A review of The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Wild Girl
By Kate Forsyth
Random House Australia
March 2013, Paperback, ISBN: 9781741668490, 560pages

There have been a great many novels built on the imagined secondary characters in the lives of literary giants like Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austin, Keats, and so on, but The Wild Girl, is the first time I’ve ever come across a novel that picks up on the Grimm brothers. There is something particularly special about this, because fairy tales are a kind of uber-literature, forming, orally, some of the earliest tales. They not only underpin much of modern literature in one way or another with their classic themes and conflicts that have been re-adapted in so many ways, they explore, in all sorts of metaphoric ways, the heart of what it means to be human. Though I have no idea what happened to them, I remember collecting Andrew Lang’s coloured fairy books as a child – and the excitement they caused me – from the jewel coloured covers to the beautiful plate illustrations and often dramatic and scary stories full of anxiety and triumph.

Kate Forsyth’s The Wild Girl picks up on the magic and classic appeal of the fairy tale, not only because of its subject matter, which builds on the thin threads we have of Wilhelm Grimm’s long standing romance with Dortchen Wild, the young woman who tells him many of his most enduring fairy tales, and who later becomes his wife, but also in its own unfolding, which is, in itself, a kind of fairy tale. The names of these characters alone would be enough to inspire a novel, but Forsyth goes deeper, exploring a range of themes that includes the impact of tyranny (shown on multiple levels – both domestic and historical), emotional strength and weakness as manifested in drug addiction and prejudice, and the enduring power of the human spirit and love even when under great duress. In short, The Wild Girl is a novel that speaks, like the fairy tales that are woven deftly throughout the narrative, to the very nature of human existence in all of its frailties and strengths.

The research for The Wild Girl is clearly extensive, and though it is the ongoing love story between Dortchen and Wilhelm that drives the narrative, it’s impossible not to be caught up in the Napoleonic Wars that form the historical backdrop for the novel.  Forsyth does a beautiful job of marrying the impact of the war on Hessen-Cassel, the German town that Dortchen and Grimm grow up in, with the day to day domestics of running these households:

It had been a year since the French army had marched into Hessen-Cassel.  Many things had changed for Dortchen in that time.  She was now fourteen and a half, and confined within stays that compressed her ribs and made her feel like she could not breathe. Her hair no longer swung free in a long plait but was curbed with a fistful of pins.  She no longer went to school but stayed at home helping her mother and sisters. Worst of all, she was no longer allowed to go out into the forest by herself, or even to the garden plot outside the town walls. (88)

We watch Dortchen grow up, through the hardships and privations that come with the war, through her mother’s illness and her father’s increasing tyranny. Dortchen’s father creates his own reign of terror and the mirroring of the political with the domestic is handled so deftly, that the reader feels it viscerally rather than experiences it intellectually. As Napoleon turns Hessen-Cassel into the Kingdom of Westphalia and puts his profligate brother Jérôme’s in charge. Jérôme proceeds to live to excess, holding grand balls while the population starves.  All of this is seen through Dortchen’s eyes as she comes of age through it the lens of the fairy tales she tells to Wilhelm.  An excerpt of many of these tales prefix each chapter, and while the reader becomes engrossed in Dortchen’s and Wilhelm’s personal stories, we never lose sight of the mythological, larger canvas or the fairytale nature of their own lives which are also mirrored in the stories.  Though the setting is absolutely realistic, rich with detail, from the herbs that Dortchen gathers in the forest, to the war and its impact, the gritty painful incidents at home, her mother’s illness, Wilhelm’s brother’s addiction, the real-life characters who people this novel, from Goethe to the dramatic Bettina Brentano, and the beauty of the natural world, there is also a sense of magic that underlies the work.  There is the transformative nature of the fairy tale as the stories begin to follow Dortchen’s personal character arc.  Dortchen’s influence over the stories is a powerful one, and as she convinces Wilhelm to retell the stories in a way that’s more affirmative and universally palatable, allowing light to overcome darkness, she also begins to remake her own story.  The Wild Girl is a visually beautiful novel that provides a meta-poetic retelling of the Grimms’ legend in a way that is both modern and classic.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks and Paul W Newman is her next guest. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.