Smart Girls

Emma Tennant

  • ‘Clever Gretchen’ and Other Forgotten Folktales by Alison Luire
    Heinemann, 128 pp, £3.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 434 94899 3

‘Clever Gretchen’ and Other Forgotten Tales sets out to right a balance heavily weighted during the age of the great Victorian collectors of fairy-tales, ballads and lore. In that age, of the vapours and Mrs Beeton’s steam puddings, it was considered unlikely that a young woman, hearing of an attractive young man in some distant part of the world, would go off immediately in search of him – or that a judge’s wife would turn from the suet to the lawsuit and make a better job of it than her husband. Each tale shows a simple truth. This is that girls are as clever and energetic as anyone else, and that this has been the case in places like Russia and Germany and Norway and Aberdeen for as long as can be remembered. It is a truth which has been absent in later times from the stories we have chosen to tell to children.

Who are the girls who lay for so long like mummies in the vaults? Was their behaviour considered too ‘wilful’ for exposure – or too willie-full, perhaps? It’s tempting to imagine a troupe of dragon-slayers in drag, a band of female terrorists let loose, and to fear for boys when they walk home alone through the streets. But the answer lies not in violence, rather in guile and love. Manka, of ‘Manka and the Judge’, is so adept at riddles that the Judge proposes marriage. In the face of his family’s opposition, he is forced to set an impossible riddle for the girl to overcome before he can take her as his bride. Manka solves it, even though this entails arriving at the wedding on a goat. It is after the wedding, however, that her troubles start, for the Judge announces that Manka must on no account meddle in his work. Since Manka is capable of calming a dispute between inheriting brothers by suggesting that one brother portion the land and the other take first choice – and finds herself irresistibly attracted to the giving of other instant correct pronouncements – the Judge tells her that the marriage is at an end. As compensation, Manka may take from the house whatever she likes best. Manka likes the Judge best: she drugs and transports him to her father’s house. In the face of this about-turn, so to speak, the Judge has finally to admit her as a legal partner in both senses of the term.

A similar kind of intelligence is perceptible in ‘Clever Gretchen’. The story concerns a clever girl married to a simple man who has been duped by the Devil into signing himself over after seven years in return for the perfect marksmanship that will win her. The Devil promises that he will be able to answer any question: he is, of course, stumped when Gretchen, well disguised as a large feathered thing, bounces along the field before them on the day of reckoning. In Manka and Gretchen both verbal and visual wit are displayed – and if neither the Judge nor the simpleton seem worth the effort, one can only wonder at the goodheartedness of the girls.

Disguise is important in a world where able and active women may have their place but where the laws of patriarchy, as always, obtain. Maid Maleen is walled up alive by her father for wanting to marry the wrong man. She digs herself out after seven years and goes wandering in a countryside devastated by war. Finding herself in the castle of her lost prince’s betrothed, a sinfully ugly bride who sprains her ankle on the wedding-day, Maid Maleen exchanges identity with her and goes, protected by the veil, to the church. Nettles in the path are instructed to recognise Maleen as the true wife; the ring, triumphantly displayed on the ‘wrong’ hand to the delighted prince after the ceremony, clinches the point.

Kindness and cunning, often ascribed to women as natural attributes in the ‘power-behind-the throne’ theory long popular with those who prefer to see women kept in their place, are supplemented in these tales by an energy that springs up at just the time the Victorians expected and prescribed fatigue: the time of menstruation. In ‘The Sleeping Prince’, the classic jab of the needle on the finger, and the red blood that falls, bring the princess the power to hear a bird sing of a beautiful young man asleep – and the strength to jump into a pair of iron shoes to go after him. Endowed with intuition and boundless energy (‘She walked on and on, far, far and farther still, in her iron shoes. The sun scorched her and the rain wetted her’), the princess lends support to the findings of Peter Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle, who in The Wise Wound indicate the frequent occurrence of both these qualities at the time of the menarche. Another spindle, another pricked finger, in ‘Mother Holle’, send a girl jumping down a well to discover the secrets of life: that hard work and kindness are worth your own weight in gold, while sloth gets you covered in tar. Swooning Pre-Raphaelite princesses are nowhere to be seen.

Apart from the normal sprinkling of jealous stepmothers (the unacceptable face of maternalism, one might say), the young women in these ancient tales have a good deal to fear from their fathers. ‘Cap O’Rushes’, although originating in England, is known in many European countries, and is among the oldest of the tales: it is believed to be one of the sources of King Lear. In it, the third daughter, in the run-of-the-mill loyalty test imposed by her father, tells him she loves him ‘as much as fresh meat loves salt’ and is promptly banished. In exile, Cordelia merges with Cinderella: Cap O’Rushes abandons her rush-disguise three nights running at a ball and gets her prince – and a ring, rather than a glass slipper, as the proof of her identity. When the scullery-maid and the prince hold their wedding-feast, and the doubting father is to be one of the guests, a menu of unsalted meat is planned and presented. Cap O’Rushes’ father, a man as unlikeable as any of the rest of them, is so disgusted by the unsalted meat that he cries into it (salting it perhaps) – and recognises his daughter and his folly simultaneously.