A common assumption people make is that fairy tales were written explicitly for children. Two important historical facts: first, children's literature doesn't emerge until the mid-eighteenth century, only to fully flourish in the nineteenth century; fairy tales were in circulation long before that. Second, from the early modern period through the nineteenth century, women and men regularly penned fairy tales growing out of adult literary and intellectual circles and they published their works in adult venues that engaged with topics from birth and conception, arranged marriage, gender equality, arbitrary forms of power, and political oppression.
Scholars like Aileen Douglas have remarked: "Many people today immediately make the connection between 'fairy tales' and 'children’s literature' and consider the genre as being primarily pedagogical. However, for much of the long eighteenth century, children’s literature was, so to say, in its infancy, truly launched around the 1750s with the publication of Sarah Fielding’s The Governess: or Little Female Academy (1749) and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s of the Magasin des enfants (1757), translated into English as The Young Misses Magazine (1761), which contained the classic tale, 'Beauty and the Beast'" ("Gender and Sexuality," p. 41). Before the 1750s, tales that shaped "our" twenty-first century notions of "Rapunzel," "Sleeping Beauty," "Cinderella," and "Puss-in-Boots" were already in circulation in Britain, France, the German states, and Italy, and their target audience was an adult one.
If we look at the earliest publications that resemble what we consider a fairy tale today, notably those penned by Italian writers Giovanni Francesco Straparola (c1485-1558) and Giambattista Basile (1556-1632), these collections were explicitly written for an adult audience. Straparola's and Basile's contributions to the genre are important because they influenced seventeenth-century French writers like Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy, Marie-Jeanne L'Héritier, Henriette-Julie de Murat, and Charles Perrault, whose works subsequently impacted British and German tale traditions, from the Brothers Grimm to Andrew Lang.
Straparola collected tales and novellas in his Pleasant Nights (1551; 1553) and, in the tradition of Boccaccio's Decameron, inserted them within a frame narrative. The frame concerns a group of aristocrats who come together during turbulent times; courtly women and men, which included the humanist scholar Pietro Bembo, told each other stories, including fairy tales. Some of the tales that impacted the European fairy-tale tradition include a version of "Donkey Skin" ("Tebaldo"); a beastly bridegroom tale, "The Pig King"; and "Constantino Fortunato," an early version of "Puss-in-Boots."
Basile's Pentamerone, or Tale of Tales (1634; 1636) is important because it is the first collection that consists exclusively of fairy tales. Here the frame narrative itself is a fairy tale (one that d'Aulnoy adapted to write her tale, "The Blue Bird"): Princess Zoza's position as wife to Prince Tadeo is usurped by a slave woman who becomes pregnant; Zoza disguises herself and through magic entices the false princess to have pregnancy cravings for fairy tales; subsequently a motley of female storytellers are called upon to relate stories to satisfy the cravings of the false princess. Among the many tales related, we find early versions of "Cinderella" ("The Cat Cinderella"), in which the heroine resorts to murder; "Petrosinella," a Rapunzel tale in which the pregnant mother who exchanges her daughter for parsley appears unmarried; a Donkey-Skin tale, "The She-Bear"; and "Sun, Moon, and Talia," in which the king who impregnates (via rape) the sleeping beauty character is in fact married, his relation to the heroine being an adulterous one. Indeed, these early fairy tales contained mature themes aimed at adult readers.
The 1690s fairy-tale writers known as the conteuses (French for "female tale tellers") used fairy tales to talk about everything from arranged marriage and pregnancy to the power of money and political instability. D'Aulnoy's "Gracieuse and Percent" (1697) is critical of the role money plays in the marriage between the heroine's noble father and his nasty (implicitly non-noble) second wife, who abuses the heroine. Her tale "Belle-Belle, or the Knight Fortuné" (1698) casts a cross-dressed heroine who saves kingdoms and the tale can be read as a critique of the French monarchy (see Adrienne Zuerner's essay below). L'Héritier's "Finette, or the Clever Princess" (1695) takes aim at men who seduce and impregnate naive women, and its heroine is quite capable of protecting her careless sisters and overcoming the abusive male of the tale, whom she mortally wounds.
Several of the conteuses are believed to have known each other and possibly discussed and shared their works in French salons, feminocentric spaces that brought together like-minded female and male writers and thinkers; salons were basically intellectual spaces run by elite women that fostered women's networks and women's writing, from novels and novellas to the writing of fairy tales. The conteuses often used their fairy tales to challenge arranged marriage, political repression, and gender inequities, among other mature themes. Their tales impacted the literary field in France, the German states, and Britain and continued to thrive in the nineteenth century, with "adult" versions co-existing with versions adapted for children, in which mature themes sometimes were toned down or eliminated altogether.
In the eighteenth century, the trend of the oriental tale, launched by the French orientalist Antoine Galland's translation of The Arabian Nights, was incredibly popular and influential. Oriental tales were often used to critique the arbitrary exercise of power in a period when the abuses of the French monarchy were being seriously challenged. Writers and philosophers, including Montesquieu, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Olympe de Gouges, Antoine Hamilton, and Crébillon fils, took inspiration from the Nights to produce philosophical and licentious tales. The translation of The Nights fostered literary innovation as well as philosophical exploration, not only in France, but also in the German states (i.e., Goethe and Wilhelm Hauff) and Ireland and Britain (i.e., William Beckford and Oscar Wilde).
I haven't mentioned the German women writers like Benedicke Naubert and the women of the literary circle the Kaffeterkreis, or British women writers such as Mary de Morgan and George Egerton, all of whom drew from fairy tales to pen adult, often feminist tales (for more on these writers, see Women Writing Wonder). While we recognize that authors like Angela Carter, Emma Donoghue, and Margaret Atwood have done feminist rewritings of fairy tales for adults, indeed fairy tales have a long history of an adult readership, on the one hand; and feminist and political messaging, on the other.
See: Aileen Douglas, "Gender and Sexuality: From the conteuses to the English Governess," A Cultural History of Fairy Tales in the Long Eighteenth Century. London: Bloomsbury, 2021.
Adrienne Zuerner, "Reflections of the Monarchy in d’Aulnoy’s 'Belle-Belle ou le chevalier Fortuné.'" Out of the Woods: The Origins of the Literary Fairy Tale in Italy and France, ed. Nancy Canepa. Wayne State University PressDetroit: Wayne State University Press.
Women Writing Wonder: An Anthology of Subversive Nineteenth-Century British, French, and German Fairy Tales. Eds. and trans. Julie Koehler, Shandi Wagner, Anne Duggan, and Adrion Dula. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2021.