| Detail from Pieter Breugel’s Battle Between Carnival and Lent
“By God! if wommen hadde writen stories…” — Chaucer, “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue”
In the early years of the 1810s, the dusk of the first Empire, while Pride and Prejudice was being written and Fidelio was being revised, a tailor’s wife in Germany would come to sell eggs to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. The brothers, then in their thirties, would give her good coffee and make her tell them stories. With a “clear, sharp look in her eyes”, Katharina Viehmann recounted her tales. Wilhelm also writes that she told her stories “thoughtfully, accurately, with uncommon vividness and evident delight — first quite easily, but then, if required, over again, slowly, so that with a bit of practice it is possible to take down her dictation, word for word.” These Hausmärchen — together with many more, culled from other men and women — would become the “Nursery and Household Tales” for which the Brothers Grimm are remembered today.
One of Katharina’s stories — no. 34 in the Grimms’ collection — is about a girl called Elsie. Elsie’s family adored her for being kluge. This German word could mean anything from clever and shrewd to sensible and prudent, or even intelligent, judicious and wise. When a man called Hans came looking for a “smart” wife and started wooing Elsie, her mother assured him that Elsie could “see the wind coming up the street, and hear the flies coughing”. Then they all sat down to dinner, after which Elsie was sent down to the cellar to fetch some beer. Down in the cellar, she carefully did everything she was supposed to do, until suddenly, while waiting for the can to fill with beer, her eyes — she never let them be idle — spotted a pick-axe above her on the wall, left there by the masons. She immediately began to weep: “If I get Hans, and we have a child, and he grows big, and we send him into the cellar here to draw beer, then the pick-axe will fall on his head and kill him.”
As she went on weeping and screaming, every member of the household, including the servants, wondering about her delay, came down to look in the cellar, one by one, and Elsie managed to persuade them all about her pre-vision. “What a clever Elsie we have!” each of them said, and then sat down to weep with her. Hans, alone at table for some time now, went down to find out why nobody was returning with the beer, and found them all sitting with Elsie and weeping noisily. Finding this more than sufficient proof of Elsie’s smartness, Hans “seized her hand, took her upstairs with him, and married her”.
Some time passed, and Hans asked Elsie to go into the field to cut the corn and make some bread, while he went out “to earn some money”. “Yes, dear Hans,” she said, “I will do that.” Then she cooked some broth for herself and took it to the field with her. There she was faced with a series of dilemmas. “Shall I cut first, or shall I eat first'” She ate. “Shall I cut first, or shall I sleep first'” She slept — all evening, in the field. When Hans came along to find her sleeping, he went back home and brought a fowler’s net with little bells and hung it around her. Then he ran home, shut the house-door, sat down in his chair, “and worked”. It had become quite dark when Elsie awoke, and when she got up and started walking about, the bells of the net wouldn’t stop jingling about her. This alarmed her, and she “became uncertain whether she really was Clever Elsie or not”. “Is it I, or is it not I'” she asked herself. And from this point I must quote Katharina’s words as recorded by the Grimms.
“But Elsie knew not what answer to make of this, and stood for a time in doubt; at length she thought: ‘I will go home and ask if it be I, or if it be not I, they will be sure to know.’ She ran to the door of her own house, but it was shut; then she knocked at the window and cried: ‘Hans, is Elsie within'’ ‘Yes,’ answered Hans, ‘she is within.’ Hereupon she was terrified, and said: ‘Ah, heavens! Then it is not I,’ and went to another door; but when the people heard the jingling of the bells they would not open it, and she could get in nowhere. Then she ran out of the village, and no one has seen her since.”
There are plenty of stories of married couples in Grimm. My English edition says that these are all the work of the “townsmen of the 14th to the 16th centuries”, held in the memory of “story-wives” like Katharina. The “fun” of these stories is most often grounded in a brutally idiotizing poverty, against which these men and women pit a sort of violent cunning that turns out to be only the other side of stupidity. Modern adult readers, usually less heartless than children, are often left deeply disturbed or depressed by these pictures of conjugal life. In them, the wives are always expected to be prudent and industrious. They must be able to run the household and share the labour of their husbands, either farmers or craftsmen. Failing this, they would be scolded for being stupid (“You are the stupidest goose that ever waddled on God’s earth”) or brutalized for being lazy: “Long Laurence got up, seized both Lean Lisa’s withered arms in one hand, and with the other he pressed down her head into the pillow, let her scold, and held her until she fell asleep for very weariness.”
These then are the households of Reformation Europe — the Europe of the German Faustbuch, of Dürer’s woodcuts, engravings and etchings, of Breugel’s paintings teeming with beggars, cripples, lepers, thieves, fools, idiots and ordinary men, women and children, who live out proverbs, parables, sermons, allegories, games and festivities. In this Europe, house-doors would shut dangerously on the faces of madwomen, mystics, shrews and witches, who, if they escaped sainthood or the stake, would become part of a myriad wayfaring life outside the borders of law, sanity, prudence and piety. There is, in Elsie, something of that physically robust woman personifying Dürer’s “Melencolia I”, who sits in a sort of cluttered bafflement, having given up on trying to make sense of things. There is also, in Elsie, something of the medieval English mystic, Margery Kempe, who had dictated to a man living in “Dewchlond” her extraordinary spiritual life outside a dismal marriage and motherhood, always referring to herself as “ this creature [who] went out of her mind”. “You shall be eaten and gnawed,” Christ tells her in a vision, “by the people of the world just as any rat gnaws the stockfish.”
Yet there is something startlingly modern in Elsie’s moment of radical uncertainty, and then in the terrifying wedge that is driven into her sense of who she happens to be. With her overwhelming question — “Is it I, or is it not I'” — she seems to transcend her specifically woman’s story of exclusion and invisibility. As she wanders out of her sinister little village or town, its clever silence answering the mad jingling of her bells, she confronts, timelessly, what Michel Foucault has called “that great uncertainty external to everything”. The exchange with her husband — “Is Elsie within' Yes…she is within” — has the shock of a contemporary nightmare. She becomes a kin of the schizophrenic Karin in Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, who is unable any more to inhabit “two realities”, and is compelled to chose one of them as she puts on her dark glasses and climbs into the helicopter that would take her to hospital. I couldn’t also help thinking of Virginia Woolf, grande dame of madness in a war-ravaged England. “Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again,” began one of her last notes to Leonard. After she chose to disappear into a river, Clive Bell had hoped “for a day or two that she might have wandered off crazily, and might be found sleeping in a barn or buying biscuits in a village-shop”.
But while looking closely at Breugel’s Battle Between Carnival and Lent the other day, I suddenly found Elsie in it. In her smock, apron and head-scarf, and quite lost to the merry din around her — of fish-wives, pilgrims, swine and a fool in motley — she has just drawn a bucket of water from a well. Yet she seems to have forgotten her work. Her basket of greens abandoned at her feet, she peers into the bucket with the tragicomic bemusement of a simpleton. She seems startled by the white face that peers back at her from the water.