Reviews 2010

Enchanted Ideologies: A Collection of Rediscovered Nineteenth-Century Moral Fairy Tales

Enchanted Ideologies: A Collection of Rediscovered Nineteenth-Century Moral Fairy Tales. Marilyn Pemberton (ed.). Lambertville: The True Bill Press, 2010. 307 pages. $45 (hardback).

Marilyn Pemberton’s edited collection of nineteenth-century moral fairy tales sits loosely within the tradition of Nina Auerbach’s and U.C. Knoepflmacher’s seminal study, Forbidden Journeys: Fairy Tales and Fantasies by Victorian Women Writers (1992). However, while the latter positions its selected tales within a discursive framework, with discrete sections offering analyses of each of the subsequent stories, Pemberton’s relies primarily on its lengthy introduction to explain the nuances of many of her recovered tales. Her focus for the collection is on these tales as initiators and/or reflections of what was perceived as appropriate – or inappropriate – behaviour for men, women and children during the Victorian period.

Spanning a publication period of 1818 to 1899, and opening with a poem by Edith Nesbit, ‘A Cinderella’, published in The Girl’s Own Paper in 1893, this collection of twenty stories is arranged chronologically; some were written for children and others for an older readership (as evidenced by their original place of publication). Tales by well-known authors, such as Mary Louisa Molesworth and Nesbit, are joined by those from anonymous writers, and the selection is drawn from a multiplicity of sources; for example, the playlet ‘Magnus and Morna: A Shetland Fairy Tale’ by Dinah Mulock Craik was published in November 1876 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, while ‘The Dwarf’s Hill’ by an unknown author is from Aunt Judy’s Magazine of October 1881. Pemberton’s rationale for her eclectic choice is that “[t]he stories in this collection document and reflect the use of fairy tales as one of the many ways emerging values can be explained and instilled in both adults and children” (10). Her focus for these emergent values is the family, which, as she points out, functioned to encourage the various behaviours that were deemed appropriate during the period.

In her informative introductory essay, Pemberton reviews the various scholarly discourses surrounding the identification of the fairy tale, favouring Swann Jones’ emphasis on magic as a less than unusual phenomenon, before moving on to discuss the evolution of the family unit, an ambitious project, given the length of the essay. However, there is much to inform readers who are not fully conversant with the shifting ideologies of family and gender that marked the nineteenth-century, and Pemberton frequently returns to her central discussion of fairy tales to examine how the popularity and form of such stories was displayed within her period as different ideologies of behaviour emerged. It may be that this initial discussion on the family unit is a little too chronologically extensive, beginning as it does with the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, although this breadth allows Pemberton to demonstrate that the ideologies inherent to her chosen fairy tales were evident prior to their publication. For example, she usefully identifies potential Wollstonecraft influences in S.G.’s ‘Aglae: A Fairy Tale’, published in 1821. This is a story of a beautiful princess who learns, through fairy aid and exposure to a group of old women, that character is more important than fleeting beauty. Locating this story in the context of nineteenth-century tales is fruitful. Mary Sherwood’s ‘The Wishing Cap’ (1824) celebrates little orphan Charles who, while his peers wish for a rocking horse, whip and dress, wishes only for God’s blessing. In what might be characterised as archetypal Sherwood style, Charles consequently dies happily because he has achieved grace. Mrs Sherwood’s story is not a fairy tale, as Pemberton comments, but its clear Evangelical message is unusually presented; it displays, states Pemberton, the “common fairy tale device of the wish” (81). Towards the end of the century, fairy tales such as Molesworth’s ‘The Three Wishes’ (1898) demonstrate the ability of women to survive without male support, as indeed Molesworth herself was obliged to do. However, and as Pemberton suggests, the trajectory towards equality was still in its infancy at the end of the century; the era of the New Woman may have been approaching, but fairy tales encouraging the “proper” female behaviour were still being written (52).

Pemberton’s Enchanted Ideologies is an informative publication, inasmuch as recovery of forgotten or overlooked tales, particularly those by women writers, remains an important task if scholars are to comprehend the broad spectrum of literary influences that existed within the Victorian period. Yet Pemberton’s research might have been more fully exploited and her rationale more finely honed. Some discussion of the many other tales that, presumably, must have been explored would be welcome, as would an explanation as to why these particular stories were chosen. There are, undoubtedly, many more unknown fairy tales to be read and, while Pemberton does indicate further reading in her footnotes on occasions, these tend to be references to more well-known texts. Furthermore, the intended reader of this book remains unclear Children’s Literature scholars are likely to be familiar with much of the introductory discussion of early texts and ideologies of the family and, while gender issues are prominent in the Introduction, the emphasis is not fully on representations of women. Neither is there a focus on women’s writing; several authors are anonymous and Ascott R. Hope (‘Humpty Dumpty’, 1877) is a male writer. In addition, the absence of a focused critical analysis of each of the selected stories, other than that raised relatively briefly in the Introduction, undermines any true sense of scholarship.

However, there are useful appendices suggesting further reading and briefly detailing biographical information about some of the authors, with lists of their work, although these are not always fully cited, and very scant details are offered on other authors. Mary Senior Clark (‘The Ivory Harp’, 1875) is accompanied only by her dates and a list of two of her children’s books, while Alice Corkran, author of ‘Wish-Day’ (1883), is similarly restricted to a list of five of her books. Nesbit and Sherwood, about whom much is already known, are granted more extensive biographical detail. While Pemberton’s book offers an unusual selection of stories that will undoubtedly be of interest to researchers of Victorian fairy tales, there is a sense, overall, that a more significant publication might have been produced.

Liz Thiel
Roehampton University, England