Monday 12 August 2013

...or The Little Glass Slipper, by H.M. Castor

From My Book of Favourite Fairy Tales,  illus. Jennie Harbour (1893-1959). 
via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve recently had reason to do a little delving into the well-known fairy tale Cinderella. I’m no fairy tale scholar, and I can’t offer you now anything approaching a full overview of its history (there are thousands of variants of the story, and it appears in many different guises in different cultures all over the world). But I – along with millions of others – have known one version (with a variation or two) since childhood, and my copies of the books I loved then have been loved in turn by my own daughters, and are still precious to me now.

Charles Perrault is credited as the author of two of them – the Picture Puffin edition illustrated (with genius) by Errol Le Cain, and the charming mini edition illustrated by Jan Pieńkowski – and Perrault’s version is certainly the main source for the third too, the Ladybird, in which the story is retold brilliantly by Vera Southgate (with illustrations by Eric Winter).

The wealthy Parisian Charles Perrault (1628-1703) spent a great deal of his career working for the government of Louis XIV, and he was also an author and a member of the Académie française. Late in his life he embarked on retelling a collection of pre-existing folk tales, which he published as Histoires ou contes du temps passé (Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals), with the subtitle Les Contes de ma Mère l'Oye (Mother Goose Tales). In his version of Cinderella – unlike the version told by the Brothers Grimm (see below) – there is a fairy godmother, a pumpkin that turns into a carriage, and the familiar glass slipper. This, in other words, is the version that I grew up with.

An illustration by P.J. Jacomb Hood for Cinderella 
in the 1889 edition of The Blue Fairy Book ed. Andrew Lang
by Ricardo Maragna, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But still, there are some small details in Perrault’s version that often get lost in modern retellings. For a start, Perrault has two balls instead of one. And, when Cinderella’s stepsisters return from the first ball full of news of the appearance of the mysterious unknown princess, Cinderella indulges in a little mischief:

“[Cinderella] asked them the name of that princess; but they told her they did not know it, and that the king's son was very uneasy on her account and would give all the world to know who she was. At this Cinderella, smiling, replied, "She must, then, be very beautiful indeed; how happy you have been! Could not I see her? Ah, dear Charlotte, do lend me your yellow dress which you wear every day."

"Yes, to be sure!" cried Charlotte; "lend my clothes to such a dirty Cinderwench as you are! I should be such a fool."

Cinderella, indeed, well expected such an answer, and was very glad of the refusal; for she would have been sadly put to it, if her sister had lent her what she asked for jestingly.”

[From The Blue Fairy Book ed. Andrew Lang, which used Perrault as its source (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., ca. 1889), pp. 64-71. For the full text, click here.]

I like this mischief!

Secondly, in Perrault’s version there is a small detail at the end that often gets lost:

“[The slipper] was brought to the two sisters, who did all they possibly could to force their foot into the slipper, but they did not succeed.

Cinderella, who saw all this, and knew that it was her slipper, said to them, laughing, "Let me see if it will not fit me."”

[From The Blue Fairy Book ed. Andrew Lang, as above.]

To have Cinderella asking to try the shoe herself (and laughing, indeed!) contrasts with some other versions of the story, one of which is in my Vera Southgate (Ladybird) book. Here, the prince himself has brought the slipper to the house, and Cinderella takes no active part in the fulfillment of her destiny:

“At last, the prince turned to Cinderella’s father and asked, “Have you no other daughter?”

“I have one more,” replied the father, “but she is always in the kitchen.” Then the ugly sisters cried out, “She is much too dirty, she cannot show herself.”

But the prince insisted and so Cinderella was sent for.”

[From ‘Well-Loved Tales’: Cinderella – A Ladybird ‘Easy-Reading’ Book, retold by Vera Southgate, pub. 1964]

Cinderella's laughter in the Perrault version is important, it strikes me. It’s a tiny detail, but again there is a flavour of mischief in it, to leaven Cinderella’s preternatural kindness (at the end of the Perrault version, Cinderella forgives her sisters, asks only that they should now love her always, and marries them off to two rich noblemen – which provides a stark contrast to the Grimm version, as we shall see, which is – as you might expect – grimmer).

Incidentally, re. the glass slipper: there is some suggestion that Perrault (or one of his sources) might have mistaken an oral storyteller’s fur slipper – “une pantoufle de vair” – for a glass slipper – “une pantoufle de verre”… you can read more about that particular question here.

From The fairy tales of Charles Perrault 
illus. Harry Clarke (1889-1931). London: Harrap (1922)
via Wikimedia Commons

The version of Cinderella recorded by the Brothers Grimm (under the title Aschenputtel) is different from Perrault’s version in several major respects, but two features of it have influenced my (Vera Southgate) Ladybird. Firstly, there are three balls. This provides a lovely rhythm (better than two) and means that the Ladybird illustrator Eric Winter could show three different ballgowns, in a crescendo of splendour – an absolute winner with me as a child! Secondly, the shoes Cinderella wears on the final evening are golden rather than glass.

In the Grimms’ version, Cinderella’s dying mother – and later her grave – feature prominently, making it reminiscent of other fairy tales in which the dead (good) mother’s power lives on – such as Vasilisa the Beautiful. The stepmother and stepsisters throw peas and lentils among the ashes for Cinderella to pick out. This also echoes a range of other tales in which a ‘sorting of the seeds’ is given as a task, from the aforementioned Vasilisa, to Psyche and Eros.

Instead of a fairy godmother, in the Grimms’ version a tree and a bird become Cinderella’s helpers, as a result of a Cordelia-like humble request that Cinderella makes of her father:

“One day it happened that the father was going to the fair, and he asked his two stepdaughters what he should bring back for them.

"Beautiful dresses," said the one.

"Pearls and jewels," said the other.

"And you, Cinderella," he said, "what do you want?"

"Father, break off for me the first twig that brushes against your hat on your way home."

So he bought beautiful dresses, pearls, and jewels for his two stepdaughters. On his way home, as he was riding through a green thicket, a hazel twig brushed against him and knocked off his hat. Then he broke off the twig and took it with him. Arriving home, he gave his stepdaughters the things that they had asked for, and he gave Cinderella the twig from the hazel bush.

Cinderella thanked him, went to her mother's grave, and planted the branch on it, and she wept so much that her tears fell upon it and watered it. It grew and became a beautiful tree.

Cinderella went to this tree three times every day, and beneath it she wept and prayed. A white bird came to the tree every time, and whenever she expressed a wish, the bird would throw down to her what she had wished for.”

[Extract from translation of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's "Aschenputtel" (from 7th edition of Grimms' Fairy Tales, 1857),  by D. L. Ashliman. © 2001-2006. For the full translation, click here. ]

This bird also made it – in simplified form – into a lovely version of Cinderella by Dick Bruna (creator of Miffy), published in 1966. Here the bird fetches the fairy godmother:

Cinderella, by Dick Bruna, published by Methuen

The Grimms, in fact, have many birds helping Cinderella with tasks that the stepmother sets her and this affinity with animals made it into the Disney version too (see here).

by Alexander Zick (1845 - 1907),
uploaded by Adrian Michael
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to the final ball, the prince tries to stop Cinderella running away by ordering the palace staircase to be smeared with pitch… which has become honey in this illustration:

From Europa's fairy book (1916)
by Joseph Jacobs John Dickson Batten
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This is why she loses a shoe!

And, when the shoe is brought round to the stepsisters to be tried on, they go to much more drastic lengths to make it fit than Perrault’s stepsisters do:

From Europa's fairy book (1916)
by Joseph Jacobs John Dickson Batten
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“With her mother standing by, the older one took the shoe into her bedroom to try it on. She could not get her big toe into it, for the shoe was too small for her. Then her mother gave her a knife and said, "Cut off your toe. When you are queen you will no longer have to go on foot."

The girl cut off her toe, forced her foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain, and went out to the prince. He took her on his horse as his bride and rode away with her. However, they had to ride past the grave, and there, on the hazel tree, sat the two pigeons, crying out:

Rook di goo, rook di goo!
There's blood in the shoe.
The shoe is too tight,
This bride is not right!”

[Extract from translation of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's "Aschenputtel" (from 7th edition of Grimms' Fairy Tales, 1857),  by D. L. Ashliman, as above.]

The same process is then gone through with the younger stepsister, who cuts off a piece of her heel, but whose cheating is betrayed again by the pigeons who sit on the hazel tree (which has grown on Cinderella’s mother’s grave).

These same pigeons, at Cinderella’s wedding, then pluck out the stepsisters’ eyes, so that they are punished “for their wickedness and falsehood” for the rest of their lives.

Grim(m), but fascinating!

H.M. Castor's novel VIII - a new take on the life of Henry VIII, for teenagers and adults - will be published in the U.S. by Simon & Schuster later this month.

It is published in the U.K. by Templar, in Australia by Penguin, and in France by Hachette.

H.M. Castor's website is here.


Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely illustrations! And yes - I like the laughing Cinderella best too!

Mary Hoffman said...

Ooh, I like that new Vll cover! And loved your post. But why does no-one ever question why the slippers (whatever they are made of) survived the chimes at midnight when all the other enchantments disappeared? I could write a whole novel about that!

Ruan Peat said...

My fave cinderelle was the russian ones this is a good example of them, I loved the blood thirsty and savage stories as a child, just when 'real' books and 'letting children read if they want' came in. This left me ahead of most of my peers in traditions and reading.