It can be rather difficult to summon up any sympathy for the stepmother in most versions of Cinderella. Oh, she may not be the worst of the evil stepmothers out there—after all, she never tries to kill her young, beautiful stepdaughter, unlike a certain Evil Queen with a poisoned apple fetish. And she seems motivated, at least in part, with the purest of motives: to help her own daughters achieve a brilliant marriage, and thus, a happy ending. Still. Against this, she turns her stepdaughter into a servant, blatantly favors her own daughters, and—in many versions—quite possibly robs her stepdaughter of her inheritance. And, of course, she famously refuses to let her lovely stepdaughter go to a ball.
No wonder we mostly cheer for Cinderella.
But what if we heard the stepmother’s side of this tale. Would we still cheer as hard?
This is the question brought up by Danielle Teller in All the Ever Afters, billed as the untold story of Cinderella’s stepmother. Named Agnes in this version, unlike her comfortably middle class or lower upper class stepdaughter, depending upon exactly who is telling the tale, Agnes is born into poverty. So dire, that she is sent off, when about ten to work in the laundry of Aviceford Manor, for nothing more than very poor room and board, under the supervision of a lazy, brutal laundress—a person who rather resembles an evil stepmother from a fairy tale.
Fortunately, Agnes—who also functions as the narrator of the story—is clever, and observant, and when she has a chance for a slightly better job offer, she snatches it—beginning the slow, steady and often painful social climbing that will eventually land her in the royal court. She intersperses these memories with updates on life at the court now that Cinderella has married the prince—something not exactly explored in the older versions of this fairy tale. In some ways, these court descriptions are the most fascinating part of the book—especially if, like me, you always wondered how well that marriage would go, given how little time the two spent together before she tried on that shoe.
The bulk of All the Ever Afters, however, is dedicated to the story of Agnes and her slow and often crawl up the social ladder, marked by violence, death, and, most notably, rigid social rules and barriers. Agnes finds dream after dream either barred to her, or drastically changed thanks to her origins, including one particularly heartbreaking moment regarding her religious education. She is intelligent; she is a fiercely hard worker; she is not always honest. And she is determined to succeed, both for herself and her daughters, whatever those barriers. And she’s able to justify nearly every choice she makes—even those that turned her into the figure of an evil stepmother, and may leave readers cheering on Cinderella, more than once, even in a narrative with a narrator pleading for understanding.
The novel is set in an imaginary medieval kingdom, with only a few historical details to pin down the time of the tale—mostly in a passing reference to Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince (1330-1376), placing the story sometime between 1350-1410. That is, shortly after the Black Death (1348-1349) initially swept through Europe, sowing social chaos and change in its wake. The novel makes a nod to this when a major illness transforms the life of Agnes and one of her daughters—though the disease in the novel is smallpox, not plague, a change that works with the novel’s other themes.
Though the kingdom is imaginary, with nothing more than the reference to Edward of Woodstock and a queen called Philippa to anchor it, the setting is a realistic one: as Agnes says bitterly early on, fairies do not exist, and this is a world without any magic other than art and education—both magical in their way. Which does not mean that godmothers—unmagical ones, but godmothers nonetheless—can’t interfere and change a few things. Along with stepmothers.
Since this is the stepmother’s tale, and since the setting is non-magical, the more famous elements—the ball, the pumpkin, the glass slippers—are almost glossed over. In fact, unless I missed it, the book does not contain a single mention of pumpkins, possibly in a nod to its medieval setting—that is, before pumpkins were brought over from the Americas. But Teller does manage to work in a rather clever reference to the rats. And Agnes’ own tale is a story of climbing from rags to riches—that is, pure Cinderella. With a touch more realism, since Agnes lacks a fairy godmother and glass slippers. Which just goes to show how universal Cinderella’s story can be—so universal, even her stepmother can be seen as a Cinderella figure.
The novel’s focus on Agnes does create one difficulty: Ella/Cinderella herself is never particularly convincing—less so, in many ways, than her stepsisters. (One of whom, in a nice touch, is visibly biracial; the other is white-passing.) And not just because we only see Ella/Cinderella through the not always sympathetic gaze of her stepmother—indeed, that very lack of sympathy creates some of the more compelling scenes of the novel, as the two find themselves clashing. But somehow or other, even these angry moments never seem to turn Ella into a real person. And I have to admit, I kinda want magic in my fairy tales, and there’s not much of that here.
But the novel does focus on a central feature of Perrault’s fairy tale, reminding us that Cinderella is less a tale of magic and fairies, and more a tale of social climbing. Something anyone can aspire to, even without a fairy godmother. I think most fairy tale lovers will enjoy this.
All the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella’s Stepmother is available on May 22nd from William Morrow.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.