Once upon a time in Paris...

Dawn the Golden-Haired

Happy International Women's Day! We've been looking at women in myth, folklore, and fantasy in the last few posts. Today is dedicated to the fairy tale writers of the French salons, with illustrations by French book artist Adrienne Ségur (1901-1981)....

The term "fairy tale," now used throughout the English-speaking world as a generic label for magical stories for children, was a term coined in the literary salons of 17th century Paris by a group of writers who wrote and published their tales for adult readers. These stories have come down to us through the years in simplified forms adapted for children: Cinderella, RapunzelBluebeard, Sleeping Beauty, Donkeysin, and many others. They have their roots deep in the oral folk tradition, but they are not anonymous folk tales themselves -- they are literary works by a group of French authors, primarily women, who have exerted a strong influence on fairy tale literature up to the present.

Grace and Derek by Adrienne SegurTo explore this group and their influence, first we need to distinguish between the oral folk tales and literary fairy tales of western Europe. Magical folk tales, of course, have been part of the storytelling tradition since the dawn of time -- including stories of fairies, sorcerers, witches, and human folk under enchantment. Folk tales are humbler stories than the great cosmological myth cycles or long heroic Romances, and as such have been passed through the generations largely by the lower caste portions of society: women, peasants, slaves, and outcast groups such as Tinkers and Travellers. The literary fairy tale, by contrast, began as an art form of the upper classes -- made possible by advances in printing methods and rising literacy. Literary fairy tales borrow heavily from the oral folk tales of the peasant tradition (as well from myth, Romance, and literary sources like Apuleius’ Golden Ass), but these motifs are crafted and reworked through a single author’s imagination.

The Tinderbox by Adrienne SegurAlthough we find magical elements in medieval literature (in Boccaccio’s Decameron, for instance, or Chaucer’s Cantebury Tales), 16th century Italy is where the fairy tale became a genre of its own with the publication of Giovan Francesco Straparola’s Le piacevoli notti (The Pleasant Nights, 1550-53) and Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentamerone, also known as Lo cunto de li cunti (The Story of Stories, 1534-36). Both authors acknowledged that their source material came from women storytellers, yet Straparola and Basile were not scholarly collectors intent on preserving the oral folk tradition; they were writers who filtered the oral tales through an educated sensibility, turning them into literary works intended for adult readers. Both authors embedded short fairy tales into a larger frame story (ala the Decameron), a narrative technique that was to become a staple of fairy tale literature. Between them, Le piacevoli notti and Il Pentamerone contain some of the earliest written renditions of many classic tales such as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Puss-in-Boots, among others. Yet these stories were somewhat different than the fairy tales we know today. Sleeping Beauty, for instance, was not wakened by a kiss, but by the suckling of the twins that she gave birth to after the prince has come, made love to her sleeping body, and left again. The tales were sensual, dark, bawdy, and never intended for children’s ears. Straparola, in fact, had to legally defend his volume against charges of indency.

Sleeping Beauty by Adrienne Segur

In the 17th century, Italian interest in magical stories waned -- but the tales of Straparola and, particularly, Basile went on to influence a new generation of writers in Paris. Prior to the 17th century, French folk tales were considered the “vulgar” province of the peasantry, although members of the upper-classes often knew such tales via nurses and servants. In the middle of the century, however, a vogue for magical tales emerged in the women’s salons of Paris. The salons were regular gatherings hosted by prominent aristocratic women, where women and men could gather to discuss the issues of the day. At court, contact between men and women was socially constrained and ritualized; and many topics of conversation were considered inappropriate for well-bred ladies. In the 1630s, disaffected women began to host gatherings in their own homes in order to discuss the topics of their choice: arts and letters, politics (carefully, for the Sun King’s spies were everywhere), and social matters of immediate concern to the women of their class: marriage, love, financial and physical independence, and access to education. This was a time when women were barred from schools and universities; when arranged marriages were the norm, divorce virtually unheard of, birth control methods primitive, and death by childbirth common. These women, and the sympathetic men who were increasingly attracted to their lively gatherings, came to be called précieuses, for they perfected a witty, inventive, précieux mode of conversation (rather like the bon mots popular in the Aesthetic movement of Oscar Wilde’s day).

Finn the Keen Falcon by Adrienne SegurSome of the most gifted women writers of the period came out of these early salons (such as Madeleine de Scudéry and Madame de Lafayette), which encouraged women’s independence and pushed against the gender barriers that circumscribed their lives. The salonnières argued particularly for love, tendresse, and intellectual compatibility between the sexes, opposing the system of arranged marriages in which, at its worst, women of their class were basically sold off to the highest bidder. They railed against a culture that permitted men to take lovers while demanding women remain faithful to men they’d never wanted to marry in the first place. They sought to control their own money, and property, and to travel without chaperones. Most of all, they wanted the opportunity to exercise their intelligence and talents. Encouraged by their success in the salons, women began to write fiction, poetry and plays in unprecedented numbers -- and to earn a living through this work which enabled them to remain unmarried or to establish separate households. The salons became quite influential -- fashions grew out of them, artistic ideas, and even political movements; they also provided a network for women struggling to achieve independence.

In the middle of the 17th century, a passion for conversational parlor games based on the plots of old folk tales swept through the salons. The telling of folk tales was an art that had long historical associations with women – yet the use that these bluestocking women made of such tales was new and subversive. Each salonnière would be called upon to retell an old tale or rework an old theme, spinning them into clever new stories that not only showcased verbal agility and imagination, but also slyly commented on the conditions of aristocratic life. Great emphasis was placed on a mode of delivery that seemed natural and spontaneous -- but in fact people devised and practiced their stories before they trotted them out in public, and a style emerged that was both archly sophisticated and faux-naif.

Donkeyskin by Adrienne SegurToday, the salon fairy tales may seem quaintly old-fashioned, dripping with too many pearls and jewels, but to 17th century audiences the rich rococo language of the tales seemed deliciously rebellious -- in deliberate contrast with the mannered restraint of works approved by the French Academy (from which women were barred). In the Academy, in the "Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns," Boileau, Racine and other literary men insisted that French literature should strive to emulate the classical works of Greek and Rome, while the Moderns (Charles Perrault among them) believed that the home-grown source material of French folklore and myth could inspire a vigorous new literature, free of antiquated rules. (Stories of ogres in seven league boots were the true inheritors of the Homeric tradition, Perrault argued, not odes composed in Latin.) The king eventually ruled in favor of the Ancients, but Modern literary experimentation continued to go on with popular if not critical support -- particularly in the world of the salons, where women writers often had no choice but to boldly take up the Modern cause. Largely self-educated, few of them could read and write in Latin.

Bluecrest by Adrienne Segur

The rococo language of the fairy tales also served another important function: disguising the subversive subtext of the stories and sliding them past the court censors. Critiques of court life, and even of the king, were embedded in flowery utopian tales and in dark, sharply dystopian ones. Not surprisingly, the tales by women often featured young but clever aristocratic girls whose lives were controlled by the arbitrary whims of fathers, kings, and elderly wicked fairies – as well as tales in which groups of wise fairies stepped in and put all to rights.

Fairies were central to these stories, and it was here that the name contes des fées (fairy tales) was coined -- a term now used to describe a large, international body of magical tales. The fairies populating the salon tales were not quite the same as the earthy creatures to be found in the oral folk tradition, however. They shared some of the same characteristics (they wielded magic and granted wishes; they could be good or evil, helpful or capricious), yet these fairies were clearly aristocrats, intelligent, erudite, and independent, ruling over kingdoms and presiding over the workings of justice and fate -- just as intelligent, independent women ruled over the world of the salons. In short, these fairies can be seen as representing the women writers who created them.

The Royal Ram by Adrienne SegurAs the vogue for fairy stories evolved in the 1670s and ‘80s, Madame d’Aulnoy emerged as one of the most popular raconteurs in Paris, famed for her tales and for the glittering circle she drew to the salon she hosted. Eventually she wrote down her tales (The White Cat, The White Deer, Green Snake, Bluecrest and The Royal Ram, among others), publishing them to great acclaim from 1690 onward -- beginning with a fairy tale embedded in her novel L’Histoire d’Hypolite, comte de Duglas. Soon after, other salonnières began to publish fairy tales of their own, including Marie-Jeanne L’H’éritier and Catherine Bernard beginning in 1695, Charles Perrault and Comtesse de Murat in 1696, Rose de La Force in 1697, Chevalier de Mailly and Jean de Préchac in 1698, Catherine Durand in 1699, and Comtesse D’Auneuil in 1701.

Madame d’Aulnoy’s own history is just as fantastical as any of her stories. Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville was born in Normandy in 1650, and received a modest convent education -- arranged for her by Francois de la Motte, Baron d’Aulnoy, a wealthy aristocrat who was thirty years her senior. When Marie-Catherine was 15 or 16, the Baron abducted her from the convent (with the connivance of her father, who profited financially) and a forced marriage ensued -- from which, in that time and place, there was no possibility of divorce. The Baron was famed for his dissolute habits, including drunkenness, an addiction to gambling, and sexual irregularities. Three long years later, it looked as though the girl might be freed from her odious husband when the Baron was arrested and charged with a crime of high treason against the king. Then the two men who had implicated the Baron recanted their testimony under torture. These men were discovered to be the lovers of the young Baroness and her beautiful mother, and it was now believed that the whole affair had been cooked up between the four of them. The Baron was released, the men were executed, and d’Aulnoy and her mother fled to Spain. The two adventurous women spent the next several years traveling the Continent, and may have been spying for Louis XIV as a way of regaining his favor. Baroness d’Aulnoy received royal permission to return to Paris in 1685, where she promptly set up her literary salon in the rue San-benoit. Intelligent, beautiful, and tinged with an aura of mystery, she soon formed a glittering group around her of nonconformist women and men, as well as establishing a highly successful and profitable literary career.

The White Deer by Adrienne SegurHenriette-Julie de Castelnau, Comtesse de Murat, was part of the d’Aulnoy circle -- and another writer of magical tales with a colorful history. Born in Brittany in 1670, she came to Paris at the age of 16 upon her marriage to the Comte de Murat, quickly making a name in the salons for her wit and insouciance. Her high spirits landed her in trouble when a tale she wrote was recognized as a thinly veiled satire of the king’s mistress; she was subsequently denounced by her husband for wild behavior, immodesty, and rumors of lesbianism. Banished by the king to the provincial town of Loche at the age of 24, de Murat constantly petitioned to be released from this sentence, to no avail. She was kept confined to a Loche chateau for all but one year of the rest of her life -- returning to Paris only when King Louis died, just before her own death.

Yet even in confinement, de Murat managed to maintain close contact with her women friends, and continued to play an active role in the Parisian fairy tale movement. She wrote and published a large number of novels and stories, and set up her own literary salon (dubbed the Académie du domicile) -- recreating the atmosphere of Paris in Loche and scandalizing the town. Her best known tales include Bearskin, in which a young king falls in love with a princess-in-exile disguised as a big brown bear. The bear wins the young man’s heart through the elegance of her conversation and the erudition of her beautiful letters and poems. Unlike Disney-style fairy tales today, where a beautiful face is a girl’s main attraction (think of Disney's Cinderella, or the film Pretty Woman), this king falls in love before he discovers the royal maiden inside the gentle bear -- in fact, he agonizes over his unnatural attraction to the animal and is greatly relieved when a fairy finally assures him that his beloved is actually human.

Kip the Enchanted Cat by Adrienne Segur

Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier, by contrast to the authors above, was able to lead a more self-determined life -- partly because she was born into a family of scholars who saw nothing untoward in her desire to be a writer, and partly because she followed the example of her mentor, the writer and salonnière Madeleine de Scudéry, by refusing all offers of marriage. (A wealthy woman’s patronage and the income from her writing made this possible.) Charles Perrault was her uncle, as well as her colleague in the world of the salons; she was also close to de Murat, to whom she dedicated her first major collection of tales. She inherited de Scudéry’s famous salon upon her mentor’s death, and ran it with great success as her own literary reputation grew.

Scholars are now divided on whether L’Héritier (an early champion of fairy tale themes) influenced Perrault or whether it was Perrault who influenced his niece. It hardly matters, for in all likelihood the two of them influenced each other -- they were friends, they moved in the same social circles, they wrote fairy tales during the same stretch of years, and they drew their themes from a common stock of oral folk tales, as well as from Basile. L’Héritier is best remembered for The Discreet Princess -- a wry and charming tale in which a king locks his three daughters away in order to safeguard their chastity. An evil prince from a nearby kingdom manages to trick his way into the tower, and then to seduce and impregnate each of the foolish older princesses. The youngest, Finette, is a clever girl, and more than a match for the honey-tongued prince. “Once this devious prince had locked up her sisters,” writes L’Héritier, “he went in search of Finette in her room, which she had locked against him. He spoke the same compliments at her door that he had used with each of her sisters, but this princess was not so easy to dupe, and did not respond….The wicked prince lost his patience. Fetching a large wooden log, he broke the door in. He found Finette armed with a large hammer, her eyes glittering with rage. ‘Prince,’ she said, ‘if you approach me, then I shall split open your skull!’” In the end, the prince is outwitted, killed in a trap he has laid for Finette, and she marries the prince’s gentle brother, the new heir to the neighboring kingdom.

Riquet of the Tuft (aka Cowlick Rickety) by Adrienne SegurCatherine Bernard, born in Rouen in 1662, moved to Paris in order to become a writer, where she frequented d’Aulnoy’s and L’Héritier’s salons and became part of the fairy tale circle. Bernard resisted marriage and devoted herself to her literary career, writing well-received novels and tragedies known to have influenced Voltaire. As a fantasist, she’s best known for her version of an oral folk tale called Riquet of the Tuft, published around the same time as Perrault’s rendition of the story. Both versions are good ones, and thus it’s interesting to compare the two, demonstrating the differences in tales by men and women of the period. In Perrault’s charming retelling, a beautiful princess is cursed with stupidity by a malevolent fairy and then encounters Riquet of the Tuft, a courteous but ugly prince who gives her the gift of intelligence in exchange for her promise to marry him in one year’s time. During that year, the now-dazzling princess entirely forgets her benefactor…until she encounters him once again on the day she had promised to wed him. She attempts to weasel out of the promise, using all her new-found cleverness – until he assures her that it is quite within her power to make him as beautiful as herself, provided she agrees to love him. She does so, Riquet changes shape, and now he’s as handsome as he is courteous. Perrault then ends the tale with the suggestion that Riquet may have not changed his shape after all, but merely appeared to be beautiful to the princess once her love was pledged.

Green Snake by Adrienne Segur

Catherine Bernard’s version of the old folk tale is a considerably darker one, and takes a dimmer view of her heroine’s prospects for happiness. The lovely but stupid princess encounters Riquet, an ugly and bossy little gnome, ruler of a wealthy gnome kingdom in a realm deep underground. He gives the girl a spell to chant that will render her intelligent, and only then does he inform her that she has no choice but to marry him in one year’s time. (This echoed the experience of upper class girls whose limited convent educations were subsidized by older men who had arranged to marry them when they were grown.)  The princess soon grows witty and charming, suitors flock to court her, and she loses her heart to a handsome youth who has no power or wealth. Secretly, she ponders the dreadful fate that is awaiting her, and the day finally comes when she must give herself to the horrid gnome. Her deep distaste for the marriage is so obvious that Riquet presents her with a choice: she can marry him of her own free will and retain her new intelligence, or she can return to her father’s house as stupid as she was before she met him. Loathe to give up her intelligence, and fearful of losing her young lover’s regard, she chooses the lesser evil and marries Riquet of the Tuft.

The tale continues after the marriage, in Riquet’s kingdom under the ground. Angered by his wife’s continued aversion, the gnome avoids her company -- and she concocts a plan to bring her lover to the palace. Her plan succeeds, and for a time she revels in stolen happiness…but the sudden bloom in her cheeks awakens her gnome-husband’s suspicions. After various machinations, Riquet discovers his wife’s secret, and he takes ingenious revenge by turning her young lover into a replica of himself. "Thus," writes Bernard, "she lived with two husbands instead of one and could no longer distinguish between them, living in fear of mistaking the object of her hatred for the object of her love." Whereas Perrault’s version ends with a moral ("We find that what we love is wondrous fair."), Bernard’s version ends with a warning: "In the end, lovers turn into husbands anyway."

Little Red Cap by Adrienne Segur

A number of Modern, nonconformist men frequented the women’s fairy tale salons, contributing stories of their own as part of the conversational games. Foremost among them are Jean de Mailly, author of Les Illustres Fées, contes galans; Jean de Préchac, author of Contes moins contes que les autres; and Charles Perrault, author of the most famous of all French fairy tale collections: Histoires ou contes du temps passé, also known as Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (The Stories of Mother Goose).

Sleeping Beauty by Adrienne SegurPerrault was born Paris in 1628 to a distinguished family of high-achievers: his father was an accomplished lawyer and a member of the Paris Parlement, and his four brothers forged glittering careers in the areas of theology, architecture, and law. Perrault became a lawyer himself after passing examinations at the University of Orleans, but he gave it up to become a court administrator three years later. As secretary to Jean Baptiste Colbert, the Sun King’s powerful finance minister, he was able to wield his influence in support of culture and the arts. (He was one of the men in charge of the design of the Louvre and Versailles, for instance.) He published poetry, essays, and panegyrics for the king, and was elected to the French Academy in 1671, where he was one of the leading initiators of the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns (arguing for the latter). In the 1690s, like his niece and other habitués of the Paris salons, Perrault turned his attention to fairy tales -- producing three poems with folklore themes, a prose version of Sleeping Beauty, and then his Histoires ou contes du temps passé in 1697.

Perrault turned the blunt language and earthy imagery of peasant folk stories into tales that were urbane, aristocratic, and refined, yet contain some marked differences from those of the female salonnières. First, the literary style he adopted was a simpler one, his plots less complex, his language less rococo as he played with the narrative conceit that the tales come direct from the mouth of Old Mother Goose. Second, despite his salon friendships with out-spoken, independent women, the princesses in Perrault’s tales tend to be passive, helpless creatures, praised for their beauty, modesty, and quiet obedience. His princes stride off to seek their fortunes, outwitting ogres and hacking through briars, while the princesses sleep or sit in the ashes, virtuously awaiting rescue. Compare Bluebeard’s wife, lying prostrate before him in tears while her brothers ride in to save the day, with clever Finette, in The Discreet Princess created by Perrault’s niece L’Héritier, waving her hammer at the prince and shouting: "Come closer and I’ll open your skull!"

Two illustrations by Adrienne Segur

Though L’Héritier, d’Aulnoy, and other women enjoyed readerships as large as Perrault’s, the fairy tale form was still suspect among the leading critics of the day, who reserved their praise for the simpler, less subversive tales penned by Perrault. In 1699, Abbé de Villiers published a Dialogue commending Perrault while damning all women fairy tale writers, railing in particular against the popularity and financial success those writers enjoyed. "Most women only enjoy reading because they enjoy laziness and the trivial,” de Villiers declared. “Everything that requires a little effort tires and bores them; they amuse themselves with a book in the same way they play with a fly or a ribbon. So does it astonish you that tales and little stories are popular?" In the years to come, Rosseau would also write scathingly of women’s fairy tales, and of the very idea of women's salons. "Every woman in Paris gathers in her apartment a harem of men more womanish than she," he sneered, while strongly advocating the establishment of English-style clubs exclusively for men.

He needn’t have worried. The social and literary ground that the women salonnières had gained was already slipping away from them as the 18th century dawned. One by one, their salons closed as the salonnières died or were banished from Paris. Perrault died in 1703, d’Aulnoy in 1705, Bernard in 1712, de Mailly was in trouble with the king, de Murat was still under house-arrest in Loche, and de la Force had been banished to a convent for publishing “impious” works. As the Marquise de Lambert lamented years later: "There were, in an earlier time, houses where women were allowed to talk and think, where muses joined the society of the graces. The Hôtel de Rambouillet [a famous salon], greatly honored in the past century, has become the ridicule of ours."

Three illustrations by Adrienne Segur

The Wild Swans by Adrienne Segur

As the salons ended, a "second wave" of French fairy tale literature began, consisting of stories, primarily by men this time, that were parodies of the earlier tales, as well a host of magical stories with an Oriental flavor. (The latter was due to Antoine Gallard’s phenomenally successful translation of The Thousand and One Nights, 1704-1714, which introduced Arabian fairy tales to the French reading public.) By the middle of the 18th century, however, a "third wave" of French fairy tales emerged by writers who had more in common with the 17th century salonnières than with the parodists who succeeded them. Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, for example, was associated with the parodists (she’s believed to have been the mistress of Claude-Prosper de Crébillon fils) but used the fairy tale form in a manner that harked back to the 1690s, penning stories that explored the role of women in marriage and society. In her youth, de Villeneuve had been unhappily married to a military officer, turning to writing to earn a living when his death left her impoverished. Her best known fairy tale is Beauty and the Beast (1740), a long, complex, and subtly erotic story exploring issues of love, marriage, and identity. (The tale was later shortened by Madame Leprince de Beaumont, which is the version we know best today. For the interesting history of Beauty and the Beast, go here.)

Another writer who picked up the threads of the salon tradition was Marguerite de Lubert, the author of six acclaimed fairy tale novels and a number of shorter works, best known today for La Princesse Camion (1743) and Peau d’ours (1953). Like L’Héritier and Bernard before her, de Lubert studiously avoided marriage in order to pursue a literary career. Her tales have a light and sparkling surface, in keeping with the tastes of the time, but underneath lies a firm foundation of narrative sophistication. Her stories, like the salon tales, revolved around courtly, powerful fairies -- but de Lubert seems to have been more ambivalent about the nature of that power, portrayed in a manner that ranges from benevolent to meddlesome to downright sadistic.

Beauty and the Beast by Adrienne Segur

While the 17th century salon writers had composed their tales for adult readers, in the latter half of the 18th century fairy tales were increasingly aimed at younger readers. Creating a separate body of fiction for children was a relatively new notion, engendered by new printing methods and the rise of literacy in the upper classes. Prior works for children were dull and didactic, intended to inculcate moral values. It now occurred to liberal-minded parents and children’s educators that these values would be easier to swallow if sugar-coated with entertainment.

Madame Leprince de Beaumont was one of the first French writers to compose fairy tales specifically for younger readers. Having fled from a disastrous marriage to a dissolute libertine, Leprince de Beaumont worked as a governess in England, where she began to write stories, in French, for magazines aimed at “young misses”. Although a number of her fairy stories contain original elements, she also borrowed liberally from previous fairy tale writers. In 1757, she re-wrote the text of de Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast, severely condensing the narrative and imbuing it with clear moral lessons. De Villenueve’s original text, over three hundred pages long, is thick with incidental characters and rambling subplots; Leprince de Beaumont stripped these away to reach the bare, timeless essentials of the tale, condensing de Villenueve’s narrative into a mere seventeen pages. She also made some significant changes. First, she toned down the eroticism: in the de Villeneuve version, the Beast repeatedly asks Belle to go to bed with him, while in the Leprince de Beaumont version, he merely asks her to marry him. Second, Leprince de Beaumont’s Beast is sympathetic, even attractive, before his transformation -- while in de Villenueve’s story (similar to “animal bridegroom” tales from the oral tradition) the Beast is a genuinely frightening character.

The White Cat by Adrienne Segur

Leprince de Beaumont was not alone in re-writing tales by earlier authors, or in turning them into stories that were simpler, shorter, and less challenging. Throughout the 18th century, the tales of d’Aulnoy, Perrault, de Murat, L’Héritier, Bernard, de la Force and the other salonnières appeared in the pages of the Bilbliotheque bleue, a series of small, inexpensive chapbooks distributed by traveling book peddlers. Intended for readers of the lower classes, these shorter tales proved enormously popular and were often read aloud -- and thus began to slip into the oral folk tradition, not only in France but in neighboring lands. It is because of this that so many readers think of literary tales like Donkeyskin, White Cat or Beauty and the Beast as "anonymous" folk tales to this day.

The Rose of Christmas by Adrienne Segur

Fortunately, the salon tales as they were originally written and published have been preserved for us in a monumental work called Le Cabinet des fées, an enormous collection of stories from the 17t and 18th centuries. First published in three volumes in Amsterdam in 1731, it swelled to an astonishing forty-one volumes, published in Paris and Amsterdam (and then Geneva) beginning in 1785. These volumes contain a treasure-trove of stories, the vast majority of them by women authors.

So how, we might ask, did Perrault become known as the only French fairy tale author of note? Elizabeth W. Harries addresses the question in her essay "Fairy Tales About Fairy Tales: Notes on Canon Formation." Aside from the gender bias, too obvious to need any explication, she points out that the next generation of fairy tale enthusiasts were men like the Brothers Grimm: fairy tale “collectors,” not literary artists, who prized a simple, "peasant" style of prose, and were deeply suspicious not only of the subversive subtext of the salon tales, but of the very language used by the women and men of the précieux movement. (One can only wonder what they’d have made of Angela Carter today!) Although Perrault’s tales were modern literary creations like those of the other salonnières, he adopted a simpler prose style than that of his "inferior imitators," as the Grimms referred to d’Aulnoy and de Murat in the Introduction to their first collection (Kinder und Hausmärchen, 1812). The Grimms, writes Harries, "had to posit a rupture or separation between literate and oral culture, between modern, self-conscious writing and older, ‘natural,’ spontaneous story-telling or ballad-singing. Their nostalgia for a vanishing or vanished culture -- assumed to be simpler or more poetic than their own -- still permeates most fairy-tale collecting and research."

Cinderella by Adrienne Segur

In the decades and centuries that followed, the salon stories, except for Perrault’s, were reprinted less and less -- or they appeared in bowdlerized form, with erroneous or missing author credits. "Tales by d’Aulnoy and Murat," writes Harries, "were no longer considered authentic or moral enough to reproduce -- or even to be mentioned, except in parentheses." By the 19th century, children’s books had become a thriving industry, and the French salon tales continued to be plundered as a cheap source of story material. The tales were shortened, simplified, and given a gloss of Victorian propriety -- and then often published under the name of that anonymous, illiterate peasant woman known only as Mother Goose, while the real women behind the 17th and 18th century contes des fées were slowly disappearing.

Yet those pioneering, scandalous, précieux women and men were not entirely forgotten. During the last two decades of the 20th century, their history began to be reclaimed by a new generation of fairy tale scholars, at the same time that their tales were being rediscovered, reappraised, and retranslated. Such tales provided inspiration for a whole new wave of fairy tale authors: Angela Carter, Anne Sexton, A.S. Byatt, Emma Donoghue, Margaret Atwood, Alice Hoffman, Kate Bernheimer, Tanith Lee, Jane Yolen, Delia Sherman, Kate Forsyth, Robin McKinley, Francesca Lia Block, and Donna Jo Napoli among them.

Bright, Dear Deer, and Kit by Adrienne Segur

The Golden Book of Fairy Tales

A number of women writers of my generation were raised, as I was, on the French salon stories in The Fairy Tale Book (Golden Books, 1958), translated into English by poet Marie Ponsot and illustrated by Adrienne Ségur, whose imagery adorns this post. That single book cast a spell on us that has lasted right up to this day, resulting in careers spent studying, writing, illustrating, and editing fairy tales, or fairy-tale-inspired literature.

I have written elsewhere about the particular importance of fairy tales in my own childhood, growing up in a troubled household, and how the quests in magic tales can prepare us for the quests we face in life. What I didn’t know as a girl was how very lucky I was to have that particular book as my introduction -- containing, as it did, stories shortened for young readers but not overly revised, rather than the sugary Disney-style versions best known today. I also didn’t know that those tales connected me -- a working-class girl in 20th century America -- with a group of strong-minded aristocratic women in 17th century Paris, who had struggled, as I was struggling, against societal expectations for an education, independence, and a self-determined life. The subversive message of their tales was buried deep in rococo imagery of fairies, princesses, diamonds and pearls…and yet I heard it. I learned at a very young age not to sit in the cinders awaiting rescue. I picked up a hammer (metaphorically speaking!) and set off to seek my fortune instead.

Adrienne Segur cover art

I like to think that d’Aulnoy and her friends would be pleased to know that the “fad” they started is still going strong more than three centuries later. And perhaps in another three hundred years Jane Yolen’s tales, or Patricia McKillip’s, or Theodora Goss's, will be read alongside d’Aulnoy’s and Perrault’s, to inspire new generations.

Thumbelina by Adrienne Segur

The artwork above is by Adrienne Ségur (1901-1981), most of it reprinted from The Golden Book of Fairy Tales. All rights to the text and art reserved by the author and the artist's estate.

The Path of Breadcrumbs & Stones

Another Night Journey by Jeanie Tomanek

In anticipation of International Women's Day (coming up on Sunday), here's a fourth post on the theme of women in myth and folklore. This time I'd like to honour the work of American painter Jeanie Tomanek, along with all women who find their voice and power later in life....

Some people find their creative passion early, while for others it comes more slowly, revealing itself only over time as their lives unfold. In our youth–obsessed culture, it can be disquieting for those whose Muse requires maturity -- and yet sometimes an artist's vision is so remarkable and unique that it seems to need years to germinate slowly, fully, preparing itself deep in the psyche...and then suddenly blossoming with astounding power.

Seed by Jeanie Tomanek

Coming to ones artistic vocation later in life is more common than many people realize, and can enrich ones work with qualities impossible to achieve at any younger an age.

The great Japanese artist Hokusai once commented that it was only with age that he really understood how to draw:

"By the age of fifty I had published numberless drawings, but I am displeased with all I have produced before the age of seventy. It is at seventy–three that I have begun to understand the form and the true nature of birds, of fishes, of plants and so forth. Consequently, by the time I get to eighty, I shall have made much progress; at ninety, I shall get to the essence of things; at a hundred, I shall certainly come to a superior, indefinable position; and at the age of a hundred and ten, every point, every line, shall be alive. And I leave it to those who shall live as I have

The American painter Jeanie Tomanek, whose work I love, is a fine example of an artist who found her true creative "voice" with maturity.

Old Dog's Dream by Jeanie Tomanek

Born in Batavia, New York, in 1949, Jeanie grew up in the rolling pasturelands of the Genesee Valley. She drew and painted all of her life, but she took these skills for granted and created art only infrequently while working at (and hating) "real jobs" in accounting, real estate, and other fields.

In 1969 she married her husband, Dennis, in Cleveland, Ohio. They had one daughter, Mara, and moved to Atlanta, Georgia in 1983. For many years, Jeanie used poetry as her primary creative outlet, publishing in a variety of literary journals. Yet still she knew she hadn't yet found her true path and her soul's vocation.

Crumbs by Jeanie Tomanek

Sometimes in the Forest by Jeanie Tomanek

"In 1999," she tells me, "after searching for many years for that creative thing that would be my passion, I started drawing again and eventually realized it was painting that I was supposed to do all along. By 2001, I'd escaped corporate life and was painting full time, developing my style and voice. My 'little baldies' started emerging on the canvas, telling whatever stories they needed to tell. I began to show my work in places such as the Atlanta Artist's Center, The Atlanta College of Art, and Trinity Gallery. People said my paintings spoke to them -- which is something I still find hard to believe.

Moon of the Long Nights & Kindling by Jeanie Tomanek

Capturing the Moon by Jeanie Tomanek

"As I made the transition from the business world into a full-time painter's life, I read The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron -- a book that changed the way I thought about my creativity.

"Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés also had a huge influence on me. It was there that I first read the Handless Maiden folktale, which echoed the quest I was on to discover what I was meant to do. The tale is about a woman’s journey toward wisdom and self-realization, and the obstacles and helpers she encounters. I suppose most women can find elements of their own lives in the Handless Maiden's story.

The Handless Maiden by Jeanie Tomanek

"As part of my quest to become artist, I even decided to change my name. I was born Shirley Jeanne Robinson, but had been called Jeanie by my family as a child. In order to go forward as a new person, I wanted to reclaim what that child used to be. Imagine how hard it was to get everyone who had known me as Shirley in my adult life to now start calling me Jeanie -- including my husband!

Silver Hands and the Numbered Pears

Silver Hands by Jeanie Tomanek

Thoreau's Pumpkin by Jeanie Tomanek

"I paint to explore the significance of ideas, memories, events, feelings, dreams and images that seem to demand my closer attention. Some of the themes I investigate emerge first in the poems I write. Literature, folktales, and myths often inspire my exploration of the feminine archetype. My figures often bear the scars and imperfections, that, to me, characterize the struggle to become.

Care and Feeding by Jeanie Tomanek

Wingspan by Jeanie Tomanek

Multitudes by Jeanie Tomanek

Paintings by Jeanie Tomanek

"In my work I use oils, acrylic, pencil and thin glazes to create a multi-layered surface that may be scratched through, written on, collaged, or painted over to reveal and excavate the images that feel right for the work. In reclaiming and reconstructing areas of the canvas, the process of painting becomes analogous to having a second chance at your life, this time a little closer to the heart’s desire."

My Familiar

You can see more of Jeanie's artwork on her website; at the Greyhouse Art Studio; in her luminous book, Everywoman Art;  and in a video, The Art of Jeanie Tomanek, accompanied by the music of Arvo Pärt. You'll find an interview with the artist here, and visit to her studio here.

Blessing by Jeanie Tomanek

The paintings above are by Jeanie Tomanek; all rights reserved by the artist. The title of each painting can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)

Jane Yolen: The Everyday-ness of Writing

Jane Yolen

In anticipation of International Women's Day (coming up on Sunday), here's a third post on the theme of women in myth and folklore. This time I've focused on one of our greatest writers of contemporary mythic fiction....

For many years Jane Yolen's friends have theorized that she is the possessor of a magical stop-watch: an eldritch device formed of spells and runes with which she can stop the motion of time. One click of the watch and the world comes to a stop; we all stand frozen between one breath and the next; all of us, that is, except for Jane, the Master of the Watch, creating secret hours in pockets of time that seem like mere minutes to us. How else, friends ask, is it humanly possible that Jane gets so much done?

Once Upon a Time by Jane YolenShe has published close to four hundred books. She has edited, inspired or supported the publication of many more. She has written for comics and animation. She had a book turned into a Showtime film. She teaches and lectures. She sings ballads, tells stories, and is an authority on folklore and fairy tales. She's won the Caldecott Medal, two Christopher Medals, the Regina Medal, the Kerlan Award, three Mythopoeic Awards, the Golden Kite Award, the Skylark Award, the Jewish Book Award, and the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, among numerous other honors. She was on the Board of Directors for the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, president of S.F.W.A. for two years, and a founding member of the Western New England Storytellers Guild, the Western Massachusetts Illustrators Guild, and the Bay State Writers Guild. She has a BA from Smith College, an MA from the University of Massachusetts, and six honorary doctorate degrees. She's the mother of three, grandmother of six, and good friend to more than I can possibly count. She lives in two countries, and her books are known the world over. She writes (and shares) a poem every day. So if she doesn't possess a magical stop-watch, then how on earth does she do it?

Sister Light Sister Dark by Jane YolenHaving known Jane for over thirty years now, I know the real answer to that question. She works, and she works, and she keeps on working. Steadily and hard, but also with joy. "I love writing," she says simply. "There are a lot of writers who hate writing. They love having written, but they hate writing. They feel like they’re bleeding onto the page, and I think that’s an awfully messy way to write."

For Jane, writing is both Art and Craft -- and the craft is built on discipline, practice, and a quality she calls everyday-ness:

"Just as I do my morning exercises to get these old bones moving, I write every day. Every single day. Sometimes it's a chapter, sometimes it's a poem. Sometimes I make lists of things: nouns, verse to revise, ideas for new books, suggestions for stories with my children... Even if I am ill, traveling, caring for a sick husband, running around a convention, walking the Royal Mile -- even then I will manage to write something. Because being a writer means that kind of commitment. It doesn't have to be something for publication (though what does get published is almost always a surprise). It is something to get the brain, the heart, the imagination, and the fingers coordinated, working together. Not strangers but a good team."

Snow in Summer by Jane YolenBorn in 1939, Jane grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where her father worked as a journalist, writing columns for the New York newspapers, and her mother (a former social worker) wrote short stories, crossword puzzles and acrostics. "Since both my parents were writers," she says, "I assumed all adults were writers, no matter what other jobs they held." Her parents were also great readers, passing their love of books to Jane and her younger brother, Steven. "I loved the Andrew Lang fairy books," she recalls. "I loved anything Louisa May Alcott wrote. I loved anything Robert Louis Stevenson wrote. I read every horse and dog book that ever existed, every book about King Arthur that ever existed. I love Charlotte's Web, The Wind in the Willows, The Back of the North Wind, The Secret Garden, Make Way for Ducklings, Ferdinand...the list goes on and on and on."

Jane started writing at a very young age, but she had other creative interests too: she loved to sing, and she studied dance at Balanchine's School of American Ballet. In her 13th summer, her family moved out of the city to Westport, Connecticut. Jane attended junior and senior high school there, then went on to study literature at Smith Collage in Massachusetts. Upon graduation, she returned to New York intending to be a journalist and poet. She soon discovered that journalism didn't suit her, and and turned to editing instead, working her way up from editorial assistant at Gold Medal Books to associate editor at Rutledge (a children's book packager), to Assistant Editor of Children's Books at Knopf.

Owl Moon by Jane YolenMeanwhile, she tried her hand at writing children's books herself (publishing her first at the age of 22), while also participating in the vivid folk music scene of Greenwich Village in the 1960s.  She lost her heart to David Stemple (a pioneer of the computer science field), married him, sold five more children's books, then left Knopf so that she and David could spend a year traveling in Europe. She was pregnant when they came home again, so they settled in an old farmhouse in Massachusetts. Three children followed (Heidi, Adam, and Jason, all of them now writers themselves), and a steady output of books as astonishing for its quality as its quantity.

Jane writes for both children and adults, moving fluidly between genres and literary forms -- but what ties her work together, as one reviewer has noted, is that "all Yolen's stories and poems are somehow rooted in her sense of family and self. The Emperor and the Kite, which was a Caldecott Honor Book in 1983 for its intricate papercut illustrations by Ed Young, was based on Yolen’s relationship with her late father, who was an international kite-flying champion. Owl Moon, winner of the 1988 Caldecott Medal for John Schoenherr’s exquisite watercolors, was inspired by her husband’s interest in birding."

Favorite Folktales by Jane YolenHer passion for folklore and fairy tales is another thread woven throughout her work. In the role of teacher and scholar of children's literature, she eloquently championed the value of traditional tales during years when many teachers, librarians and editors were hostile to such stories. "One of basic functions of myth and folk literature is to provide a landscape of allusion," Jane pointed out. "With the first story a child hears, he or she takes a step toward perceiving a new environment, one that is filled with quests and questers, fated heroes and fetid monsters, intrepid heroines and intrepid helpers, even incompentent oafs who achieve competence and wholeness by going out and trying. As the child hears more stories and tales that are linked in both obvious and subtle ways, that landscape is broadened and deepened, and becomes more fully populated with memorable characters. These are the same folk that the child will meet again and again, threading their archetypal ways through the cultural history of our planet. "

Touch Magic by Jane YolenShe also argued for the value of fantasy in the days when that genre, too, was considered suspect by the same brigade of realism-only educators. "In fantasy stories we learn to understand the differences of others, " Jane noted; "we learn compassion for those things we cannot fathom, we learn the importance of keeping our sense of wonder. The strange worlds that exist in the pages of fantastic literature teach us a tolerance of other people and places and engender an openness toward new experience. Fantasy puts the world into perspective in a way that 'realistic' literature rarely does. It is not so much an escape from the here-and-now as an expansion of each reader's horizons....A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult. What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child who has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged?"

When Jane first crossed the line between children's books and adult fantasy (with her Mythopoeic-Award-winning novel The Cards of Grief in 1985), there was no recognized field of Young Adult Fantasy as we know it today. That is not to say that such books didn't exist. They did. They were generally published as children's books (in hardcover editions), or slipped into adult science fiction lists (in paperback) -- for in those distant, pre-Harry-Potter days publishers still did not believe that YA Fantasy could sell enough to be a genre of its own. Jane was one of the writers who refused to accept that the line beween stories for children and stories for adults was quite as impassable as popularly believed, or that stories with teen protagonists could only be read by teens. By crossing that line, by trodding it into dust, she helped to create a space for the Young Adult Fantasy writers who followed after, from J.K. Rowling to Holly Black to William Alexander.

Briar RoseWhen it comes to her role as folklorist and re-teller of fairy tales, so influential has this been to a whole generation of writers and scholars that it is no overstatement to say that the modern resurgence of fairy tale literature rests upon her ground-breaking work as much as it rest on Angela Carter's or Tanith Lee's. Jane's novel Briar Rose is a classic of the form; her folklore compilations are essential reading for scholars in the field; and her essay collection Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood is as vital today as it was when the book was first published the early Eighties. Jane has been called the "Hans Christian Andersen of America" by Newsweek and the "modern equivalent of Aesop" by The New York Times...yet she has also had her books censored, denounced, and burned. Perhaps this, too, is proof of their power, for if they were trivial, people wouldn't fear them. They are not. They are deep and true.

I'll end with one more quote from Jane that gets right to heart of the Art and Craft that she has been practicing for all these years:

"I believe that culture begins in the cradle," she says. "Literature is continuous process from childhood onward, not a body of work spring full-blown from the heads of adults who never read or were read to as children. Further, I believe that that the continuum of literature is best maintained by those tales of fantasy, fancy, faerie, and the supra-natural, those crafted visions and bits and pieces of dream-remembering that link our past and our future. To do without tales and stories and books is to lose humanity's past, is to have no star map for our future."

Jane and Tilly

The last photograph: Jane and Tilly here at Bumblehill. To learn more about Jane and her books, please visit her website. Related posts (with quotes on folklore, fantasy, and writing from Jame)Stories lean on stories, The eye and the ear are different listeners, On a misty morning in the Devon hills, Tough magic, Words that matter, and Magic at daybreak.

Fateful Women

Three Fates by Jacqueline Morreau

In anticipation of International Women's Day (coming up on Sunday), here's a second post on the theme of women in myth and folklore....

Artists have always expressed themselves in the metaphoric language of myth -- from the earliest carvings and pottery decorations to Picasso's Minotaur drawings and beyond. Today I'd like to draw attention to one of the best of the women artists working in this vein: painter and printmaker Jacqueline Morreau (1929-2016), who used mythic symbolism to explore psychological and political themes of contemporary life. Born in Wisconsin, Morreau studied and worked in California, France, New York, and Boston before settling London in 1972, where she established herself as a painter, printmaker, educator, curator, and tireless champion of women's art. "Morreau," wrote Catherine Elwes, "had a keen sense of how history affects present social conditions, and the legacy of conflict, religious intolerance and patriarchal oppression were recurrent themes in her work. However, she went beyond protesting against injustice in a social realist style. She devised cultural forms of resistance in her reimaginings of mythological and biblical themes and sought to redefine accepted notions of gendered identity."

The Divided Self by Jacqueline MorreauThe image on the right, "The Divided Self," is one of Morreau's metaphoric self portraits, while the etching above depicts the dreaded Three Fates of classical myth. These women spin and measure out the life threads of mortals and immortals alike: Clotho spins the thread, Lachesis determines its length, and Antropos cuts it off when life is at its end. According to Hesiod, all was Darkness at the beginning, all was void and nothingness, until the cosmos stirred and Chaos split from Darkness, containing the potential for life within it. In the very moment of that separation, the Three Fates emerged from the depths of Chaos. They are primal, powerful female divinities that do not bow to any god, holding sway over every living creature, for better or for ill. (As a sidenote, it's interesting to know that the earliest fairies of Europe were related to the Fates -- they were known as Fateful Women, from the Latin word fatare, meaning “to enchant,” and they appeared when a child was born, to bless or curse their destiny.) Three more of Morreau's Fate images are below: Fate as a Potter, Fate with Roller, and the three fates doing their endless, timeless work Under the Sea.

Fate as Potter & Fate with Roller by Jacqueline Morreau

Under the Sea Three Fates by Jacqueline Morreau

The Greek tale of Eros and Psyche (or Cupid and Psyche in the Roman version) is another story that stirred Morreau's imagination, providing rich symbols for expressing ideas about sexuality and identity. Psyche is a girl so beautiful that the goddess Aphrodite is filled with jealousy. She orders Eros (the god of Love) to harm the girl -- but he falls in love with her instead, and arranges for Psyche to be safely carried away to a distant palace. Each night, under the cover of darkness, a tender lover comes to Psyche's bed. She does not know that this is Eros, and she's not allowed to see his face. Although she's surrounded by mysteries, Psyche is happy for a time…until she grows homesick and Eros allows her sisters to visit her.

Disclosing Eros by Jaqueline Morreau

The sisters, believing Psyche is dead, are amazed to find her living in splendor. Jealous of her now, the sisters convince Psyche that her lover must surely be a monster -- for otherwise, they say, she would be allowed to see his face. That night, shaken by her sisters' words, Psyche takes a lamp and a knife to bed -- but when she lights the lamp, she sees it's a beautiful youth who is lying beside her. A drop of oil falls from the lamp, singes his shoulder, and wakes him up. “Is this how you repay my love,” Eros cries, “with a knife to cut off my head?” The ground trembles and the god and the palace disappear from Psyche's sight.

Psyche Awake, Eros Asleep by Jacqueline Morreau

Pregnant now with Eros's child, Psyche bravely sets off to search for him and eventually comes before Aphrodite, the source of her misfortune. She humbles herself before the goddess, but Aphrodite is not easily appeased. She sets the girl three impossible tasks, including a journey to the Underworld. With some timely help from Eros, who still loves her, Psyche succeeds. In the end, Zeus intervenes, soothes Aphrodite, and turns Psyche into an immortal. He then blesses the marriage of Eros and Psyche, and their daughter, a child named Pleasure.

On the Beach Eros & Psyche by Jacqueline Morreau

Morreau's various works based on the Persephone story are examinations of conflicted relationships: between men and women, between mothers and daughters, between the powerful and the powerless, between the forces of life and death.

Below is a charcoal study for Hades in her hard-hititng triptych, Persephone: A Season in Hell, along with the first painting in the triptych, "Rape and Abduction."

Hades & The Abduction of Persephone by Jacqueline Morreau

She also turned her sharp gaze on the stories of women in Biblical myth, capturing potent moments of transformation, for good or ill. In the drawing below, Lot's wife is about to make the fateful step that will turn her to salt. In "Paradise Now" (depicted below in two different mediums), Eve and Adam stand with apple in hand. The whole of earth is the Garden, they seem to suggest. Or it could and should be.

Lot's Wife Leaving by Jacqueline Morreau

An early version of Paradise Now by Jacqueline Morreau

Paradise Now (Adam & Eve) by Jacqueline Morreau

Like Käthe Kollwitz, Morreau was an overtly political painter, best known for powerful imagery responding to social injustice and the horrors of war (from the Children's Crusade to World War II to the contemporary Middle East) -- yet she also made art that celebrated life, such as her sensual, luminous series of paintings depicting bed sheets, water, and swimmers in the sea. In one interview, she was asked about these dual strands in her body of work:

"Perhaps this represents the basic conflict in my life," she answered, "which I have tried to express in the subject matter, delving into the dark and celebrating the light. I was born into the knowledge of evil in the 1930s, which no one of my generation could escape. That shadow often oppresses me; at the same time, I have had a love affair with nature, which sustains me. I see the world as full of intricacies, complexities and wonders and surprises, yet in spite of that, most things are constant. Because of the legacy of violence, most art of the 20th century focuses on the dark, the distorted, the ugly, and has found strength there. However, that has meant that the light, the beautiful and the joyful are seen as weak. In fact, it is much harder to depict such feelings.

"As I grow older, I'm much more interested in the light."

The Swelling Sea by Jacqueline Morreau

Girls in Water by Jacqueline Morreau

Words: The Jane Yolen poem in the picture captions is reprinted from The Journal of Mythic Arts; all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: All rights to the paintings, prints, and drawings above reserved by the Jacqueline Morreau estate. Personal note: I had the great fortune of meeting the artist back in the 1990s, when a mutual friend took me to Jacqueline's house in London for a studio visit and tea. I own and treasure one of her etchings: the Three Fates, pictured at the top of this post. She was an inspiring and remarkable woman. To see more of her work, go here.

Unfolding our wings

The Angel of Childhood by Terri Windling

I recently re-read My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, and was struck by the following passage about young Mary Ann Evans, an editor and critic for The Westminster Review in the years before she transformed herself into the writer George Eliot.

" [H]er critical judgement could be instringent, even snarky, and she enjoyed the professional attention she got through exercising it. If one is accustomed to think of George Eliot as she ended up -- the novelist famous for the generosity of her comprehension -- it's shocking, George Eliotand not a little thrilling, to read her early essays and discover how slashing she could be. I wouldn't exchange the large, sympathetic capacities she later uncovered for these lesser dagger blows, but there's something very satisfying about knowing she once had it in her to land them. It's oddly reassuring to know that before she grew good, George Eliot could be bad -- to realize that she, also, had a frustrated ferocity that it gratified her to unleash, at least until she found her way to a different kind of writing, one that allowed her to lay down her arms, and to flourish without combativeness or cruelty.

"Beyond the pages of the periodicals, too, she could be acid and spiky, defensive in anticipation of attack. 'Treating people ill is an infallible sign of special love with me,' she wrote to a friend. New acquaintances were not sure what to make of her. 'I don't know whether you will like Miss Evans," Bessie Raynor Parkes, who became Eliot's good friend, wrote to Barbara Bodichon, who became an even better one. 'At least I know you will like her for her large unprejudiced mind, her complete superiority to most women. But whether you or I should ever love her, as a friend, I don't know at all. There is yet no high moral purpose in the impression she makes, and it is that alone which commands love. I think she will alter. Large angels take a long time unfolding their wings, but when they do, they soar out of sight. Miss Evans either has no wings, or, which I think is the case, they are coming, budding."

Boy, did Bessie get that right.

I love the passage not only for the glimpse we get of women's friendships (always a subject close to my heart), but also for the insight into how Eliot changed and deepened over the years . . . not unlike writers I know today. It takes time to grow into into the person, and thus the artist, you are going to be. It takes time to find your true voice.

The Angel of Language by Terri Windling

My Life in Middlemarch

I highly recommend My Life in Middlemarch, which is a skillful blend of literary history and memoir. As Mead explained in an interview:

"The book began with a piece that I wrote for The New Yorker, an essay about George Eliot, specifically investigating the source of a quotation which is often attributed to her: 'It's never too late to be what you might have been.' I believed, and I still do believe, that she didn't say that. It doesn't appear to be in any of her books, and I haven't been able to find an original source for it anywhere.

"When I was 42 or so, thinking about doing this, I felt very strongly that it was too late for certain things to happen. I mean, one does, at that age. You know, it's too late to have kids, or it's too late to marry the person that you didn't marry earlier in your life… you realize that there are things that you haven't done that are going to remain undone. So it was in that mood, that mood of reflection, that I wanted to go back to Middlemarch and to think about the ways it had influenced me and shaped my understanding of myself and my own life....

"I don't think Middlemarch tells you how to live your life; thank god it doesn't! It's not a set of instructions, it's not a self-help book, and it would be bizarre to try to read it and follow its 'rules' or something. But I do think that our own life experience obviously informs how we read, and it means that our readings of different novels through different times become richer and change, and that's the measure of a great work of literature -- that you can go back to it time and again, time and again, and it will tell you something new, not just about what's in it but what's in you."

Middlemarch book art by Stephen Doyle

Words: The passage by Rebecca Meade is from My Life in Middlemarch (Crown Publishers, 2014). The quote is from an interview with Ron Hogan (BuzzFeed, November, 2014). All rights reserved by the author and artists. Pictures: The etching of George Eliot is from a chalk drawing by Frederic William Burton, 1864  (National Portrait Gallery, London). The Middlemarch book art is by Stephen Doyle. The angel paintings are old ones of mine (oil paint on paper). All rights reserved by the author and artists. Related post: The Art of Creating a Life: Barbara Bodichon.