Archives for posts with tag: Feminist Fairy Tales

This week I’m recommending the work of an almost forgotten writer of literary Fairy Tales – Mary de Morgan (1850- 1907). During her lifetime she was overshadowed by more famous relatives such as her father, the eminent mathematician Augustus de Morgan, and her brother the great ceramicist William de Morgan and his artist wife, Evelyn. Yet Mary’s distinctive voice survives in her three collections of Fairy Tales. Some of the stories were first told to the children of her artistic friends including the daughters of William and Jane Morris and a nephew of Georgie Burne-Jones – the young Rudyard Kipling. That alone gives them a place in literary history. I’ll describe each of the three collections in turn.

“On a Pincushion and Other Fairy Tales” was published in 1877 with thirty rather gloomy illustrations by Mary’s brother, William. There are seven stories in the collection, most of them with a romance element. The first three are purportedly told by a jet brooch, a shawl-pin and an ordinary pin who are sharing a pin cushion. One story, “The Hair Tree”, is almost novella length. “On a Pincushion…”contains some of Mary’s best work, including her most famous story “A Toy Princess”. Unfortunately this collection doesn’t seem to be available as an ebook. You can get paperbacks photocopied from the original book but be aware that these can be a of variable quality and some omit the illustrations. “A Toy Princess” has been reprinted in a number of anthologies, such as “A Book of Princesses” (1963, edited by Sally Patrick Johnson) and “The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales” (1993, edited by Alison Lurie).

A second collection, “The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde and Other Stories”, was published in 1880. This consists of seven stories with illustrations by Walter Crane, one of the leading figures in the Arts and Crafts movement. The title story features a splendidly wicked princess. “The Heart of Princess Joan” is a striking tale about a long-suffering lover but overall there is less romance than in the first collection. Mary’s final book, “The Wind Fairies and Other Tales”, dates to 1900. There are nine stories charmingly illustrated by Olive Cockerell. Some are melancholy in tone and they don’t all have “happy ever after” endings. “The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde” and “The Wind Fairies” are both available as cheap ebooks or as overpriced paperback reprints. If you possibly can, seek out a Victorian copy of these beautiful books instead.

Many great collections of traditional tales were put together during the 19th century, which then inspired contemporary writers to create original Fairy Tales. I’ve already recommended the work of some of these writers, such as Hans Christian Andersen (see my post of January 2013), Oscar Wilde (November 2013), George MacDonald (January 2013) and Edith Nesbit (March 2016). Mary de Morgan’s Fairy Tales don’t have the wonderful poetic language of Wilde, the zany inventiveness of Nesbit, or the visionary quality of MacDonald. They are closest in style and mood to Andersen’s tales but owe less to traditional prototypes. What these three collections do provide is variety, originality and unpredictability.

Mary’s plots are her own and her stories can be long or short, funny or sad. Some are moral fables with limited supernatural elements, such as “The Story of a Cat” (“The Windfairies”) in which the life of a callous old miser is changed for ever by a strangely beautiful cat. Others are magic and monster-filled quests, rich in disturbing symbolism. In “The Hair Tree” for example, a young man has to get past killer-flowers with the eyes or lips of seductive women as he seeks hair-seeds to cure a selfish Queen of baldness. Some of the stories use biting humour to attack vices such as vanity and greed; others are told with emotional intensity as if the author was suffering along with her characters. Suffering is the word Many of Mary de Morgan’s characters are cruelly punished for what seem quite trivial faults or endure long separations from the people they love. The endings of her stories don’t all follow a set pattern. Some finish with a wedding and others with a funeral.

I’ve long wanted to know more about this author, so I recently bought a book by Marilyn Pemberton called “Out of the Shadows: The Life and Works of Mary De Morgan”. I learned a lot about the talented de Morgan family from this biography but sadly Mary herself remains in the shadows. Dr Pemberton has found out frustratingly little about many periods in Mary’s life. Mary features in other people’s stories as a “spare woman” who can always be relied on to help out family and friends – she nursed William Morris during his last illness. What is clear is that Mary knew a lot about suffering and grief. By the time her first collection of Fairy Tales was published, she had already lost her beloved father and three of her siblings.

When Mary wasn’t painting tiles for her brother, she earned a little money by writing articles and as a typist. She also did voluntary social work in poor areas of London and campaigned for the rights of workers, women, and animals. These interests are reflected in her fiction and help to explain why few of the wealthy and powerful characters in her Fairy Tales are flatteringly portrayed. Some of the issues underlying the stories seem quite topical again. For example, in “Siegfried and Handa” (“On a Pincushion”) an honest shoemaker is put out of work when his fellow villagers start buying cheap shoes from a visiting gnome but these shoes turn out to have a terrible cost in human lives.

Recent interest in Mary de Morgan has focused on her as a Feminist rather than as a storyteller. Her stories do make it obvious that she was frustrated by the codes of behaviour imposed on women of her era and the limited opportunities available to them. In “The Hair Tree”, Trevina a woman who has “transgressed” by refusing to marry for wealth and position is turned into a tigress and can only recover her real shape by being beaten by a man until she bleeds. In “A Toy Princess” a lively real princess called Ursula is replaced by a doll which can only say four things – “If you please,” “No, thank you,” “Certainly,” and “Just so.” Everybody at court is delighted with this polite Toy Princess who has none of the messy emotions of a real woman. Both Trevina and Ursula are given happy endings of a sort in the form of marriages to kindly men but the later stories seem more pessimistic. Mary may have sympathized with Fiorimonde’s plot to dispose of the royal suitors who plan to rule in her name but she doesn’t allow this independent princess to win. In a story called “The Wise Princess” (“The Necklace of Princess Fiormonde”), the princess’s intelligence and learning bring her no happiness and she only finds fulfillment in self-sacrifice.

In the later years of her life, Mary often  seems to have been lonely and depressed but she went on writing and never stopped trying to help people. Failing health led her to move to Egypt for the dry climate (TB was the family curse) where she threw herself into the work of running a progressive “reformatory” for girls. She died in Cairo, a long way from family and friends. The title story in “The Windfairies” helps to sum up why I admire Mary de Morgan. In it, a miller’s daughter called Lucilla is able to see the windfairies who dance in the air and begs to be taught to dance like them. They agree but on condition that Lucilla never tells anyone who taught her to dance. If she does, she will never dance again and harm will befall those she loves. Lucilla becomes a wonderful dancer and is invited to display her skills at a royal court. A jealous Queen demands to know who Lucilla’s teacher was, so that she can be taught too. Lucilla keeps her promise to the windfairies and refuses to reveal the secret, even when she is offered a fortune and threatened with a series of horrible deaths. Like Lucilla, Mary stayed true to her early visions and loyal to the people she loved. She wrote about things she cared about in her own fashion, whether it was popular or not. The price for making the Toy Princess is “four cat’s footfalls, two fish’s screams, and two swan’s songs.” How could you not love an author who invented a detail like that? Until three weeks time..

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

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This holiday week I’m recommending some entertaining dragons. Do you have any favourite Fantasy authors who are guaranteed to cheer you up when you are in a fit of the glooms? One of mine is E.Nesbit. She is famous for classic novels such as `The Railway Children’ and `Five Children and It’ but she also wrote delightful modern Fairy Tales. Modern in 1900 that is, which is when `The Book of Dragons’ was first published. The eight stories in this collection had previously appeared in `The Strand’ magazine, the original home of Sherlock Holmes. Cheap paperback copies of `The Book of Dragons’ are fairly easy to find or you can download the text for free on most e-readers. Better still, find a copy of `The Complete Book of Dragons’ a 1972 edition which contains an extra story `The Last of the Dragons’ and witty illustrations by Erik Blegvad. This book has also been republished under the title of `The Last of the Dragons and Some Others’.

Nesbit’s funny and fast-paced stories all feature intrepid young people who have to deal with monsters, including a clever cockatrice (in `Kind Little Edmund or the Caves and the Cockatrice’), a cat-eating manticora (in `The Book of Beasts’) and lots and lots of dragons. One story is set in Cornwall `before what you call English History began’ (The Last of the Dragons’) while two start in Victorian London (`The Deliverers of their Country’ and `The Ice Dragon or Do as You are Told’) and contrast everyday life with some very strange happenings. Others are set in invented realms, like the Kingdom of Rotundia where `all the animals were the wrong sizes’ (`Uncle James or the Purple Stranger’) or have typical Fairy Tale backgrounds with a distinctive twist or two – such as a royal pack of hippopotamuses in `The Fiery Dragon or The Heart of Stone and the Heart of Gold’ and a griffin who does housework in `The Island of  the Nine Whirlpools’. Like traditional tales, Nesbit’s stories often claim to explain the origin of something, ranging from the English climate (`The Deliverers of the their Country’) to the first cat (`The Dragon Tamers’).

Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) was an unconventional woman who flouted many of the rules of Victorian morality.  She cut her hair short, earned her own living by selling her poems and stories to magazines, was a campaigning socialist and enjoyed what we might now call an `open marriage’. She had three children and also brought up her husband’s two children by their housekeeper as her own. Nesbit was too busy to be the type of ideal mother who appears in `The Railway Children’. She was sometimes neglectful to the point of irresponsibility and she herself claimed that she retained a child’s mind in a grown-up’s body. All this shows in her writing in various ways.

Nesbit is the most unstuffy of Victorian authors and her stories are seldom preachy. She knew what children liked, so there are never any boring bits in her Fairy Tales and the plots get underway very quickly. For example, in `The Book of Beasts’ a little boy unexpectedly becomes king of his country on the very first page. Nesbit remembered how children think and feel – especially the kind of children who frequently get into trouble. The behaviour and motivation of her young characters is always convincing, even in her Fantasy stories, so you’ll believe that the bizarre things which happen to `Kind Little Edmund’ are due to his laudable desire to `find out new things that nobody has thought of but me’. Above all, like the writers of many of Pixar’s films, Nesbit has a sense of humour which appeals to both children and adults.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am keen on dragon-centred Fantasy. I particularly admire the variety of Nesbit’s dragons. They can be clever or stupid, gentle or ferocious, huge or tiny. There is a dragon made of ice, and a dragon that sets everything on fire, a smooth-talking purple dragon, a rapacious red dragon and a giant yellow dragon who turns out to be a devoted mother. In `The Deliverers of their Country’ an `Alarming Plague of Dragons’ begins with a dragon small enough to get in a little girl’s eye and swiftly progresses to people finding earwig-sized dragons in their soap and butter, dog-sized dragons steaming in their baths and sheep-sized dragons scorching their bedsheets. Nesbit, who also wrote Horror stories, isn’t afraid to make her bigger dragons scary. There are jaunty descriptions of these monsters gobbling up animals, people, and in one case an entire football match `players, umpires, goal-posts, football and all’ (`The Book of Beasts’).  A major function of dragons in literature (and of dinosaurs in movies) is to eat the bad guys before being defeated by the good guys. Nesbit has her dragons munch on the kinds of people she disliked, such as greedy politicians, arrogant aristocrats and big-game hunters. Who would you put on the dragon-food list?

There is a two-headed dragon that only eats kings and queens in a story called `Billy the King’ which you can find in another collection called `E.Nesbit Fairy Stories’, which was published in 1977 and edited by Naomi Lewis.  I wouldn’t put Nesbit in the very first rank of Fairy Tale writers. Her stories are always witty and charming but they lack the poignancy and the haunting qualities of the Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (see my `Snow Queen’ post of January 2013) or Oscar Wilde (see post of November 2013). Where Nesbit does score highly is with her female characters. They are not just there to cast evil spells or to look pretty and be rescued. In most of her stories, the girls are as smart, brave and resourceful as the boys. As plucky Jane says to her brother in `The Ice Dragon’, `I’m not so stupid as you think, George’. If you believe that Feminist Fairy Tales are a recent development try `The Last of the Dragons’ which features `the strongest and boldest and most skilful and most sensible princess in Europe’. She won’t tolerate being rescued from a dragon by a prince in the traditional manner. The princess persuades her weedy but nice prince that they should tackle the dragon together. If you want to know what happens next, you’ll have to seek out the treasure that is E.Nesbit’s dragon stories. Happy Easter.

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk