Oxford World’s Classic have produced a new collection of less familiar tales from British authors writing in the Victorian period. Lest we think fairy tale writing may be deemed an inferior genre there are some literary heavyweights on display here- John Ruskin, WM Thackeray, Ford Maddox Ford and Oscar Wilde who join the more child-centered writers such as E. Nesbit, Kenneth Grahame, Rudyard Kipling, Andrew Lang and a number of authors whose works I had not encountered before.
Following a thought-provoking, academic introduction by Michael Newton we are offered a prologue, a story each by the champions of the genre, the Brothers Grimm’s “Rumpel-Stilt-Skin” (first British publication in 1823) and Hans Christian Andersen’s “Princess And The Pea” (1846). These well-known tales are offered as a starting point as they largely rekindled the British love for the traditional fairy story and these translations quickly permeated into the everyday life of the Victorians. Following this short prologue we get fourteen tales of differing length (and if I’m being honest of varying appeal to this reader).
First up is a tantalising, although not fully familiar choice. “The Story Of The Three Bears” in its first written British publication (it being a story with a strong oral tradition) by poet Robert Southey. His prose tale establishes the builds and rhythms which we are familiar with but is fascinating in its deviation by having an old woman break into the bears’ house. It’s a story with no real beginning nor end. It is not clear why she does what she does and her fate is somewhat ambiguous, but because she is not that appealing a character the story does not come alive. What it needs is a young girl to do the porridge eating………………….Cue, firstly, Silver-Hair (attributed to Joseph Cundall in an 1849 collection- 12 years after Southey) and it wasn’t until after the Victorian Era (around 1904) that young Goldilocks made her first entrance into the cottage in the woods.
So far, so familiar. There are a couple of stories I can remember as stand-alone children’s classics from the local public library shelves of my childhood. Thackeray’s “The Rose and The Ring”, Ruskin’s “King Of The Golden River” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant”. Of the rest, I was drawn in by Laurence Housman’s tale of outsiders, “The Story Of The Herons” which deals with the Andersen-ish notion of desiring a human soul and then when that has been achieved desiring to return to the non-human form. Newton in his introduction suggests Housman’s tale is “a coded account of homosexual love” yet it works well as an imaginative, poignant tale. E. Nesbit and Kenneth Grahame are represented by stories which fit in nicely with the quality of their more famous work. Rudyard Kipling’s “Dymchurch Flit” doesn’t – it making no impression upon me whatsoever. I liked the tone of master fairytale collector and anthologiser Andrew Lang’s “Prince Rigio” which is enough to suggest I should investigate further the Delphi Classic collection of his Colour Fairy Tale books I have languishing on my Kindle.
There are less fairies and more politics in this book than you would imagine. In fact, actual fairies are few and far between. There’s a strong emphasis on what might be deemed political satire and there’s a number of appendices which explore what is meant by a fairy tale from some of the authors included in the collection. (These are a little dry). Michael Newton in his introduction probably sums this up best;
“…all the stories in this book, both provide places for thinking and reflection, and simultaneously play upon our feelings and exercise our capacity for compassion. Reading them is a serious delight. They introduce us to an already familiar strangeness, and through the resources of art grant a space to make believe.”
It is this “familiar strangeness” which most appeals to me. This book is intended for an adult audience (with fairly good eyesight, I found the print size and font an occasional struggle) wanting to rediscover some of this “space to make believe” and perhaps sharing them with a younger generation.
Victorian Fairy Tales is published by Oxford University Press in June 2016