It’s not long since the fairy story seemed the least political of genres. Not so today. A preoccupation with transformation and escape, coupled with a repudiation of the sober certainties of rationality, gives its narrative devices potent appeal to those placed by conviction, race or gender on the margins of the cultural establishment. Taking unfamiliar and ruthless forms, traditional tales have acquired new status in contemporary fiction. And we ought not, now, to need convincing that the public reverberations of privately refashioned legends can travel a long way. After The Satanic Verses, fantasy will never look cosy again.
For some writers, however, taking wing into fable remains an indulgence. No novelist has offered sterner resistance to the glamour of magic realism than Anita Brookner, meticulously recording the particularities of everyday compromise. Nevertheless, she too has thought deeply about the need to rewrite fairy stories. Her new novel is a searching study of innocence, and the limitations of innocence. Lewis Percy, an anxiously clever boy, has had a reclusive upbringing with his widowed mother. In an uncharacteristically adventurous move, he leaves her to pursue postgraduate research in Paris. He is working on images of the hero in French fiction – a topic he finds congenial, for Lewis has a story-book understanding of what life ought to be. ‘Already he perceived what he took to be a natural order: female company at the close of a day dedicated to masculine patterns of endeavour.’
Aspiring to be a hero within the confines of his muted routines, this unlikely prince is looking for a princess. His ageing mother clearly won’t do for the part. Blinkered by self-absorption, he is not prepared to notice on his return form Paris signs of the heart disease which abruptly ends Mrs Percy’s patient life. Lewis is devastated, and bewildered. His educated idealism has not adapted him for domesticity and grief. ‘Life should be better than this. It should be splendid, colourful, exciting, not this miserable affair of mortal illness and tinned soup and ashes in the grate.’
More than ever, Lewis needs a princess to save him. Unluckily, he can only see himself in the role of rescuer. ‘He had an obscure feeling that a man must perform an act of nobility before claiming his prize.’ Tissy, the woman he happens upon – a librarian, like himself – seems suited to be both redeemer and redeemed. Even more timid than Lewis (lively librarians might find this book an irritation), she looks to him like a Sleeping Beauty, a trial to be passed through on his way to heroic stature. Lewis decides to marry Tissy, despite the mingled hostility and indifference of the mother (dragon or witch?) who tirelessly guards her pale and taciturn daughter.
Brookner’s slow, pensive dissection of the disintegrating marriage between Lewis and Tissy becomes an examination of the nature of his unworldly goodness. Lewis is far from stupid, but his touching naivety amounts to a weakness that threatens to nullify his life and the lives of those around him. Tissy turns out to be far more substantial than he had been able to imagine, with quirks and needs of her own. Unexpectedly, she becomes pregnant and leaves Lewis; still more unexpectedly, she becomes a feminist. Lewis is baffled. ‘Since his earliest days he had thought of women as kindly creatures, benevolent, well-disposed. This had apparently been all wrong.’ Helpless suffering has usually been women’s business in Anita Brookner’s fiction. Lewis Percy quietly asserts that men suffer too, and that they do it in ways not wholly different from women. Being a disillusioned princess is depressing, but falling short as a hero isn’t much fun either. Well-meaning and put upon, Lewis carries his mildnesss to a point verging on the comic. Without a woman, he is incapable of providing himself with nourishment. ‘He was, however, so used to feeling hungry that he was more or less resigned to the condition lasting out his lifetime, and possibly continuing beyond it.’ Might the local fish and chip shop have helped? Similarly, Lewis is incapable of recognising ready-made solutions to his long-standing emotional problems. He loves a dashing young woman called Emmy who, surprisingly, returns his feelings. It looks as though Emmy is doomed to wait in her enchanted tower for ever, as Lewis fails to reconceive the old story that has let him down. But a release finally offers itself, in the form of an unlooked-for fairy godmother who changes Lewis into another shape. Whether he is capable of sustaining the transformation is another matter. We leave him poised for a charmed flight as improbable as anything Hans Christian Andersen might have fancied.
Fairy stories make hazardous models for those who take them seriously. But we can’t quite do without them. The deliberative prose of Lewis Percy’s story holds the claims of the fantastic and the prosaic in balance. Only when he relinquishes his dreams, recognising the world as a cold and cruel place, is Lewis allowed to discover the possibility of becoming a hero fitted to seek his fortune in a new world. For all her level-headed eschewal of illusion, Anita Brookner has not given up the notion that we might manage to live happily ever after.
Jeanette Winterson’s relations with fantasy are less wary than anything to be found in Brookner’s temperate reflections. Founded on the political creeds of ecology and feminism, Sexing the cherry fuses male and female voices in an exuberant blend of the historical and the fabulous. The Dog-Woman, unequivocally relishing a boisterous heroism that Lewis Percy would have blanched at, occupies a hut on the banks of the Thames in 17th-century London. She earns an eccentric living by organising fights and races for the boar-hounds she breeds. But to suggest that the novel is set in any one period or place would give a false impression, for Winterson wants to question customary thinking about what time is. The Dog-Woman has a foundling son, Jordan, who is given to abstract speculation. Jordan contemplates the substance of his existence. It is not made up of verifiable events or hard facts. Jordan’s memories consist of possibilities, stories and magic voyages: ‘I discovered that my own life was written invisibly, was squashed between the facts, was flying without me like the Twelve Dancing Princesses who shot from their window every night and returned home every morning with torn dresses and worn-out slippers and remembered nothing.’
The lengthier of Winterson’s conjectural musings on the enigmas of life are apt to be trite. ‘Time has no meaning, space and place have no meaning, on this journey. All times can be inhabited, all places visited. In a single day the mind can make a millpond of the oceans.’ Her gift is not for philosophy. But she tells a dazzling tale, and Sexing the cherry is a network of sharp and vivid stories. Their 17th-century colouring is hardly more than incidental, for Winterson’s fingers are firmly on the pulse of the 1990s. She writes best about vigorously independent women, making their stylish way in the world with an assurance that can’t have been nearly as prevalent in the London of the Civil War as it is in the pages of this novel. Wish-fulfillment, after all, is one of the storyteller’s most bewitching instruments, and she uses it with verve and sophistication.
The Dog-Woman, huge, childlike and fierce, is the most engaging of Winterson’s seditious women. Because she inhabits a fable, her innocence endows her with superhuman strength and good fortune. She is able to destroy her enemies and protect her friends with a blithe insouciance that might well lift the spirits of her less stalwart readers. Much influenced by Angela Carter (Sexing the cherry bears a close relation to Nights at the Circus), Winterson gives us a woman who breaks the rules on a monstrous scale. The Dog-Woman is as earthy as her son is dreamy. But she, too, is looking for magic, and believes in heroism. It isn’t, then, surprising that Royalism rather than Puritanism should elicit her loyalty. Puritans seem to her to quench everything that’s ‘grand and fine and full of life’, and she cuts an enjoyably extensive swathe through their ranks in the course of her rampant progress throught the novel. This has nothing to do with the specifics of 17th-century history. Winterson here gives vent to the scepticism about institutional religion that is one of the most marked characteristics of the current renaissance of the fairy-tale. Wanting to believe in magic might well be the symptom of a need to believe in God, but the subversive sorceries of this writing implies little sympathy for His ordained ministers.
While his mother is pitting her considerable weight against the ascendant Puritan faith, Jordan has embarked on a prolonged quest in search of a vanishing princess, a dancing point of light who may or may not exist outside the bounds of his own desire. Seeking her, Jordan allies himself with John Tradescant, the botanist and traveller who was also bent on the pursuit of an exotic ideal. Fiction and history merge in the image of the first pineapple to reach Britain’s shores. Jordan and his mother leave London as the Great Fire is about to purge it. The significance of their imagined lives, however, remains, finding unforeseen expression in what seem to be new contests, but may ony be the old ones in differing guises: ‘And even the most solid of things and the most real, the best-loved and the well-known, are only hand-shadows on the wall. Empty space and points of light.’
It would not be hard to charge Winterson with a readiness to give too complete an allegiance to a particular literary formula (raunchily historical fantasy plus feminist assertiveness, underpinned by environmental consciousness and uplifted with a smidgen of mystical fervour). But her work has a solidity and point that is lodged in something firmer than fashion. Sexing the cherry has a rare and winning quality: it cheers you up.
On first acquaintance, it would be hard to think of a less cheering book than Hilary Mantel’s Fludd. The small Northern town in which it is set is magnificently evoked as the most dispiriting place under the sun. Not that the sun often shines on the dismal streets of Fetherhoughton – and its women, formidable though they are, could hardly be less like Winterson’s feisty heroines:
From the doorsteps the women stared at passersby, and laughed. They knew a joke, when it was pointed out to them, but for the most part their entertainment lay in the discernment of physical peculiarities in those around them. They lived in hope of seeing a passer-by with a hunchback, knock knees or a hare lip. They did not think that it was cruel to mock the afflicted, they thought it was perfectly natural; they were sentimental but pitiless, very scathing and unforgiving about any aberration, deviation, eccentricity or piece of originality. There was a spirit abroad in the village that discriminated so thoroughly against pretension that is also discriminated against ambition, even against literacy.
Yet Mantel, too, is interested in how the liberating and transforming powers of magical fantasy might act on unpropitious surroundings. A mysterious stranger arrives on a stormy night, moving into the house of Father Angwin, the unhappy and faithless local priest. Calling himself Fludd, he is assumed to be a new curate, sent as an agent of the bishop’s oppressive regime. But the reader recalls a helpful prefatory note and knows better: ‘The real Fludd (1574-1637) was a physician, scholar and alchemist. In alchemy, everything has a literal and factual description, and in addition a description that is symbolic and fantastical.’ Fludd, like Sexing the cherry, broods on the continuing force of the heroic imagination of the 17th century. This long-lived alchemist represents a transforming energy, signalling that even the intransigent facts of life in Fetherhoughton are not fixed for ever.
Fludd has found a new material to work with. Human nature, rather than metal, is what he wants to transfigure – ‘an art less predictable, more gratifying, more dangerous’. But he finds himself contending with forces quite as persistent as his own. Prejudice, malice and literal-mindedness seem to be the leading motives of the Christianity of Fetherhoughton, while a neighbouring hamlet, Netherhoughton, has happily settled for a bizarre paganism of its own. Mantel shares Winterson’s suspicion of formal religion. The local convent, despotically run by the spiteful Sister Perpetua, is a nightmare of bleakness and despair, while the bishop’s modern ideas add up to little more than self-serving pretension. The people make no effort to escape their grim, sour lives. But these shortcomings are treated gently, even affectionately. Mantel is not much inclined to proclaim the meaning of life, seeing an irrepressible absurdity in most of our larger spiritual aspirations. Sister Philomena, a nun unsettled by the arrival of the strange new curate, begins to wonder about time: ‘What is time, anyway? ... “It’s to do with Greenwich,” she said. “All would be well if you were right by Greenwich.” ’
Grandeur might be beyond us, but change is not. Stirred by the challenge of Fludd’s arrival. Father Angwin finds a way of coping with his loss of faith – and, triumphantly, of resisting the bishop’s trivial tyrannies. Sister Perpetua, too, gets a satisfying come-uppance. But Sister Philomena becomes the most rewarding ground of Fludd’s experimental work. An ingenuous, rather sensible farm girl from Ireland, she finds her resignation to a joyless incarceration wavering in his catalytic presence. Her innocence was more than ignorance. But it had become a confinement. Fludd enables her to grow, and Hilary Mantel allows the prospect that a changed life might also be a contented one. This is a shrewd and funny book, built on intelligence and compassion. It reminds us that one of the most telling reasons for the revival of the fairy story is an old one. In a hard world, it offers our best chance of a happy ending.