Reviewed by Helen Parry
The sun was now set, and the darkness coming on, but the child thought of no danger but the bears behind her. If she had looked round, however, she would have seen that she was followed by a very different creature from a bear. It was a curious creature, made like a fish, but covered, instead of scales, with feathers of all colours, sparkling like those of a humming-bird. It had fins, not wings, and swam through the air as a fish does through the water. Its head was like the head of a small owl. […] Then the air-fish came from behind her, and swam on in front, glittering and sparkling all lovely colours; and she followed. It led her gently on till all at once it swam in at a cottage door. (George MacDonald, ‘The Golden Key’)
What do you think of, when you think of a fairy tale? Something fairly short, dark, told by the fireside, wicked stepmothers, huts on hens’ legs, impossible tasks, cannibalism? A Disney film? Or – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? And when you think of ‘authors’ of fairy tales, do you think of John Ruskin, Ford Madox Ford or Kenneth Grahame?
According to Marina Warner, in the nineteenth century Alice was considered a fairy tale. It was part of a tradition of literary fairy tales, whose origins are ancient but which blossomed in France in the seventeenth century. While Perrault is now the most famous of those French writers of contés, it was a form dominated by women, and the tales themselves were long, witty, complex and reflecting concerns with contemporary society. Literary fairy tales blossomed in nineteenth-century Europe in the wake of the Grimms, and the Britain of the time was very much a part of that flowering.
In Victorian Fairy Tales Michael Newton has gathered together fourteen stories published in Britain between 1850 and 1906 by writers who are well known to us still (Oscar Wilde, Edith Nesbit, Rudyard Kipling, William Makepeace Thackeray) and those whose names have virtually disappeared (Dinah Craik, Mary De Morgan, Laurence Housman). The book also includes a splendid introduction by Newton, extensive notes and a fascinating appendix ‘What is a fairy tale?’ which reproduces thoughts on fairy tales by Ruskin, Housman, Juliana Horatia Ewing and George MacDonald, and gives the stories in the book some contemporary context. The Victorian stories are prefaced by tales by Robert Southey (the original of ‘The Three Bears’, with a vagrant, sweary old woman in place of Goldilocks) and Hans Christian Andersen in unusually cheerful mood (‘The Princess and the Peas’). It’s great to be able to read them, but I did wonder if they really served much of a purpose in this particular volume.
The first and most important point to make is that these are all good stories and a great pleasure to read. They range in length from a few pages to novella-size, in tone from the spiritual to the mysterious to the comic, yet they share what Housman calls ‘the expression of the joy of living’. This includes those, like ‘The Selfish Giant’, whose endings are transcendent rather than ‘happy’. And they play on a certain knowingness in their readers: you should know that it is always disastrous to leave a fairy off the invitation list for a christening part; it’s the youngest child who always succeeds; princesses should be good and beautiful; always be kind, especially to odd people and strangers; dragons and monsters require slaying.
So we have such wonderful stories as the adventures of the Queen who is taught to fly by a talking bat, the tale of Princess Melisande who is ‘bald as an egg’, and what happens to the princess who falls in love with a heron. There is the story of the wandering musician Arasmon, who dedicates his life to the search for his missing wife, Chrysea, after she sacrifices herself to save a village from a wizard’s wicked spell. In the ‘ecological’ tale ‘The King of the Golden River’, a strange little man helps a boy survive the abuse of his elder brothers and discover the true riches of the world. ‘Prince Prigio’ is the story of a prince who knows everything and is just as annoying as you might imagine. In fact, his father dislikes him the most:
When [the King] was in the counting-house, counting out his money, and when he happened to say, ‘Sixteen shillings and fourteen and twopence are three pounds, fifteen,’ it made him wild to hear Prigio whisper, ‘One pound, ten and twopence’—which, of course, it is.
The ending is so funny I actually laughed aloud, and I am a very grumpy person normally. The very last story, Kipling’s ‘Dymchurch Flit’, is, as Newton explains, from the Edwardian period but ‘provides a fitting end […] with a tale that bids farewell to the fairy tale and to the fairies.’
These stories are worth republishing and reading because they are great works of art. However, it’s easy to think of them as being charming little toys locked away in the Victorian nursery, with little relevance beyond themselves. Newton disagrees, and makes this excellent argument in his introduction:
Fairy tales may be regarded by some as the simplest of all narrative forms. However, they are in fact one of the most experimental of all nineteenth-century genres. After all, these stories, from Ruskin to De Morgan, are what the great twentieth-century Modernists read as children. In particular, they inherit from German Romanticism a mode of narrative that is fragmented, apparently irrational, the organized structure of a tale coming closes to the visionary freedom of dreams. The fairy tale disobeyed aesthetic strictures that demanded a strict realism and adherence to fact in the literary work.
He explains how many of the stories in this volume were originally framed with other stories, play with readers’ expectations and break up and challenge reality, all of which ideas were to be further explored in twentieth-century literature.
This isn’t the first book of Victorian fairy tales; however it is the first for a while, it contains many different stories to its predecessors and some of the stories are otherwise out of print. Newton justifies his selection by saying he has chosen the best and the most representative of the tales available. That seems like a challenge to read more Victorian fairy tales to discover whether we agree with him…
Helen Parry loves fairy tales and blogs at a gallimaufry.
Michael Newton (ed.), Victorian Fairy Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 9780199601950, 496 pp illus., hardback.