Last week the news included a feature with Jeanette Winterson talking to children about fairytales and ways in which these narratives might be rewritten.
I think Jeanette would approve of my upbringing. I have a clear memory of a bedtime story told to me by my mother when I was aged about four: a girl with the same name as me was offered the opportunity to swop places with a princess. She did so, and didn’t like it because all she did was shake hands with people for the whole day and she had to keep her clothes clean rather than running about with her friends getting as mucky as she liked. This was around the same time as Charles and Diana getting married, and while the world went princess mad, my mother told me “He doesn’t love her, you know.” Safe to say by that tender age I thought being a princess vastly overrated.
So in honour of Jeanette and my mother, this week I’m looking at novels that rework a fairytale narrative to some extent. Firstly, a young girl living in a castle with her sister, brother, father and step-mother. Except her sister is beautiful & they love each other, and the stepmother is batty and awesome and holds the whole family together, in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1949).
“I have just remarked to Rose that our situation is really rather romantic – two girls in this strange and lonely house. She replied that she saw nothing romantic about being shut up in a crumbling ruin surrounded by a sea of mud.”
So says Cassandra Mortmain, 17-year-old narrator of her family’s trials and tribulations as they live in a castle in the 1930s with no money, as her writer father isn’t doing any writing. Her stepmother Topaz is an unusual mix of naked-communer-with-nature and grounded housewife:
“She has a very deep voice- that is, she puts one on; it is part of an arty pose, which includes painting and lute playing. But her kindness is perfectly genuine and so is her cooking.”
Two American men arrive to disrupt this picturesque but borderline-starving idyll, and what follows is a coming of age novel, as Rose plans to marry one of them and Cassandra comes to terms with her feelings about her sister, family, life, love and money.
“Never have I felt so separate from her. And I regret to say that there were moments when my deep and loving pity for her merged into a desire to kick her very hard.”
And I really don’t think I have the words to convey how I feel about this novel. I could layer superlative upon superlative and not get close. It is a wonder.
I wish I’d read it as a teenager, because then I could have read it another ten times (minimum) by now. I wish I’d met Cassandra Mortmain years ago but at least I have her in my life now. She is witty, insightful, wise and funny.
“Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cure for depression.”
Her family are flawed and eminently loveable. The story is eccentric but not self-consciously so; it is heart-warming but not sentimental. I absolutely adored it.
“It’s going to be happy ever after, just like in fairy tales. – And I still wouldn’t like it. oh, I’d love the clothes and the wedding. I am not so sure I should like the facts of life, but I have got over the bitter disappointment I felt when I first heard about them, and one obviously has to try them sooner or later. What I’d really hate would be the settled feeling, with nothing but happiness to look forward to.”
I Capture the Castle was adapted into a film in 2003. It can’t possibly be as good as the book but Bill Nighy means I’ll probably like Father more in the film:
Secondly, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (2012), based on various fables of snow children, particularly Arthur Ransome’s Little Daughter of the Snow. In 1920s Alaska (one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit), Jack and Mabel are homesteaders with a huge grief in their marriage: they lost a child and are unable to conceive any more. The drama in the landscape of their new home reflects their grief:
“It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all.”
One night, the two of them carve a snow child, and shortly after they are visited by its embodiment:
“There was the child herself, her face a mirror of the one Jack had sculpted in the snow, her eyes like ice itself. It was fantastical and impossible, but Mabel knew it was true – she and Jack had formed her of snow and birch boughs and frosty wild grass.”
“Jack would have spoken to her, but her eyes – the broken blue of river ice, glacial crevasses, moonlight – held him. She blinked, her blond lashes glittering with frost, and darted away.”
The child, Faina, visits them each year when it snows, and a delicate, fragile bond is formed. Mabel and Jack are respectful of her need for freedom and are careful not to swamp her with the force of their immense love:
“like a rainbow trout in a stream, the girl sometimes flashed her true self to him. A wild thing glittering in dark water.”
Ivey writes beautifully regarding both landscape and people. She explores grief and love in its various forms with great sensitivity and never offers trite answers. The fabulism brings an unnerving quality to the story, where you are never sure what might happen. The Snow Child is always completely believable in its emotion and characterisation, alongside startling images that disconcert:
“She told no-one of the otter. Garrett would want to trap it; Faina would ask her to draw it. She refused to confine it by any means because, in some strange way, she knew it was her heart. Living, twisting muscle beneath bristly damp fur.”
To end, a fairytale that survived my childhood scepticism, and my adult cynicism too 🙂