Saturday, 22 October 2016

Girl Power: fairy tales and feminism

Guest post by Katharine Corr

To begin with: I’m not an expert on myths or fantasy literature. I studied history at university, not English. But – like most people, I suspect – I was brought up on fairy tales. Ladybird ‘Well Loved Tales’ are some of the first books I remember possessing: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White & Rose Red. I fell in love with those illustrations long before I could read the words.               

One of the things I liked about fairy tales as a child was how many of them were about girls. Sure, some of them concerned boys (Jack and The Beanstalk), animals (The Little Red Hen) or baked goods (The Gingerbread Man). But on the whole I was reading about female protagonists. It didn’t really bother me that Cinderella’s main skills seemed to be subservience and looking pretty; it was her story and her name on the front of the book, not Prince Charming’s.

Then there were all the subsidiary characters. The men in the stories tended to be attractive place-holders (Prince Charming, again) or curiously weedy and pathetic (pretty much any King or father you’d care to mention). But the women… I read about witches (good and bad), fairies, stepmothers and Queens. Women with real power, even if they were misusing it.

As I got older, I realised that these women were often more interesting than the pure-as-the-driven-snow protagonists (though intrepid Belle, from Beauty and the Beast, is an exception to this). Who wouldn’t sympathise a tiny bit with side-lined Maleficent’s desire for revenge? Who wouldn’t at least understand the Evil Queen’s wish to be ‘the fairest of them all’? And there are fairy tales which give the Fairy Godmother a more robust and interesting attitude to granting wishes. A lot of tales, due to the ‘damsel-in-distress’ behaviour of the heroine, have the reputation of being anti-feminist. But I can imagine the creators of these stories (of which more below) slipping these strong supporting women into their tales, giving them powers and freedoms which women have been denied for so much of history. Could this not be an early form of feminism?
Not all fairy tales fit this mould, obviously. For every Clever Gretel, the Grimm’s hungry cook who tricks her master, there is a Little Mermaid: a story that, like The Wild Swans (another Hans Christian Andersen tale) seems to suggest that the ideal woman is a silent one.

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh on Andersen. But, I do wonder whether the best fairy tales – the ones with the powerful female villains that leap off the page at you – are the oldest ones. They may have been collected and recorded by men, but I’d be willing to bet that they were originally made up by women. I like to imagine a medieval mother, sitting in the shadows by the fire, laying aside her distaff and turning with a sigh to the insistent children sitting at her feet: ‘Very well, then. Once upon a time…’
Fairy tales have staying power: they endure. That’s why so many writers have chosen them as a starting point, reinterpreting characters and themes for their own times. And now my sister and I have done the same. Our Sleeping Beauty is an Anglo-Saxon prince, and his potential rescuer is an untrained, uncertain teenage witch. The story is inspired by the original tale, rather than being an exact retelling. But we still have curses, true love, and more than one powerful woman. We hope our fairy-tale-telling foremothers are looking on from somewhere with approval.

Katharine and Elizabeth Corr are sisters.  They both read history at university, worked in London, took a break from work to raise their families and now live in Surrey.  The pair decided they wanted to write novels and it seemed obvious that they should do this together.  In addition to writing, Katharine loves playing the harp and learning dead languages.  When Elizabeth is not writing she enjoys sketching, dancing round the kitchen and hatching plans for free time away from children and cats.  

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