Wilhelm Grimm: the quintessential romantic hero?

One of the problems of writing historical fiction which draws on the lives of real people is that, well, they’re real people. And if you are trying your best to be true to their life, you can’t go mucking round with known facts. Well, at least, I can’t. It’s important for me to be as historically accurate as I can, whilst still weaving a vivid and compelling story.

My latest novel THE WILD GIRL tells the story of star-crossed lovers Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, drawn irresistibly together by their love of old half-forgotten stories but kept inexorably apart by parental disapproval, poverty, and war.

Yep, that Wilhelm Grimm. One half of the famous Grimm brothers, whose collection of fairy tales is one of the famous books of all time. Most people do not know that his one true love, the woman who would become his wife, was one of the primary oral sources of the tales. Dortchen Wild grew up next door to the Grimm family and was best friends with the only girl of the family, Lotte Grimm. Dortchen told Wilhelm such famous stories as Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, The Frog King, Six Swans, and The Singing Bone, when she was just nineteen years old, and Wilhelm in his mid-20s. They fell in love, but many obstacles stood in their path and it would be another fourteen years before they could marry.

Well, that’s the first thing I’d have changed, if I could. Fourteen years is a long time to maintain suspense and narrative tension in a novel (though luckily lots of other interesting things happened, like Napoleon’s disastrous march on Moscow, his defeat and imprisonment, and then his dramatic escape to gather another army and wage war on Europe again.)

Another problem I had is that Wilhelm Grimm is not most women’s idea of a heartthrob romantic hero. Most illustrations of him are stern and unsmiling, and quite a few of them show him in his dotage, a grumpy old man.

The truth is he was strikingly handsome as a young man, in a pale and poetic sort of way. He had suffered asthma as a child, and in his 20s was ill with a frightening and painful heart condition that may have been caused by panic attacks, or by mercury treatments for his asthma, or may have been a condition such as paroxysmal auricular tachycardia, which basically means an abnormally fast heartbeat that comes without warning. He was also devout and driven by a strong sense of duty to his family.

So Wilhelm was not your usual Alpha male.

Luckily for me, I’ve never been a fan of those big, brutish thugs you see bare-chested on romance novels. I’ve always preferred a more Byronic hero. You know, with pale hollow cheeks and tousled dark hair that you just long to stroke away from his dark eyes that are fixed intensely on your face, your mouth.

A man who loves books and music and art, and wants a woman who can match him for wit and ardour.

A man that talks of poetry and passion, not huntin’ and fishin’.

Wilhelm was the poet of the two brothers. It was Wilhelm who rewrote the fairy tales with such aching beauty that they have been read and re-read for the past two hundred years.

Wilhelm wrote of the fairy tales: ‘ín the myths which tell of the golden age, all Nature is animate, and the sun, moon and stars are approachable, give presents, or let themselves be woven into clothes, while in the mountains the dwarves dig metal, the water nymphs sleep in the water, the birds, plants and stones speak and know how to express their sympathy, blood itself calls out and speaks.’

And Wilhelm wrote of his love for Dortchen: ‘I have never ceased to thank God for the blessing and happiness of this marriage. I had known my wife ever since she was a child, and my mother loved her like one of her own, without ever guessing that one day she would be.’

Now that’s my kind of man!

Kate Forsyth
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