the story of Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild quite by accident one day.
I was busy researching the sources of Rapunzel, one of the Grimm brothers’ best-known fairytales, for my novel BITTER GREENS, which I was then writing.
I had bought a book called Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales by the US writer and academic, Dr Valerie Paradiž, little knowing that I had just changed the course of my own life.
Clever Maids debunks the myth that the Grimm brothers travelled the German countryside, collecting stories from old shepherds tending their flocks, and elderly peasant women rocking by the fire, their fingers busy with their knitting. Instead, it revealed most of the stories were told to the Grimm brothers by their friends and neighbours – young, middle-class women.
One of these young women was Dortchen Wild. She grew up next door to the Grimms in the small medieval market-square of Hessen-Cassel. She was just 19 years old when she began telling Wilhelm the stories she knew – tales that are now known the world over, tales like ‘Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, The Frog King, and Six Swans. They fell in love, but were forbidden to marry. It would take another thirteen years of war, death, famine and heartbreak until, at last, the two were free to marry and build a life together.
I knew as soon as I read about Dortchen Wild that I had to write a novel based on her life.
I didn’t realise what a challenge this would be!
The world knows very little about the Wild family – unlike the Grimms, who have been researched exhaustively.
We know – thanks to Dr Paradiž – that Dortchen had five sisters and one brother, and that she grew up in a rambling old house above her father’s apothecary shop. We know that her father was a stern man who had a famous garden in which he grew many plants for use in his remedies.
We also know that Dortchen had a childhood crush on Wilhelm which she confessed in a letter to Lotte Grimm, his younger sister.
We know that they met in 1805 and married in 1825.
It was not much to weave a tale with.
So began a long, arduous research process that hit setback after setback.
I wrote to Dr Paradiž asking if she had any further research that may be of use to me. She told me that she had moved house, and thrown every single bit of work she had done on Clever Maids into the garbage bin.
I hired a German translator to help me with research on the ground in Germany. He was hit by a car, and spent months in rehabilitation.
I found a German academic who specialised in Grimm research. He promised to find out what I needed to know and email me back within the week. I never heard from him again. I think he died. Or changed his email address to avoid my increasingly anxious queries.
Gradually, I began to piece together the key details of Dortchen’s life. I found mentions of her in footnotes and in academic essays. I read her birth records and realised that the official date of her birth was wrong by three years. I realised that the kingdom of Hessen-Cassel was one of the first to fall to Napoleon’s Grand Army, and – not knowing a thing about Napoleon – set about discovering everything I could about him. I identified which stories she had told Wilhelm, and when – and then I read them over and over again, wondering about the girl who could tell such beautiful and frightening tales. I puzzled over the darkness at the heart of many of her stories. I imagined her telling them to Wilhelm, these stories of thwarted desire and abandonment and silenced women. I imagined how Dortchen and Wilhelm might have begun to fall in love. I thought very deeply about what stories are really for – why do we tell them? Why do we want to hear them? What power do they hold?
One day, searching blindly through the internet for more background on the Wild family, I stumbled across a blog by a German cartoonist and artist named Irmgard Peters. With the help of Google Translate, I read a story she had posted about a small white cot that had been passed down through her family for generations. Dortchen Wild and her sisters had slept in that cot as young children, when they were first told the stories that later became the backbone of the Grimm brother’s fairy tale collection.
I wrote to Frau Peters in high excitement. She wrote back to me and confirmed that she was the descendant of Rudolf Wild, Dortchen’s older brother. Over the next few years she shared with me many snippets of family lore, sent me photos of family portraits, and translated many German texts for me, including Wilhelm’s unpublished diary.
With her help, I was able to uncover many aspects of Dortchen and Wilhelm’s romance that nobody had ever known before . . . and so was able to bring to life one of the great untold love stories of history . . .
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Kate Forsyth is the internationally bestselling author of more than twenty books, including The Witches of Eileanan and Rhiannon's Ride fantasy series for adults. She completed a doctorate in fairytale retellings and the novels that have come out of this fascination include the winner of the 2015 American Libraries Association Prize for Historical Fiction, Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl and the forthcoming The Beast's Garden. Her books have been published in fourteen different countries, including Japan, Poland, Spain, Russia and Turkey. Kate has also written series for children of all ages and the contemporary novel Dances on Knives.