The Wild Girl…
Dortchen Wild fell in love with Wilhelm Grimm the first time she saw him.
Growing up in the small German kingdom of Hessen-Cassel in the early Nineteenth century, Dortchen Wild is irresistibly drawn to the boy next door, the young and handsome fairy tale scholar Wilhelm Grimm.
It is a time of war, tyranny and terror. Napoleon Bonaparte wants to conquer all of Europe, and Hessen-Cassel is one of the first kingdoms to fall. Forced to live under oppressive French rule, the Grimm brothers decide to save old tales that had once been told by the firesides of houses grand and small all over the land.
Dortchen knows many beautiful old stories, such as Hansel and Gretel, The Frog King and Six Swans. As she tells them to Wilhelm, their love blossoms. Yet the Grimm family is desperately poor, and Dortchen’s father has other plans for his daughter. Marriage is an impossible dream.
Dortchen can only hope that happy endings are not just the stuff of fairy tales.
The Wild Girl is the story of Dortchen Wild, the girl who lived next door to the Grimm family; the girl who told her stories to the Grimm brothers who in turn published them as what we now know to be, ‘Grimm’s Fairytales’. She was beautiful and full of life, brimming with joy, in love with Wilhelm Grimm and ever hopeful that she would one day get her happy ever after with the young man of her dreams.
“Wild by name and wild by nature.”
Until she wasn’t. Until she was broken and destroyed, a shell of her former self with no clear path of escape from the terrible realm her life had evolved into. I have rarely been so touched and deeply affected by a novel, but The Wild Girl has a way of penetrating your senses and taking you over. So beautiful and tragic in alternating waves, unfolding against a backdrop of political tyranny within the Napoleanic era and played out in a domestic setting besieged by terror and depravity, this is not a novel for the feint hearted.
The opening scene is so beautiful, Dortchen, dancing in the forest in her black mourning clothes in the twilight on the eve of her father’s death; that vivid contrast of black against the stark white snow, black ravens flying overhead, her unbridled joy at her impending freedom. At this point in time, the reader has no knowledge of what has brought Dortchen to this point, we can only imagine and think that she is on the brink of beginning something new. But the death of Dortchen’s father does not set her free as she might have imagined it would while dancing in the snow that evening. She is haunted, quite literally, by all that has come before and all that she has endured, and peace is in the end a long time coming for Dortchen.
The long and rather complicated love story of Dortchen and Wilhelm is perhaps one of the greatest literary ones I have ever encountered. Fraught with obstacles, they circle around each other, desperate to be together while being fully aware of its near impossibility. The limitations of their positions within society, Dortchen as a woman and Wilhelm as an impoverished scholar, there is nothing either can do to change the course of their lives.
There are many deeply moving moments between the two, but one that stands out as a favourite of mine was this exchange:
‘Your book is wonderful. One day you’ll be famous. Everyone will say to me, “Is it true you knew the famous Grimm brothers?” And I will fan myself and put on airs, saying, “Indeed, they lived right next door to me. I used to make them bread soup.'”
Then Wilhelm said in a gruff voice, ‘One day people will say to me, “Is it true your wife told you all those marvellous old stories?” And I’ll say, “Yes, indeed, that’s how we fell in love.”‘
There was a long silence. Dortchen was so choked with tears that she could not speak. They spilt down her cheeks, and Wilhelm put up his bare hand and wiped them away.
I love this moment. It’s simplicity is so profoundly moving and so telling, of so many things, that exist between Dortchen and Wilhelm.
Kate Forsyth states in the acknowledgements section that writing The Wild Girl was intense, challenging and, at times, very difficult. I can only imagine how harrowing this might have been because it wrought all of those emotions within me as I read it. As Dortchen’s situation with her father unfolds and deteriorates, we are taken to some very dark places, yet Kate is in no way vulgar with her depictions. Rather, her way of writing transports you right into Dortchen, deep inside her consciousness, so that we feel her experiences, and we know exactly what is happening to her and the effect this is having on her state of being. I thought Kate did a brilliant job of portraying this aspect of Dortchen’s life and it lent a lot of credibility to the overall story, perhaps giving us the most accurate reason possible for why Dortchen waited ten years past her father’s death before she could at last embrace her own future.
When Dortchen told Wilhelm the tale, All Kinds of Fur, I was quite overcome by the enormity of this act, yet Wilhelm misunderstood and it was some years on before he fully comprehended what Dortchen had been attempting to tell him. He modified the already published tales, extracting the parts that reflected the truth of what Dortchen had suffered and released the new versions in a new edition that garnered more success than the previous darker published book. An act of love and faith on Wilhelm’s part that did not go unnoticed by Dortchen. Her story is the true fairytale behind all of the others, as equally dark and disturbing, but thankfully, also with its eventual happy ever after.
This truly is an amazing novel, a fine example of what can be achieved with an idea, research, passion, and an immense talent. My favourite by Kate Forsyth so far, but this in no way diminishes her other novels. Her storytelling is brave and bold, and always rendered with exquisite beauty. We are so lucky she decided to share this part of herself with the world.
The Wild Girl is book 30 of my 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.