Stand the baby on its head

John Bayley

  • The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales edited by Alison Luire
    Oxford, 455 pp, £17.95, May 1993, ISBN 0 19 214218 6
  • The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales edited by Angela Carter
    Virago, 230 pp, £7.99, July 1993, ISBN 1 85381 616 7

What is the point of fairy tales? Morals, politics, economics? Yes, but that gets us nowhere. Poetry, fantasy, romance? Why not archness, whimsy, sentiment? The poetical fairy tale, even a wry modern one like Thurber’s ‘The Unicorn in the Garden’, is apt to be soft and sticky. The best are startling and mysterious but also commonplace. Before she died Angela Carter made a few notes for what was to be the introduction to her second collection of traditional tales. ‘The unperplexedness of the story. Fairy tales – cunning and high spirits.’ That comes as close as anything.

The unperplexedness of the story means that it knows what it is doing and where it is going, but neither knows nor cares what it means. An invisible barrier separates old from new fairy stories, like the glass wall round the princess in Andrew Lang’s Crimson Fairy Book. In the new ones, however accomplished and diverting they may be, the meaning is clear but coyly hidden, as in many modern fictions; although the examples sought out by Alison Lurie have as much cunning and high spirits in them as the old tales. In Ursula LeGuin’s ‘The Wife’s Tale’ (1982) it takes us a few pages to spot that the wife is a wolf, her husband a mere man. But the meaning is always there, urging us to spot it, whereas in the old tales it was neither proffered nor implied but intrinsic to the medium. Angela Carter, one of whose jolliest tales, ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, is included by Alison Lurie, had a lot of fun with menstrual blood and feminist resourcefulness, but the original Red Riding Hoods and Bluebeard’s wives were serenely unaware of meanings.

For all the change in the message, Angela Carter’s tales are not in this way so different from most Victorian fairy stories. The moral is plain in both, and the medium is used in the same way. ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, published in 1987, which tells the story of Beauty and the Beast in a most engagingly capitalist-baroque fashion, with a few feminist trimmings, is in the same tradition as Ruskin’s ‘The King of the Golden River’ (1850) where his fiercely-held political, aesthetic and ecological doctrines reappear in fantastic guise. In ‘A Toy Princess’ (1877) Mary de Morgan mounts a conventional attack on the conventional Victorian miss; and Frances Browne ‘exposes’ standards of feminine beauty by creating in ‘The Story of Fairyfoot’ a kingdom where large feet are much admired. Hawthorne’s ‘Feathertop’ is in one sense a male version of the Toy Princess – a New England witch makes a fine gentleman from a scarecrow, with whom the daughter of the local rich man falls in love – but Hawthorne’s odd, disturbing gift does not desert him. He points the moral of course: that good straightforward Americans should not be seduced by European affectations, but as in ‘My Kinsman, Major Molineux’, that most disturbing and effective of all his tales, the symbolism grows and expands like a shapely but slightly sinister magic, and eats up the allegory. There is something enigmatic-naive about Hawthorne, as in the best original fairy tales, a naivety which appears in his notebook jottings, one of which was to remind him that a story he had in mind ‘could be a symbol of something’.

The Victorians liked to feel they could use symbolism as easily as allegory, but it only worked if it got out of hand. In Lucy Lane Clifford’s ‘The New Mother’ (1882) it gets out of hand in an odd and sinister way. Although the art and the power of the tale are never compromised one feels that the author is quite scared herself by the djinn which has come out of the bottle. The horror is about something trivial but irrevocable: a reversal of the normal fairy-tale pattern in which resourcefulness or magic will always pull the hero or heroine through. Two little girls live with their mother and the new baby, father being away overseas. They meet a strange adolescent girl who fascinates them with a ‘peardrum’, in which, she tells them, live a little man and woman. But she will only open the peardrum if they are very naughty indeed, and smash the glasses at home and stand the baby on its head. They are good children and thoroughly happy at home, but curiosity is too much for them. The more their mother remonstrates the more obsessed they become with the peardrum and its fabulous contents, and the more naughty they are compelled to be. Finally their mother leaves them in tears, telling them that a new mother will come to look after them.

‘I shall have to go away and leave you, and to send home a new mother, with glass eyes and a wooden tail.’

‘You couldn’t,’ they cried.

‘While she spoke her eyes filled with tears, and a sob almost choked her – ‘yes I could,’ she answered in a low voice, ‘but it would make me very unhappy.’

She does go away, and the children hear the new mother outside the door, which they desperately try to keep closed. They hear her say, ‘I must break open the door with my tail,’ and she does, and the children run away in terror, and exist miserably in the dark woods, sometimes seeing from their old home a flash of light from the glass eyes, and hearing the thump of the wooden tail.

Almost everything fearful in growing up is present in the story, though never explicit. Lucy Lane Clifford came to England from Barbados and married a professor of mathematics, who died, leaving her with two little girls and very badly off. She started to write – romantic novels, plays, verse, stories – and so successfully that she became the hostess of a London literary salon frequented by Kipling and Henry James. Hers was a success story, but one wonders whether her other productions are so riddled as this one with hidden fears and desires. The rare achievement is the identification with both sides: the mother’s urge to be free from the exasperating cares of a family, and the otherness and compulsive secret life of ‘good’ children. Alison Lurie, who supplies the information about the author, observes that the story relates to The Turn of the Screw. So it does; and also to David Copperfield and Kipling’s ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’. But its compression of helpless and piteous elements is in a sense even more shocking, and more raw, than in those famous cases. Angela Carter would naturally be knowing about the peardrum, and the horribly metamorphosed masculine intruder, with his eyeglass and ‘tail’, but hers is an art that depends on mutual knowingness: Lucy Lane Clifford’s in the last century genuinely reanimated the dark places of fairy tale while making them remain dark.

‘The New Mother’, from a collection called Anyhow Stories, Moral and Otherwise, was a brilliant discovery on Alison Lurie’s part, and makes one want to read the others – couldn’t they be reprinted? – as well as books in other genres by Lucy Lane Clifford, though one suspects they might not be so good. Hers are not the only rare and outstanding stories that Lurie has dug up: there are indeed many others, including a couple by those equivocal and highly talented authors, T.H. White and Richard Hughes, published before the war and now forgotten. White’s ‘The Troll’, which appeared in 1935 in a collection called Gone to Ground, concerns the narrator’s father, who went on a fishing trip to the north of Sweden and was nearly eaten by a professor troll, whom he observed through a keyhole eating his own wife.

The Troll was eating a lady. Poor girl, she was tightly clutched to its breast by those rudimentary arms, with her head on a level with its mouth. She was dressed in a nightdress which had crumpled up under her armpits, so that she was a pitiful naked offering, like a classical picture of Andromeda. Mercifully she appeared to have fainted.

The picture is disturbingly memorable, and White’s great and slightly creepy affection for animals makes him observe the troll with great accuracy as it bites off the lady’s head.

The creature had a look of thoughtful ecstasy. When the girl seemed to have lost succulence as an orange she was lifted into the air. She vanished in two bites. The Troll remained leaning against the wall, munching patiently and casting its eyes about it with a vague benevolence.

The last sentence is a master’s work. Children of course love such things; and Roald Dahl and other professionals of ‘black’ fairy stories have exploited the fact – but they lack the style which goes with a certain inner horrifyingness. T.H. White was, after all, a fairly peculiar and unhappy man, for whom writing was a release: and this element of release – into impossible realities – is part of all fairy tale.

So that it does not surprise us, at the beginning of John Collier’s ‘The Chaser’ (he wrote that droll novel His Monkey Wife, which is much better than David Garnett’s Lady into Fox), when we meet a very nervous and ordinary young man in search of a love potion. He finds it of course, and is recommended by the old gentleman who sells such things to return if necessary for ‘the chaser’, which is just as effective, quite painless and very terminal. This was a New Yorker story, and so might have been the fairy tales in Richard Hughes’s two pre-war collections, The Spider’s Palace and Don’t Blame Me. Alison Lurie includes the best of them from the second collection, ‘Gertrude’s Child’, about a wooden doll who gets tired of being knocked about by her owner, runs away and buys a little girl of her own from the old man who sells such things. The doll Gertrude is not deliberately cruel or vengeful, but she does not realise that children are fragile, and poor little Annie gets a hard time and nearly dies of exposure. Gertrude gives a tea-party for her, to which the other dolls and toy animals bring their pet children (the rocking-horse has to be helped upstairs by the two little boys he owns), and all ends happily. As with all the best fairy tales, it has been a near thing: nightmare is never far away.

Such kinds of inversion or ‘making it strange’ occur in many genres other than fairy tale, but fairy tale can use them unironically, or at least with no appearance of irony; and thus its kind of simplicity can make the moral point without compromising the purity of excitement, fascination or terror. The moral point is obvious in ‘The New Mother’ and ‘Gertrude’s Child’, masterpieces as they are, and even ‘The Troll’ shows it a technical deference. The troll is about to eat the narrator’s father when it puts its paw on the rosary in his pyjama pocket, and collapses into a small blue mewling creature who staggers to the window-sill and falls out. (The irony, here rather too evident, is that the rosary is only used by its owner as worry-beads, in case of insomnia.)

Total send-up is of course no good at all, although I was rather melted by Tanith Lee’s ‘Prince Amilec’, in which the witch who does the magic turns out to be a nice ordinary girl who keeps a pet bat. She marries the prince, and the cruel princess who set him impossible tasks finds herself in love with an equally tiresome man and has to go toiling through the forest to find a wizard to help with the tasks he set her. Tanith Lee has a light touch, and a willingness to be amused rather lacking in Angela Carter’s more determined fables. Seriousness of a didactic sort is fatal to fairy tales, and makes an aesthetic lead balloon of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant’ and Walter de la Mare’s ‘Lovely Myfanwy’, who suffers from an over-possessive father. A pity Alison Lurie did not choose one of de la Mare’s real masterpieces in the genre, like ‘Seaton’s Aunt’, with its appalling contemporary witch, or the even better and creepier ‘A Recluse’.

The second Virago collection of fairy tales from all over is lively enough in its way, though lacking the real distinction of the Oxford Book. Most have a very positive moral indeed; it is surprising that so many traditional stories, from Lithuania to Malawi, should share so much political correctness. But many have a residue of cruder good sense, like the Norwegian tale of the lassie who gets her prince by making him admire her spinning and sewing, which in fact has been done for her by three old witches. When she owns up, and the witches tell that they have become so ugly from having to work so hard over the years, the young prince vows that his bride shall remain beautiful by never having to sew or to spin. The same kind of equivocal point is made with charm and delicacy in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s ‘Bluebeard’s Daughter’, another New Yorker tale from the Oxford Book. The lady in question not only gets her prince but helps him become a famous astronomer, being much brighter than he is – her father’s talents have taken a different turn. ‘Her hair was a deep butcher’s blue, her eyebrows and eyelashes blue also. A glow in her cheek was of the usual pink, but the sinister parental pigmentation reasserted itself on her lips, which were deep purple as though stained by eating mulberries; and the inside of her mouth and her tongue were dusky blue like a well-bred chow-dog’s.’ What a girl to meet and marry in a fairy tale! No insipid princess she.