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The Wild Girl tells one of the greatest untold love stories of all time – the heart-breaking romance between Wilhelm Grimm and the young woman who told him many of his most famous stories. Her name was Dortchen Wild, and she grew up next door to the Grimm family in Hessen-Cassel, a small German kingdom that was one of the first to fall to Napoleon. It was a time of war and tyranny and terror, when the collecting of a few old half-forgotten tales was all the young Grimm brothers could do to resist the oppressive rule of the French.
The True History of the Grimm tales:
Dortchen first met the Grimm brothers in 1805, when she was twelve. One of six sisters, Dortchen lived in the medieval quarter of Cassel, a town famous for its grand royal palace, its colossal statue of Herkules, and a fairytale castle of turrets and spires built as a love nest for the Prince-Elector's mistress. Dortchen was the same age as Lotte Grimm, the only girl in the Grimm family, and the two became best friends.
In 1806, Hesse-Cassel was invaded by the French. Napoleon created a new Kingdom of Westphalia, under the rule of his dissolute young brother Jérôme. The Grimm brothers began collecting fairy tales that year, wanting to save the old stories told in spinning-circles and by the fire from the domination of French culture. Dortchen was the source of many of the tales in the Grimm brother's first collection of fairy tales, which was published in 1812, the year of Napoleon's disastrous march on Russia.
Dortchen told Wilhelm ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Six Swans’, “Rumpelstilstkin’, ‘The Frog King’, ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, ‘The Singing Bone’, and many, many more.
Dortchen's own father was cruel and autocratic. He frowned on the friendship between his daughters and the poverty-stricken Grimm Brothers. Dortchen had to meet Wilhelm in secret to tell him her stories. All the other sisters married and moved away, but Dortchen had to stay home and care for her sick parents. Even after the death of her father, Dortchen and Wilhelm could not marry – the Grimm brothers were so poor they were surviving on a single meal a day.
After the overthrow of Napoleon and the eventual success of the fairy tale collection, Dortchen and Wilhelm were at last able to marry. They lived happily ever after with Wilhelm's elder brother Jakob for the rest of their lives.
The Story Behind the Story:
I first stumbled upon the beautiful love story of Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild when I was doing the research for my novel ‘Bitter Greens.’
I knew at once I had to turn it into a book. The story had everything I love in a novel – romance, drama, heartbreak, and – most importantly, perhaps, for me – the redemptive power of storytelling.
It was possibly the most difficult and challenging book I have ever written, primarily because the Grimm brothers are so revered and so much has been written about them – the research took me forever!
Dortchen, however, was a mystery. I had only a few letters written by her, and not much written about her, and so I had to imagine what her life must have been like, with the help of letters and diaries of other women of her time. I spent so much time imagining myself into her skin she began to haunt my dreams – and not all of her life was beautiful. In the end, I felt as if writing this book was a way to help Dortchen exorcise her demons … and allow me to dream sweetly again.