Escaping Through Mundane Means: Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie’s Fairy Tale Retellings

The success of Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie’s first mundane fairy tale, “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” (1866) encouraged her to write more. A retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” appeared in 1867, followed by a retelling of “Cinderella” in 1868, followed by a steady progression of retellings of somewhat lesser known fairy tales, collected into two volumes: Bluebeard’s Keys and Other Tales in 1874, and Five Old Friends in 1875.

As she wrote, her fairy tales grew more intricate and detailed—and considerably longer. A few reached novella length, and several featured lengthy digressions—descriptions of lovely French towns or Roman palaces, or comments on manners and society. Almost exactly the sort of “tell instead of show” that many writing classes urge writers to avoid, possibly thinking of a few passages from these tales, but now I’m digressing.

All of the tales used the same framing device: that they are real stories about various people the narrator met on her various trips abroad and extended stays in the houses of other people. (If the last seems a bit shocking, it more or less mirrored the pattern of Ritchie’s own life, which included lengthy stays in the households of other people.) The narrator often discusses the tales with her close friend H.—who sometimes, like the narrator, plays an active role in the tale, as a sort of fairy godmother. In other cases, as in Bluebeard’s Keys, H. bursts into the narration to complain about it, or to question the actual fate of a couple of the characters.

Eventually, the narrator is identified as the elderly Miss Williamson, and H. as her best friend, a widow—a status that allows H. to argue in favor of marriage, and Miss Williamson to argue in favor of love, and to note that the single life is not always terrible. Where exactly they got the money for their lives of leisure, knitting, letters and gossip is not exactly clear, but it is clear that they have just enough to be on friendly terms with minor Italian noblemen and to know nothing whatsoever about farming.

The pretense that all of the protagonists of the tales are people that Miss Williamson and H. have met also allowed Ritchie to bring back characters from previous tales when needed. A visit to Cecilia and Frank—the protagonists of “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood”—reminds them of the story of Cinderella, and a Cinderella they once knew—complete with a dropped shoe. The two are staying at Lulworth Hall, the setting of “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” during most of the events of “Riquet with the Tuft”—a story that just happens to feature a few of Cecilia’s cousins.

That pretense also allows Miss Williamson and H. to take active roles in the tales when needed, as in “Beauty and the Beast,” when an exasperated H. takes matters into her own hands to bring about the happy ending. Most of the time, however, the ladies are content to watch, observe, gossip and read letters. In some tales, particularly Bluebeard’s Keys, they have no narrative role at all—despite knowing Bluebeard himself, and despite their unending insistence that women, too, have a right to speak.

As with Ritchie’s first tale, all of the fairy tales remain strongly rooted in the mundane: “Jack and the Beanstalk,” for instance, focuses on a land dispute and the radical political response to it. That mundaneness forced her to sidestep certain problems with the original tales. It was still unthinkable, in Ritchie’s world, for a young girl to go to a strange house and live with a solitary male, man or beast, so in Ritchie’s “Beauty and the Beast,” Belle is hired to be a companion to the Beast’s elderly mother—a purely mundane situation that also, fortunately, removes some of the trappings of kidnapping and imprisonment found in the original tale. Belle might be sharing a home with a Beast—but in this version, she’s earning a small salary.

As you might be gathering, from the hints of Italian noblemen, lengthy stays at country houses, and frequent trips to Italy and France, these are, for the most part, tales of middle and upper class people—even Belle comes from a “good” family that just happens to be down on its luck. Ritchie made one, not particularly successful, attempt to depict lower class characters in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” where the main protagonist, Hans, was born on a financially straitened farm. His mother, however, likes to remind everyone that she came from a more genteel social class (as it turns out, she’s the daughter of an apothecary) even if she did marry a farmer, and the two of them are completely inept farmers. It’s a nice acknowledgement from Ritchie that farming isn’t necessarily an inherited interest, and is a career that takes training and skill, not something that can just be picked up on a whim. But partly since has no skill at the job, and mostly because Ritchie clearly had no interest in farming, Hans turns into a political radical instead, using that, instead of physical labor to change his social status.

That story also contains a speech from another political radical who does know something about poverty urging for actual social change, about the only example of an actual poor person getting a chance to talk, at length, in one of Ritchie’s tales. Otherwise, peasants appear only briefly, described and swiftly dismissed as “dear peasant people,” useful mostly for providing food and a certain picturesque quality to everyone’s travels in France. This focus may seem a bit myopic, but it allows Ritchie to examine the lives of women in the world she knew.

Again and again, Ritchie argues for independence, education, and encouraging the self-worth of women. “Riquet with the Tuft,” for instance, strongly suggests that Sylvia’s clumsiness and seeming stupidity are not inbred, but the result of years of verbal and emotional abuse from her father. Once convinced that yes, someone can love her, Sylvia is transformed. It’s another abrupt, not overly convincing ending—but Ritchie in this tale seems less concerned with a realistic ending, and more concerned with portraying the way that emotional and verbal abuse can warp and damage women, trapping them in unhappy situations, a theme taken up again in her novella Bluebeard’s Keys.

That novella also considers the restrictions faced by 19th century women with limited incomes and education, obstacles that force its protagonist, Fanny, to consider marriage with someone outright abusive—but financially successful. It says something that even the sympathetic, practical H notes that an unhappy marriage may be better than no marriage at all, even as Miss Williamson urges her friends and acquaintances to focus on happiness instead of money. “Beauty and the Beast” examines what happens socially to families that lose their money (spoiler alert: friendships end until the money returns), offering more reasons for women to choose money instead of love, even as Miss Williamson hopes for the opposite.

Not all of these tales are successful. Bluebeard’s Keys, in particular, suffers from Ritchie’s tendency to meander and interrupt her tale, especially her choice to give away the ending of the story before the story actually ends, in a clear sign than that the tale’s plot is not her major interest. And I can’t help but think that going from six former wives to just two former wives—and having one of those wives die from heartache instead of murder—ends up weakening the story. It doesn’t really help that part of the implied problem with Barbi, the Bluebeard of the tale, is that although he is technically a marquis, he was also born into a lower class background, a factor that apparently contributes to his abusive behavior. “Riquet with the Tuft” stops dead several times for unnecessary descriptions of the French countryside, and Ritchie’s attempt to discuss radicals and land reform in “Jack and the Beanstalk” was probably something better left unattempted. I found my attention wandering several times during “The White Cat.”

But the tales do offer hope for these restricted, emotionally and verbally abused women (and Hans): hope that they can escape their environments, and can find self-confidence and security through purely mundane, not magical means. It helps, certainly, if you can befriend a kind hearted old lady with money who can help you accomplish magical things—such as obtaining an exquisite dress for a ball on very short notice. And it helps if you can find a person who will fall in love with you even if you do tend to be clumsy, incoherent, and not particularly musical. Or even just if you can remember that fairy tales can, sometimes, happen in real life—something Ritchie wanted her own readers to know.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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