Monday, 16 March 2015

Victorian Fantasy and Supportive Female Communities Across Time and Genre

Although I’ve been a fan of Anne Thackeray Ritchie’s (1837-1919) work for some time, I recently renewed this appreciation due to an unexpected question.  Matthew Roy, a fellow George MacDonald fan, emailed me to ask if I knew of any fairy tales which address experiences of pregnancy; as he commented, ‘There is an infertility convention in a lot of fairy tales (‘Snow White’, ‘Thumbelina’, ‘Little Tom Thumb’, ‘The Light Princess’, etc.), but the problem is usually overcome in a matter of sentences, perhaps after having talked with some sort of magical character (a frog, a witch). In the end the woman becomes pregnant, and then "gives birth to a baby girl with hair as black as coal, skin as white as snow..."  But nothing about actually being pregnant or actually giving birth.’  This is unfortunately very often true, probably because people who wrote and collected them were generally men, in times when men didn't tend to engage as actively with pregnancy experiences as they do now.
However, the French female fairy tale salon writers of the seventeenth-early eighteenth centuries offer a slightly different perspective.  One of the most famous of these writers, Madame d'Aulnoy (1650-1705), herself had six children, and there is a consciousness to be seen of the pregnancy and birth experience in some of her tales (‘Princess Mayblossom’, ‘The Benevolent Frog’, and ‘The Good Little Mouse’ in particular), which trace the pregnancy experience of various beleaguered queens over some paragraphs as they flee danger and encounter helpful fairies, frogs and more.   In her book Pregnant Fictions: Childbirth and the Fairy Tale in Early-modern France, Holly Tucker argues that the often magical dangers that these women face dramatize the more general concerns often felt by pregnant women -- particularly in times when medical knowledge and assistance could be unpredictable, to say the least – and that some of the fairies/magical creatures who help these queens represent midwives. In this way (as well as in others, but that’s another day), D’Aulnoy’s work evokes experiences of female community which transcend time and genre.

Some of the work of Madame d’Aulnoy, unlike others of her salon colleagues, can be found quite readily online; thanks to the lovely people at SurLaLuneFairytales, but also to a Victorian team of female translators and editors – one of which is Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie (Miss Annie Macdonell and Miss Lee were the translators). In addition to her prolific literary output in a variety of disciplines, Thackeray Ritchie produced a) witty and insightful fairy tale adaptations and b) a collection of Madame d’Aulnoy’s work, (1892). In reading the introduction to this collection the other day, I was struck by the trouble Thackeray Ritchie takes to explore d’Aulnoy’s female community in personable detail.
She notes that d’Aulnoy’s circle included Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, the author of ‘La Belle et la Bête’ [‘Beauty and the Beast’], and that: ‘Any of us in the nineteenth century, who have thrilled to the stirring and beautiful song of "Che Faro," as uttered by the sweet voice of Julia Ravogli in "Orfeo," have witnessed a scene reproduced out of one of Madame d'Aulnoy's histories, in which Love, crowned with roses, is sent to assist the wandering prince in his search through Hades for her whom he adores.’  Through these references, she locates d’Aulnoy in a female artistic context, both literary and musical, which is only enhanced by her statement that ‘The prettiest of Madame d'Aulnoy's stories are also the best known, such as L'oiseau Bleu, The White Cat, Le Prince Lutin, and a good many others. Le Nain Jaune, Fortunéc, La Biche au Bois, are also very charmingly told’.
Moreover, Thackeray Ritchie also celebrates d’Aulnoy and her female community in biographical detail. She observes complexities around cultural perceptions of beauty, but emphasises her intelligence:’ "She was always ready in conversation," says one of her admirers. "No one knew better how to introduce an anecdote, and her stories were the delight of all."’  Thackeray Ritchie observes d’Aulnoy’s strained family life, both before (upon the birth of a younger brother, d’Aulnoy was promptly dispatched to a nunnery, against her will, where she took refuge in ‘read[ing] a great many novels about romantic heroes and "heroesses," as she is made to call them, and [trying] to pose as a heroess herself a great deal more than the abbeys approved’) and after marriage (‘Madame d'Aulnoy speaks with cordial dislike of her husband, with whom she seems to have lived very unhappily from the first, and from whom, whenever anything went wrong, she seems to have run away in disguise’).   M. d’Aulnoy suffered imprisonment and near execution due to false accusations of treason by a group of conspirators.  Thackeray Ritchie describes, in detail, d’Aulnoy’s personal connection to a friend, ‘"the famous and beautiful Madame Angélique Tiquet "’.  Having suffered even more than d’Aulnoy from an unhappy and abusive marriage, Madame Tiquet tried to kill her husband; for this she is tried and eventually executed.  D’Aulnoy, notes Thackeray Ritchie, proved a loyal friend, trying to help Madame Tiquet escape and speaking at her trial (which meant that d’Aulnoy was ‘somewhat compromised’).
Thackeray Ritchie goes on to explore d’Aulnoy’s life and other works, including her creative approach to citations, observations and referencing in her memoirs (‘Madame d'Aulnoy, although she had excellent opportunities of observing facts, and was in the main accurate, had the singular habit of transcribing entire paragraphs out of the books of other people without any acknowledgment whatever, and also of sometimes adding imaginary adventures when her own struck her as somewhat dull’).  I do not have the scope to explore these here, but would encourage you to take a look.
            But then, it’s not surprising that Thackeray Ritchie should have been interested in d’Aulnoy’s female community. She herself wrote two texts explicitly extolling female literary tradition: Book of Sibyls (1883) and A Discourse on Modern Sibyls (1913), in which she explores a number of eighteenth – and nineteenth-century female authors (Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot form a few examples).  Through these, Thackeray Ritchie celebrates contemporary nineteenth-century female intelligence, storytelling and wisdom with mythological connotations (the Sibyls were ancient prophetesses and sources of wisdom  -- not to mention plot foreshadowing --- in classical mythology). Her version of Cinderella (in Five Old Friends and a Young Prince, 1868) paints ‘Ella Ashford’’s godmother as an eccentric, rich Victorian society hostess, Lady Jane Peppercorne, who would fit quite nicely in a silver-fork novel or in the memoirs of Lady Dorothy Nevill (gardener, noted conversationalist, and society hostess). Ritchie’s use of female storytelling (of whatever sort) traditions creates figures which transcend barriers of genre.
Anne Thackeray Ritchie
Examining Thackeray Ritchie’s work emphasises the importance of supportive female communities: as an image (sibyls), in practice, and as a point of intersection between biography, creative writing and literary criticism (something beyond the scope of this post is the influence Ritchie had on her niece, Virginia Woolf). I am, I realize, more than verging on the borders of sentimentality here, but this issue has a strong personal resonance for me at the moment.  Over the past year, I’ve been undergoing some really quite serious and frustrating health problems, which (hopefully!) should be somewhat ameliorated soon, but at the moment, leave me feeling rather isolated at times.  One thing that has been a significant encouragement for me throughout this experience is co-organizing a research initiative, Reading the Fantastic, which started last year with two other female colleagues (Ikhlas and Sarah), and now includes two more co-organizers (Huwaida and Rose).  It’s very energizing to be working with people who share my passion for fantasy – and interest in seeing how this genre serves as a point of interconnection: for example, in our reading group sessions, we each suggest texts from our various points of expertise, which means that my Victorian fantasy perspective can meet East Asian, Malaysian, Kenyan and Syrian fantasy traditions.  I’m also extremely excited to be expanding this interest in different outputs: in addition to the reading group series, we’re now running a seminar series and a conference plus workshop. But I could never have done all this by myself, and particularly not while my health is being so unhelpfully uncertain. I’m really lucky, not just to have these colleagues, but also that they are patient and supportive and times when my health just doesn’t want to play ball.