You grew up with them all—Cinderella, the Fairy Godmother, the Prince, the Stepmother, the Secretary.
Once upon a time there was a gentleman who married, for his second wife, the proudest and most haughty woman that ever was seen. She had two daughters of her own, who were, indeed, exactly like her in all things. The gentleman had also a young daughter, of rare goodness and sweetness of temper…”
Then again, you might not know about the secretary. Charles Perrault (1628-1703), the man who transcribed Cinderella’s life, was the youngest son of an accomplished family. His father was a lawyer and his brother designed a wing of the Louvre.
The Attorney Who Told Tales
But Charles couldn’t settle on a living. To make his dad happy, he studied law and sat for the bar, but never practiced law. He worked under his brother for a while. He became a civil servant in the court of King Louis XIV, the Sun King.
He also served as secretary of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (the Department of Noble Inscriptions), which created Latin phrases for the king’s monuments. In that position, he did something amazing for an upper-class paper pusher—he stood against making the Tuileries Gardens a royal preserve and campaigned to keep them open to the public.
Perrault married at age 44, but his wife died in childbirth six years later. The couple had three sons and a daughter, whose schooling Perrault oversaw when he could.
In 1695, he lost his place as Académie secretary (perhaps for taking the wrong side, from his employer’s viewpoint, one too many times). He decided to devote himself to writing and completing his children’s education.
In 1697, at age 69, Perrault published Tales From Mother Goose. They made him an instant sensation and established a new literary genre, the fairy tale.
Touchingly, he used his youngest son’s name as a nom de plume.
Not All Child’s Play
Perrault’s adapted his tales from oral tradition, stories told by the common people. We’re not sure why he decided to write them down. Such tales became popular entertainment at the Sun King’s court, where the teller always embellished them and added a moral twist that favored the aristocracy.
Maybe Perrault observed such a performance and decided to give the folklore back to the folk (as he did with the Tuileries Gardens). His versions contained slightly subversive elements. When you think about it—dirt poor Cinderella outshines all those aristocratic hussies at the ball and marries her royal husband.
In moving from the Sun King’s secretary to Cinderella’s secretary, Perrault captured the most beloved fairy tales of all time. He died five years after their publication, at age 74.
If you haven’t read them lately, Project Gutenberg’s Tales From Mother Goose is a 1901 translation of:
And the Imaginary Museum has a fascinating Short History of Fairy Tales.
Did I Fail to Mention Disney?
That was on purpose.
What Later Bloomers Can Learn from Charles Perrault
- Perrault isn’t the only Later Bloomer to establish a new literary genre. So did Bram Stoker. Don’t underestimate the power of experience amplified by imagination.
- The world is filled with amazing stories, including yours. We need to hear them.
Artwork: Sleeping Beauty by John Collier (1921)