I’ve referred to this story before as ‘Patient Grethel’, but apparently my efforts to forget its existence were of some use after all because it’s actually ‘Patient Griselda’, at least in the 1999 edition of Puffin Books’ Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales I have on loan from the library. For classics like ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Cinderella’, we have the retellings of Charles Perrault to thank, so it’s not like I can completely ignore him, but he’s also to blame for retelling this particular story. If you haven’t heard of it before, let this be the warning you need to avoid it for the rest of your life.
It starts off as many fairy tales do, with a prince who is introduced as ‘youthful and gallant’, his greatest pleasure being in the continued happiness of his people. Or at least 50 % of them. The modern definition of the word gallant is all about courtesy, particularly towards women, but in ‘Patient Grethel’ it would seem Perrault is using a different application of the term, because this prince hates women. Convinced they are all faithless deceivers, he sees every woman as ‘a hypocrite…a cruel enemy whose unbroken ambition was the gain the mastery over whatever unhappy man might surrender to her’. So frail orphans and oppressed widows are okay, but if you’re just a regular woman in this man’s kingdom, watch out. His idea of the perfect wife is someone who will be totally subservient to his wishes without the slightest will of her own. And oh dear, one day while he’s on the hunt, rampaging through the woods after some unfortunate stag, he finds an innocent young sheperdess who offers him directions and a drink of water. She will come to regret that.
Her name is Griselda. She’s pretty and shy, used to living a simple life with her father in the hills, and the prince quickly decides she’s the One. The other girls who have been trying to get his attention start copying this new demure style, hoping to win favour; grandstands and floats are built, ballets and operas are written. The day of the wedding arrives and the prince heads off to propose. Because he hasn’t actually asked her yet. And when he does ask her, his condition is – and I QUOTE – ‘swear that you will never have any other wishes than what I shall desire’. Poor little lovesick Griselda agrees.
Despite her inexperience, she settles into her new role well, displaying homespun wisdom and making herself liked at court. When she gives birth to a beautiful little princess it seems everything couldn’t be more perfect. Her husband, however, relapses into his old misogynistic paranoia, suspecting her of lies and insincerity. His behaviour turns abusive, confining her to her rooms and stripping of the jewels he gave her himself not so long ago. She gives in to his every order, sure it is all just a test to prove her love. When he fails to raise a reaction with imprisonment and humiliation, he comes up with a plan so cruel it actually makes me sick to re-read. He walks in on his wife while she is nursing their baby and tells her that she is such a bad influence that he’s taking the princess away to be raised by somebody else. He isn’t even brave enough to watch when his people come to tear the baby from her mother’s arms. Griselda somehow forgives him for this, broken doormat of a woman that she is, but he can’t seem to resist torturing her. Only days later he goes to her again and says the baby has died. Mistaking what guilt his ugly heart is capable of producing for grief, she then tries to comfort him.
For FIFTEEN YEARS he sticks to this lie, leaving his daughter to be raised by nuns and his wife to grieve over the baby she lost. The princess grows up with her mother’s beauty and her father’s deadly charm, though without that sadistic streak that has totally consumed him. When she is glimpsed by a passing nobleman, it’s love at first sight. Her lover is wealthy, handsome, brave – her father is bound to try and make amends for wrecking her mother’s life by allowing her to be happy, right? Wrong. No, instead the prince announces that he’s marrying again. Marrying his own daughter. You heard me. Not that his poor deluded subjects know she’s his daughter, any more than the princess or her grief-wracked mother. Why is he doing this to everybody, when he knows the truth and has no intention of marrying the girl? Because he’s crazy. Totally, stark raving crazy.
So he breaks three hearts in one blow. He’s very good at that sort of thing by now. He sends Griselda back to her old life as a shepherdess, claiming she’s so ill born that he can’t possibly stay married to her. And what does Griselda do but apologise for making him angry. She hasn’t a clue what she’s done and she’s still feeling sorry for him, sure she’s done something terrible to make her deserve all this – a typical mindset in domestic violence cases, of which this whole story is so staggering an example. Her father is heartbroken at his own fall in stature and it falls to Griselda to be the strong one, insisting they will find peace and rest in their simple cottage. Which they might have done, if the prince could have left her the hell alone. But no, we’re dealing with a full-fledged psychopath here. He summons her back to the palace to attend his new bride-to-be – that is, their daughter. Brow-beaten and oblivious, Griselda obeys. She becomes so protective of her charge that she dredges some grit from somewhere and tells the prince that if he wants to marry this girl, he’ll have to show her more kindness than he ever showed her. The prince, predictably enough, tells her to shut up and do as she’s told.
The day of the prince’s second wedding arrives. In front of his assembled guests, he begins a little speech on how deceptive everybody really is and proves himself to be the ultimate hypocrite when he finally reveals his bride-to-be’s true identity. Griselda almost has a heart attack. All she can do is cry and hold her lost little girl. The princess, meanwhile, realises she’s got her life back. She marries her lover before her father can change his mind again and there’s a huge party in which everybody sweeps the horror story of the past fifteen years under the carpet, holding Griselda up not as a martyr to marital abuse, but ‘a model for women everywhere in the world’.
This story is disturbing on so many levels. Like, the prince survives, completely unpunished. Why didn’t his daughter’s boyfriend do the honorable thing and cut off his head or lock him up or something, like they do to all the other monsters in fairy tales? I would absolutely rather be kidnapped by dragons or ogres than live with someone like that. This is, at least, one of Perrault’s most obscure fairy tales. I was in my early teens when I came across it during a raid on my local library’s folklore and mythology section. Reading to the end in the naïve expectation that the evil prince would get his comeuppance, I was left in a state of dumbfounded outrage. My only comfort, re-reading it for this review, is remembering the immediate reaction of my younger self. That was, essentially, ‘Screw you, prince. I’m going to write my own fairy tales and you are going down’.
Here’s to impatient women everywhere.