the key to the myths has a small spot of blood on it

Marie-Jeanne L'Héritier (1664-1734) was Charles Perrault’s niece. According to the reliable Joan DeJean, she was one of a group of women writers in the late 17th century who were uncommonly common writers of the French fiction of the time – in a list of French novelists of the late 17th century published by Maurice Lever, women constitute about 33 percent of the names. They were, of course, attacked as women by such upholders of the standards as Boileau. The Journal de Scavans published an Eloge de Mademoiselle L'Héritier – a sort of obituary – from which LI culls these facts

- Her father was an “amateur of the sciences” and a ‘historiograph” at the court. Her father’s family was an ancient and noble one, from Normandy, while her mother was a Le Clerc, another connected family. She was educated by her father, developing a precocious interest in history and fable. Her father, meanwhile, was translating Grotius and aligning himself with Cardinal Mazarin, who gave him a pension. Surely he must have known Gabriel Naude, Mazarin’s secretary. When her father died, she started writing poetry – and she must have done some singing, too, as it is noted that her voice was beautiful. She wrote a defense of Madame Houlieres – about whom we wrote a post a while back. Houlieres was an epicurean, and had been attacked as a blue stocking in a satire to which L'Héritier indignantly replied.
- She gained the protection, at the court, of the Duchesse de Nemours. After her death, she edited her memoirs.
- Her lasting work is the Shadowy Tower, which contains the tale of Ricden-Ricdon. This work is supposedly translated from English – the English of King Richard the Lion Hearted.
- She gathered about her a small salon. Never married. A ‘malady’ is mentioned. Never complained.
Interesting, her obituary doesn’t mention Perrault. It does ring the chimes on her distinguished moral qualities, which are the flowers that fade first – no one would say the same thing about Ninon Lenclos. In fact, Perrault was close to the age’s premier transvestite, Francois Timoleon de Choisy, who was close to Louis’ brother, Monsieur, who was a royal sodomite not shy of asserting his royal perogatives, and duly noted in Saint Simon’s memoirs. In such a society, moral qualities have to be, at the very least, accomodating.

Some recent writers on the fairy tale have claimed that Perrault’s tales survived while his female fairy tale competitors, like L'Héritier, fell into oblivion through sheer sexism. LI thinks that this is a great underestimation of Perrault. It is easy to see why Perrault survived – he had a great sense for what can be cut. He explains – in his morals – what has happened, and the explanations are at such a lower level than the tale that they pose the question of whether Perrault understood his own stories – and that, of course, has led to the endless search for their real, oral sources. L'Héritier’s stories obviously influenced Perrault’s, but she liked her explanations – which, of course, are not for children. Children might ask questions about the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, but they are all questions about how dangerous he is, and whether he might be hiding under the bed, and whether Daddy could kill him. They do not ask about the lamentable events that may have impressed him with the wrong lessons about character and fate. L'Héritier is more interested in the latter.

Here’s a story about Perrault. He was, as my readers might not know, one of the designers of buildings and parks under Louis XIV. He adviced Colbert on public works. It is said that Colbert, at one point, had decided to close Tuileries to the public, after Lenotre had replanted the garden. Perrault proposed that they go for a stroll along the walks. While walking, Perrault observed: You wouldn’t believe, monsieur, the respect everyone has for this garden, down to the tiniest bourgeois – not only women and children never take it upon themselves to pluck any of the flowers, but even to touch them. They all walk about like reasonable people, as the gardeners can testify. It would be a public affliction not to be able to promenade here. – They are all slackers (faineants) who come here, brusquely interrupted the minister. – There comes here, Perrault began again, invalids who need to take a little air; one comes here to talk of business affairs, of marriages, of all kinds of things that are spoken of more agreeably in a garden than in a church, where it will be necessary in the future to meet. I am firmly of the belief that royal gardens are so grand and so spacious only in order that all their children can walk there.” Colbert was struck by this last reflection, and went out of the Tuileries without ordering the gates to close, which remained open as before.”

That some things should be spoken of in gardens and others in churches is one of those ideas which, in our day, have been hammered into theoretical dullness via Habermas’ notion of the public conversational space. But Perrault’s consciousness of the coming and going of people and his “town” attitude carries over into his preservation of certain oral nuances in his tales that he wasn’t always fully in control of. In Barbe-bleu, the wife of Barbe-Bleu cannot wipe off the blood on the key that she has used to open the bloody chamber because, Perrault says, the key is fee - it is fairy, it is charmed. A charmed key is the key to the mythologies, no? The messages in Perrault’s tale are in a sense like the people in the garden – they are not, in their individuality, in their entrances, exits, thoughts, words, things planned by the gardener, and yet the plan of the garden accepts them as part of it. They pass through.

... Well, LI is way behind on all projects, and has not even advanced an iota on Adam Smith/Ricdin-Ricdon and the peculiarly nursery rhyme like construction of a pin. What can we say? We suck.


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