Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales Book Cover
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Book Review: Clever Maids – The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales

Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales 
Valerie Paradiž

Clever Maids was published in 2005, and includes illustrations by Walter Crane that were originally published in Household Stories from the Collection of the Brothers Grimm in 1886. 


Most people are familiar with the stories of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, but very few know that behind the Brothers Grimm and their famous fairy tales stood a network of sisters—and mothers, neighbors, and female friends. In this intimate history, writer and German scholar Valerie Paradiž tells the real story of one of the greatest literary collaborations of the nineteenth century, and gives the long-lost women narrators of our most beloved tales their due. 

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, collectors and editors of more than two hundred folk stories, were major German intellects of the nineteenth century, and contemporaries of Goeth and Schiller. But as Paradiž reveals here, the romantic image of the two brothers traveling the countryside, transcribing tales told to them by ordinary peasants, is far from the truth. In fact, more than half the fairy tales the Grimm brothers collected were actually contributed by their educated female friends from the bourgeois and aristocratic classes. 

Set against the backdrop of the chaotic Napoleonic wars and the high years of German romanticism, Clever Maids chronicles one of the most fascinating literary enterprises in European history and brilliantly captures the intellectual spirit of the men and women of the age. Even more, it illuminates the ways in which the Grimm tales, with their mythic portrayals of courage, sacrifice, and betrayal, still speak so powerfully to us today. 

Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales Book Cover


In the introduction to Clever Maids, Valerie Paradiž asks “Why are the Grimms’ fairy tales so compelling?” – which is of course, a question asked of all texts and story collections that have lasted through the ages. Fortunately, Paradiž offers a satisfying answer:

The shock factor of their raunchy humor, sexual and physical violence, and outrageous gender inequity is spellbinding for modern readers who are accustomed to far more innocuous children’s literature. The stories’ rich narrative strains—of good and evil, of wealthy and poor, of heroic and helpless—penetrate our collective psyche with their mythic portrayals of our humanity, and our inhumanity. We feel a voice speaking to us through the centuries, and that’s just what the fairy tales are: stories that have been transmitted orally, generation to generation, from as far back as antiquity and the Middle Ages.

Cultural details or references may be unfamiliar in stories passed down from previous generations, or those being read by someone unfamiliar with the author and/or stories’ homeland. But the messages, the themes, the emotions all transcend language and last through time because humans cannot help but be interested in themselves. I don’t mean that negatively (in this case); we use storytelling as a method to preserve our history, maintain or speak out against social structures, and carry on traditions that are dear to us. These are all things that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm sought out to do with their collection of German tales, and they certainly succeeded. Although the Grimm brothers were interested in what the stories said or meant (according to Paradiž), the ways in which they acquired the tales – socially, with women they were related to or had some connection to – shows that they were also interested in preserving pieces and comforts of their own lives, although they stopped short of identifying the direct impact of those female relatives and friends.

Clever Maids is written chronologically, starting with a brief history of the brothers’ parents. When Jacob and Wilhelm were about ten and nine years old, their father, Phillipp, contracted pneumonia and died (1796). This was pivotal in their lives not just because of the loss of their father, but because losing him meant losing their social standing.  Fortunately, per the picture Paradiž paints, the brothers, their mother, and the rest of the Grimm siblings (four others) looked out for each other quite devotedly. Jacob especially, since being the oldest thrust him into the patriarchal role. His concern for his siblings and relationship with his mother seem to have been quite steadfast throughout his life.

The personal details and Paradiž’s commentary about the Grimms themselves and the people in their social circles are quite seamlessly intertwined with historical details of the state of Europe in the early 1800’s. Knowing little else but general information about the Napoleonic Wars, Paradiž managed to both educate me and effectively give context to the hardships the Grimms faced outside of familial circumstances. Paradiž also managed to adequately balance the historical context with the progression of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s education, the former brother’s worry for his siblings and mother, and the latter brother’s struggles with health.

Paradiž’s narration is one nearing perfection. Her presentation of the facts is clear and direct, as are her notes and comments on the Grimm brother’s actions, certain tales, and big picture ideas. It’s quite apparent that Paradiž disagrees with the exclusion of the women story tellers throughout history, and yet she is patient in terms of making sure each chapter is adequately set up and certain details are established so that her words and points feel all the more profound.

Even with the impressive blend of European history and the Grimm family history, I do feel a bit let down by the other piece of the book – the piece that made me want to pick it up in the first place. I expected more pages to be devoted to the women who were really the creators of the fairy tale collection bearing the Grimm name. Valerie Paradiž certainly gave them their due in terms of explicitly attributing many of the tales to female friends and acquaintances, but I expected to learn more about their histories as well. For example, the Hassenpflug family was quite close to the Grimms, and one of the daughters, Marie Hassenpflug, contributed about twenty tales. In fact, Valerie Paradiž writes:

Marie’s additions of such classics as “Sleeping Beauty” and “Red Riding Hood” inspired the brothers in their historical research and caused them to view folklore in ever more international terms. (p. 90)

“Red Riding Hood” was one of the most significant stories to appear in volume one of the Children’s and Household Fairy Tales…Contributed by Marie Hassenpflug, it would establish the Grimm name as a household term in countries all around the world. (p. 118)

Charlotte Grimm, or Lotte, Marie Hassenpflug, and Dortchen Wild are the three women (apart from Dorothea Grimm, the matriarch of the family) we learn the most about, although it’s always in terms of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Charlotte was the only sister and the youngest sibling; Marie (and her sisters) was Lotte’s friend, and because she lived near the Grimm’s she was an acquaintance of Jacob and Wilhelm; Dortchen Wild also lived nearby, and she and Wilhelm married later on. Other contributors included the wife and sister of the Grimm brothers’ two mentors, Bettina von Arnim (to whom the first edition and volume was dedicated); relatives Jenny and Annette von Droste-Hülshoff; the von Haxthausens sisters, with whom the Grimm brothers became acquainted in their travels; the woman who contributed “Cinderella”, Madame d’Aulnoy; and Dorothea Viehmann, whom the Grimm brothers also met while abroad: “In volume two of the Children’s and Household Fairy Tales, the brother honored her with pride of place, even crediting Viehmann by name in the foreward.” Dorothea’s portrait was also drawn by the youngest Grimm brother, Ludwig, and appeared as the frontispiece of the 1819 edition – she contributed over forty stories.

The point I’m trying to make here is that I was hoping to find out more about the women on their own terms, and not in relation to the Grimm brothers’ lives. I’m not sure if this is particularly Valerie Paradiž’s fault; I don’t know what information is or isn’t out there (I also haven’t read the sources she lists at the back of her book), and as such my expectation may have been unreasonable. Even so, I can’t seem to shake this little ounce of disappointment.

I don’t want the previous paragraph to turn readers away from Clever Maids. The book is still an incredible account of history and the lives of the Grimm brothers, and importantly brings to light the true sources of the well known (and those that are not so well known) fairy tales and how collaborative this project really was. The book speaks volumes about not just how impactful the women in Jacob and Wilhelm’s lives were, but on a larger scale, how gatekeeping, even when seemingly done in favor of the “greater good,” can have such a large impact on which parts of history are remembered and forgotten.

Thus, both Perrault’s and the Grimm’s fairy tale anthologies depended upon female storytellers for their greater dissemination throughout Europe, and indeed the world. As scholars, they placed their own names on the books they edited, but they allowed the identities of their collaborators to be subsumed by the idea that the stories represented not the ladies themselves but a far greater folk spirit, much in the way that the all-powerful patriarch in a fairy tale can demand sacrifices of his daughter in the name of a greater good.


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