What do you do when you find yourself downtrodden, turned into a servant by trusted family members, dressed in mud and rags, without, apparently, a friend in the world? Get some magical footwear—and go dancing.
It’s the sort of tale that could easily seize a world. And for the most part, has.
Versions of the Cinderella story date back to ancient times, and can be found in nearly every culture. Details vary—sometimes Cinderella is helped by birds, sometimes by magical trees, sometimes by ghosts—as does the footwear. The glass slippers are a comparatively recent—that is, within the last few centuries—addition. Sometimes, her family isn’t even all that awful. In one of my favorite versions from Italy, the stepsisters, unaware that Cenerentola has a magical bird, are actually friendly to her, offering to bring her to the balls, and upset when she refuses. That tends not to be a particularly popular version, admittedly. Italian composer Gioachino Rossini, for one, found the idea of friendly stepsisters boring, and reinstated the evil stepsisters (who do exist in other Italian versions) along with concocting an extremely convoluted plot regarding the prince, his valet, and his tutor with everyone running around in disguise. This 1817 version is still performed today.
Probably better known to English speakers, however, are two English translations that also retained the evil stepsisters: “Cinderella,” or “Aschenputtel” (Ash-Fool) as collected and severely edited by the Brothers Grimm, and “Cinderella, or the Glass Slipper,” as elegantly penned by Charles Perrault.
The Grimm version is, well, grim (I’m probably going to be repeating this terrible pun in future posts; forgive me). It starts off on a sad note (“A rich man’s wife became sick,”) and before we’re even out of the first paragraph, someone’s dead. This is followed by weeping and mourning, magical trees, more crying, hunting for lentils in ashes, the destruction of a completely innocent pigeon coop, the killing of a perfectly innocent (non magical) tree, one girl cutting off her toe, another girl cutting off her heel, drops of blood everywhere, and pigeons flying down to pluck out eyes. Very cheerful.
What’s remarkable about this version is Cinderella herself: although often perceived as a passive character, here, she is a magical creature with gifts of her own. Her tears, spilled over a hazel branch, allow that branch to grow into a magical tree. When Cinderella needs something, she heads out to the tree, shakes it, and receives it—no waiting around for a magical fairy godmother to help. When her evil stepmother sets impossible tasks with lentils and peas, Cinderella heads outside and summons birds to help, and they do. This is the sort of heroine who deserves a prince. Though, to counter that, this is not a particularly kindly or forgiving Cinderella: the text establishes that Cinderella can control birds, to an extent, but when pigeons swoop down to pluck out her stepsisters’ eyes (the text cheerfully says they deserve this) she does nothing. Also remarkable: in this version, Cinderella goes to the ball three times, and her shoe is not fragile glass, but firm gold, a shoe provided by her magical tree.
Some of this stemmed from a certain anti-French sentiment on the part of the Grimms, who were, after all, collecting their tales only a decade or so after the Napoleonic Wars and the subsequent social and political upheavals in Germany. This meant, in part, an emphasis on qualities considered particularly German: piety, modesty and hard work (the Grimm version emphasizes that for all of Cinderella’s magical trees and bird summoning abilities, not something exactly associated with Christian tradition, she remains pious and good), but also a rejection of certain elements considered especially “French,” such as fairies. With Aschenputtel in particular, the Grimms were reacting to the other famous literary version of the tale: “Cinderella, or the Glass Slipper,” by Charles Perrault. Who in turn was reacting to the fairy tale traditions of 17th century French salons.
For the most part, as scholar Jack Zipes has noted, the French salon fairy tale writers came from the margins of French aristocratic society. Nearly all of them had spectacularly interesting and desperate lives, including numerous affairs, exile, banishment, arranged marriages, accusations of treason, shifting financial fortunes, and accusations of poison and murder. Given this background, it is perhaps not surprising that so many of them turned to writing fairy tales, which also featured many of the same elements, along with the sharp changes in circumstances that they knew all too well from their own lives. Many of the women writers, in particular, used fairy tales to examine aristocratic French society (they did not have a lot of interest in the peasants), and in particular, the inequities and limitations often faced by aristocratic women. Other tales focused on themes of transformation, persecution, injustice, and aristocratic whims. And a few of the salon writers used fairy tales to sneak in BDSM scenes right past French censors and others with delicate sensibilities. We’ll be talking about a lot of this—well, not the kinky stuff, but the rest—again when we chat about “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rapunzel.”
Exactly what Perrault thought about the kinky stuff is not known, but he had definite ideas about fairy tales. Unlike many of his fellow French salon fairy tale writers, his life was virtually sedate. And very much unlike most of them, he greatly admired the court of Louis XIV, where he had a distinguished career. From his position within the court, Perrault argued that Louis XIV’s enlightened rule had made France the greatest country and civilization of all time. That career was all the more remarkable since Perrault and his direct supervisor, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, unlike most courtiers and high ranking officials, were not born into the French aristocracy, and were recognized for their talents, not their blood.
Perhaps because of that success, Perrault’s version of “Cinderella” specifically focuses on a middle class heroine without, apparently, a touch of aristocratic blood, who rises into the court largely by force of her inner talents—and a touch of magic. The story contains delightful little tidbits of French fashion and hairdressing issues (fortunately, Cinderella’s talents include hair styling—and she has excellent taste, something you always want in your soon to be princess). These not only give a very realistic touch to the story, but firmly set the story in a very real Paris, making its focus on a heroine without a title all the more remarkable—especially since Perrault’s target audience was the minor nobility as well as the growing upper middle class.
It’s not precisely free of snobbery and concern for class—Perrault clarifies that the king’s son invites only “persons of fashion,” (read: people with money, or people with the ability to fake having money) to his ball, not the “all the ladies of the land” that appear in later tellings and reinterpretations. That also holds true for the great glass slipper tryouts: Perrault specifically states that the slipper is tested, not on everyone, but on princesses, duchesses, and court ladies. Cinderella gets a try only after she asks—and only because the man holding the shoe thinks she’s handsome. Sure, you can jump out of your social class—if you have the right social connections, the right clothes, the right looks and, well, the right shoe.
Perrault’s emphasis on fashion brings up another point: Cinderella succeeds in large part because she has the social skills needed by upper class women: excellent taste in fashion (to the point where her stepsisters beg for her assistance), politeness, and, of course, the ability to dance gracefully. In other words, she succeeds because she is supporting the status quo—and an aristocracy that recognizes her good qualities (once she’s properly dressed.) This is in stark contrast to other French fairy tales, where fine clothing does not always lead to acceptance, and the protagonists find themselves struggling to prove their worth. But it is also an emphasis on how the structures in place help reward women.
But for all its emphasis on approved gender roles, and for all his admiration of the French court, the story still has a touch—just a touch—of subversion in the tale, since Cinderella is not a princess. This may not seem like much, but it’s another contrast with the fairy tales he’s reacting to, many of which insist on marriage within the same social class. The original version of Beauty and the Beast, a long, tedious novella which we’ll be discussing later, goes to great lengths to emphasize that a prince can only marry a princess, and vice versa. Perrault, unlike that author, admired social climbers.
And, like other social climbers in the French aristocracy, Cinderella makes sure to reward family members. The stepsisters here don’t have their eyes gouged out, or find their feet dripping with blood: after flinging themselves at Cinderella’s feet, they are carefully married off to noblemen. This not only emphasizes her goodness, but also ensures that at least two members of her court will have reason to be grateful to her—even if their husbands, perhaps, will not. Though I’m not entirely without hope—the Perrault version is also the start of the tradition that the younger of the two evil stepsisters is just a little less evil. It’s another nice humanizing touch, reminding us that not all villains are equally evil, and suggests that just maybe the noble that married her didn’t have a terrible time of it after all.
Speaking of evil villains, though, in this version, we never do find out what happened to the stepmother afterwards. Presumably her only problem is trying to find a replacement scullery maid who also knows how to style hair really well. Get ready to pay out some big wages, oh evil stepmother.
But this version did not become famous because of the stepmother, or the stepsisters, but because of the little magical details thrown into the story: the pumpkin, the transformed mice, and of course, that famous glass slipper leading to a happy ending. It’s almost enough to make even the most determined revolutionary raise a glass to the reign of Louis XIV.
Walt Disney didn’t think those magical touches were quite enough. He wanted mice. More of them next week.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.