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Clever Maids

Valerie Paradiz

The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales

(Basic Books)

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were prolific German scholars, yet the work they are best known for, the one that will eternally bear their name was not actually authored by them. The genesis of the Grimm’s Children’s and Household Fairy Tales, is the fascinating subject of Valerie Paradiz’s Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales.


The brothers Grimm could have gleaned the bulk of the tales from the dusty old books they were wont to frequent, but, spurred by German nationalism in an era of Napoleonic domination, they were searching for something simpler, richer, something more quintessentially German. They believed that a “Volk” spirit (i.e., the spirit of the commoner) could more accurately be found in the hearts and souls of young German women, who had heard the tales from their mothers and nannies. Although there were some male contributors, the focus of Paradiz’s skillful narration traces the assemblage of Children’s and Household Fairy Tales to at least 20 core female collaborators who provided the Grimms with over half of their stories, including some of the collection’s most memorable: Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Cap, and The Goose Maid.


The real genius of Paradiz’s book is her ability to interweave the fairy tales with the biography. For instance, The Singing Bone, a grisly tale of fratricide, was communicated to Wilhelm Grimm by his future wife, Dortchen Wild (one of the book’s main collaborators), while she and Wilhelm were embroiled in what appears to have been a lover’s triangle with Ferdinand Grimm. The chapter entitled “The Six Swans”, juxtaposes a tale of sisterly self-sacrifice with Lotte Grimm’s unwillingness to be a domestic slave to her four brothers.


Paradiz is a something of a social historian as well as a German scholar (she includes many quotes directly from original source material), and her feminist slant is well taken. In addition to portraying the domestic woes of Lotte Grimm and the lack of credited authorship for most of the collection’s female collaborators, she also successfully illustrates how the tales themselves portray the social inequity of those that told them. It was as if, in telling these stories to the Grimm brothers, the young women were “giving a voice to their voicelessness.”


Clever Maids is a scholarly but immensely readable work, and will captivate anyone interested in folk history, German scholarship, or women’s studies.

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