Paeans to Poverty: The Princess and Curdie

Eleven years after the publication of The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald returned with a sequel, The Princess and Curdie. Like with the first book, this is a rather misleading title: this is Curdie’s tale, not Princess Irene’s. And greatly unlike the first book, it has no goblins. And while I think we can, in general terms, take the absence of goblins as a good thing, it is not so here. This is a sequel considerably less engaging and charming than its predecessor.

Admittedly, the book does start off on a wonderful note: Curdie has stopped writing poetry. I cannot express my relief and pleasure at this wise decision. Alas, I must warn you: this does not mean a book free of terrible MacDonald poetry. Sigh. Lacking poetry as a diversion, he decides to go out hunting, and shoots a white pigeon—a pigeon he soon realizes may well have been a magical pigeon. Crushed, he begins to think that hunting is a terrible thing, a realization only slightly softened as the not-completely-dead pigeon helps lead him to Irene’s fairy grandmother—someone Curdie has never been able to see before. Almost dead pigeons apparently have all kinds of uses.

In any case, the fairy grandmother wants Curdie to go on a quest: specifically, she wants and needs him to visit the city of Gwintystorm, home of Princess Irene and her father the king. As the fairy godmother warns Curdie, a certain sort of anti-evolution is occurring in the city: men are turning back into beasts. And not the cute, cuddly kinds, either. Fortunately, she gives Curdie a pair of magic hands so that he can tell beasts, humans turning into beasts, and just plain humans apart. She also gives him a hideously ugly magical dog, Lina, who was once, like some of the people of the city, fully human. She’s so ugly that her mere appearance causes terror, but on the bright side, she’s considerably more intelligent than the average dog.

Even with all this magic, the plot really doesn’t start to get going until Curdie arrives in the city to find the princess caring for her father—who is being poisoned. And even then, after a few tension filled chapters, the story subsides, with a bit of whimper, before briefly rousing again, and then sliding back into a decidedly ambiguous and even cynical ending, shocking in a book filled with Christian dogma.

For yes, unfortunately, the book slinks back to MacDonald’s old habits of moralizing everywhere, disappearing only in a few taut chapters, before creeping right back it. Equally unfortunately, this book repeats some of the sickly sweet Victorian statements about the blessings of poverty, including this gem from the fairy:

It is a great privilege to be poor, Peter—one that no man ever coveted, and but a very few have sought to retain, but one that yet many have learned to prize. You must not mistake, however, and imagine it a virtue; it is but a privilege, and one also that, like other privileges, may be terribly misused.

By “misused,” the fairy probably means, “drink enough gin to forget that you are poor.” It is also a none too subtle reference to the concept of the deserving and undeserving poor—the undeserving, of course, being those that don’t work hard and instead spend their time drinking a lot and lounging around and being generally ungrateful sorts.

Certainly, this is a very Christian statement, going right back to Jesus’ parable of the camel going through an eye of a needle, and repeated by many saints and Christian thinkers through the centuries, who often urged Christians to follow the example of Jesus and live in poverty. But the word “poor” can have several different definitions. Victorian writers who tended to make statements like this were more on the genteel side of poverty—not wealthy, certainly, but not in danger of starvation, not working in hideous factory conditions, and not living in Victorian slums. And typically they had wealthy friends who could be counted on for help in emergencies. Their lives of genteel poverty could, therefore, be a genuine virtue, although I suspect others would have argued this point.

It was far otherwise for the working poor lacking these connections. Victorian writers who knew those more desperate situations, either from personal experience or visits to these areas, tended to be considerably less sentimental about poverty. MacDonald was always short of cash, but he did have wealthy patrons, and his social circle was not in the slums.

Curdie and Peter, on the other hand, are miners, a profession that in Victorian England meant a grossly shortened life span, multiple illnesses, and terrible poverty. True, Curdie and Peter are fairly genteel sorts of miners, nice solid Victorian types, honored by the king himself, but to hear the fairy godmother congratulate herself for putting them in a dangerous, poorly paying job is a bit offputting.

This little paean to the glories of poverty is not helped by the revelation that Peter and Curdie are descended from royalty—which MacDonald adds, explains their excellent manners. (To be fair he could hardly have predicted all of the behavioral and hat issues of the House of Windsor, but he should know his British history better than this.)

And the pacing of the book is off. It’s not that I object to Curdie taking a moment to steal a pie; it’s that this moment is greatly extended by Curdie justifying the pie theft, and thinking about the pie theft, and waiting for just the right moment, and then eating the pie, all as he’s supposedly infiltrating the king’s palace to find bad guys. This is not an overly long book, and scenes like this don’t need to be drawn out, especially since we don’t even get a moral lesson about the pie, for all of the other extensive and occasionally exhaustive moralizing in the book.

It’s also distressing to have most of the women in the book reduced to such a passive role—particularly because two of these women, the fairy godmother and Irene, played such active roles in the previous books. Here, the godmother sends others to do her bidding for her, spends far too much time lecturing, and disguises herself as a housemaid for… no particular reason that I can discover, and even if she’s slightly more active as a housemaid than the other women, she’s frequently forgotten about, never given a name, and dismissed as, oh, well, just the housemaid.

Irene does little other than greet Curdie and sleep straight through an attack on her father and a dog’s attack on her father’s doctor, content because, well, Curdie is there. Ugh. She later spends some quality adventuring time locked up in her room while Curdie runs around summoning strange creatures and clearing the castle of evil creatures. When Peter and his wife realize Curdie is in danger, Peter, not his wife, runs off to the rescue. And so on. It doesn’t help that the very few exceptions to this rule are all magical creatures, one of whom has been turned into a dog for being a bad, unwomanly woman to begin with. (I’m even less happy that Lina’s final fate in the book is to run into a magical fire, and, well, that’s it. We never find out whether or not she was transformed back into a woman again.)

And then the ending. MacDonald almost—almost—leaves us with a happy, contented ending, up until the last couple of paragraphs, which, without any warning whatsoever, suddenly ends in complete destruction. I am assuming that MacDonald didn’t, at that point in the book, want to write any further sequels, and certainly destroying your created world is one way to guarantee that. But this is beyond abrupt—not to mention taking place in three short paragraphs thrown at the end of a not-short book, and it feels wrong, thrown in by an author terribly upset by something else, who, for all his earnest discussions of morality, now finds that he believes none of it.

Which is not to say the book doesn’t have its enjoyable moments. I particularly enjoyed a scene where a long winded sermon is stopped by an attack from a monster. I probably shouldn’t have, but I did. I also approve of any battle changed by incoming pigeons. And I still like the fairy, in any of her guises—as a woman of power and beauty, or an old woman, or one of the few reliably useful people in the city as she works as a housemaid. I also like some of the disguises and twists MacDonald uses once he reaches the city, and his portrayal of how power corrupts, and how good intentions can still go wrong, remains powerful.

But the preachiness, the poor pacing, and that odd ending all combine to make this a considerably less enjoyable book than its predecessor, and one that should only be read by people who really, really want to know what happened to the Princess and Curdie after they defeated the goblins. People who might find themselves wishing for a return of those very same goblins.

Mari Ness would be willing to be a 19th century duchess, but is less enthusiastic about other Victorian social opportunities, or lack thereof. She lives in central Florida.


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