The common feature of a salon: It is set up for social interaction.
As shown in the header illustration, “Grand Salon” Hôtel du Collectioneur, Paris 1925. Arch. Emile Jaques Ruhlmann, a salon is also a feature of a grand hotel.
2. WHERE A HAIRDRESSER / BEAUTICIAN / COURTIER CONDUCTS TRADE
(A courtier is often in attendance at the court of a monarch or other royal personage. They’re not all noble, because courtiers include the clergy, soldiers, secretaries and so on.)
3. THE LITERARY SALON WHICH STARTED IN FRANCE
Innovation is driven by the recombination of ideas. So the larger a population you have and the more interconnected it is, the more ideas can flow among diverse minds and create baby ideas. … Jeffrey West … in his book Scale tries to make this case that just getting a bunch of people together in the same place, talking to each other is a huge accelerant to new ideas
The literary salon originated in seventeen-century France and was the birthplace of conte de fées: fairy tales, in which the ‘fairies’ are magical creatures.
Charles Perrault, along with other men, is remembered today as a significant figure in establishing this genre of story but, as often happens in historical accounts of important figures, it was actually women who mostly hung out in these French salons, interacting, swapping stories and talking about literature. The fairy stories functioned as commentary on power structures and wealth.
In the 1630s, the Marquise de Ramboillet owned a salon in Paris called Chamber bleue. Highly educated women from aristocratic families gathered there. They were called the précieuses. In contemporary English, this loanword now refers to a pretentious woman who puts on airs, which should tell us a lot about how we feel, as a culture, about women who are genuinely smart: Fakers.
Later that century, one of the woman authors of these new fairy tales started to make a splash. Her name was Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy. In 1690 she released “The Island of Happiness”. (It was novel-length.) Seven years later she released four volumes of conte de fées, Tales of the Fairies (1697), establishing her for centuries as a significant figure in European fairytale history. It was actually D’Aulnoy who coined the term conte de fée.
D’Aulnoy had reason to be interested in fairytales as a vehicle to express emotions around gender injustice. She had been married off at 15 to an abusive man three decades older. Like all women of her time, she could not inherit, and could not work to earn money.
Seventeenth century France is known for its ‘gender wars’. During this century a number of all-male academies were being founded. Women quite rightly felt marginalised and saw the need for a revolution.
Today, fairytales which all end with the heroine marrying the man she loves seem retrograde, but marrying for love was itself a radical idea in the context of a culture which married its girls off and gave them no autonomy whatsoever to marry who they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with.
The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns begaun in 1687. The ‘ancients’ were all about Greco-Roman literary archetypes. In oppsition, the ‘moderns’ praised archetypes from French folklore and from medieval, courtly tradition. In case you’re wondering, Charles Perrault was on the side of the Moderns. His fairy tale “Griselda” (1691) was written to exemplify his modern views. Perrault was publishing fairy tales at the same time as Marie-Catherine D’Aulnoy.
Excluded from The Establishment, aristocratic french women decided to start their own private space for recitations, performance and general storytelling. Fairy tales are perfect for this kind of storytelling because they sit between the oral tradition, can easily incorporate aspects of pop culture and also classical literary traditions of the so-called elite. A fairytale can be anything the storyteller wants it to be, because the backbone of plot is so robust. The form is also very welcoming; you don’t even have to know how to read and write to have a solid appreciation of fairytale.
I don’t want to make these aristocratic women seem too liberal. I mean, they were still wealthy white women practising wealthy white feminism in their private salons. The stories they used as base were from ‘the common folk’, but they weren’t interested in inviting the actual common folk to these salons. They didn’t want to be associated with the nursemaids and peasant women of the world. Charles Perrault was happy to write about such women because he didn’t need to worry about being taken for one. In contrast, the female salonnieres preferred reciting fairytales starring sibyls and fairies. These ladies were fans of Giambattista Basile (1566 – 1632) and Giovanni Francesco Straparola. Basile was an Italian fairytale collector remembered today for the earliest known European versions of Rapunzeland Cinderella. Straparola (1485?-1558) was also Italian. He published a collection of stories in two volumes called The Facetious Nights or The Pleasant Nights. This collection includes some of the first known printed versions of fairy tales in Europe, as they are known today. We don’t know much about him, partly because Strapola is unlikely to have been his real name.
Fast forward to the time of the Grimms, who today catch a disproportionate amount of the credit for tales they collected (largely from women), and who dismissed the fairy tales of D’Aulnoy for being sentimental, feminine and domestic in nature. Before the Grimms came along, D’Aulnoy’s work was hugely popular, and distributed in translation all across Europe in The Fairies Cabinet (1785-89). Andrew Lang was happy to include a number of her stories in his Fairy Books. In contrast, renowned misogynists the Grimm Brothers actively sought to minimise the importance of D’Aulnoy in fairy story tradition, and they were successful in their mission. How many readers know of the Grimm brothers (and Charles Perrault) but not the name of Marie-Catherine D’Aulnoy today?
When she is mentioned, she is often positioned as secondary to the male actors in the history of fairy tale. Note the wording of the following sentence from Britannica online:
Her best-remembered works are Contes de fées (1697; “Fairy Tales”) and Les Contes nouveaux ou les fées à la mode (1698; “New Tales, or the Fancy of the Fairies”), written in the manner of the great fairy tales of Charles Perrault but laced with her own sardonic touch.
“The Erl-King” is a short story by Angela Carter based on an old ballad by Goethe, one of the most famous ballads ever told. Carter’s re-visioning doesn’t take the plot from Goethe’s ballad, but borrows some of the atmosphere, inverting the gaze, turning it into something new. As you might expect from Angela Carter, her re-visioning expands notions of gender.
Below I take a look at both, as a compare and contrast exercise.
Goethe’s Erl-King (“Der Erlkönig”) is a terrifying narrative poem written by a German called Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1782. The Erl-King was originally composed by Goethe as part of a 1782 Singspiel (light opera) called Die Fischerin.
What Happens In “Der Erlkönig”
A boy and his father are out riding one windy night.
The boy is safe and secure, wrapped warmly in his father’s arms.
Suddenly the boy hides his face.
The boy has seen the Erl-King, or fairy king, who he recognises by the Erl-King’s cloak and crown. The Erl-king is King of the Elves and is hideous.
The father reassures the boy, telling him there’s nothing around them but mist. Perhaps he even persuades himself there’s nothing there. The father’s shortcoming is that he has learned not to trust his senses. He is probably doing that very adult and logical thing by relying on past experience, in which he thinks he sees some terrible creature out of the corner of his eye but it always turns out to be nothing.
Who’s riding so late, in the night and wind? It is the father with his child. He grasps the boy in his arm. He holds him securely; he keeps him warm.
My son, why do you hide your face so fearfully? “Father, don’t you see the Erl-King there? The Erl-King with his crown and train?” My son, it’s a streak of mist.
But the Erl-King starts to sing right into the little boy’s ear, asking the boy to come with him. He promises to play games and find bright flowers together on the shore. We never learn why the Erl-King wants the boy. As in Rumpelstiltskin, we just assume that everyone wants children, especially boy children, fantasy creatures included.
Only the boy can hear the Erl-King speak. The father insists there’s no sound but dry leaves in the wind.
The Erl-King keeps promising things to the boy — daughters who will dance for him all night, holding him and rocking him and loving him. (There are realworld religions which promise feminine care and sex to male followers in the after life.)
Now the Erl-King’s daughters beckon to the boy.
The father doesn’t see (or acknowledge) these supernatural creatures and insists the beckoning girls are nothing but willows.
The Erl-King becomes desperate for the boy and says if he won’t come willingly, he’ll take him anyway.
The boy tells his father the Erl-King is gripping him.
Finally the father believes the son. (It’s not clear why he suddenly believes the boy now. Why not before?)
The father quickly dashes home with his son in his arms.
But when the father reaches home, he discovers his son is dead in his arms.
RESONANCE OF GOETHE’S ERL-KING
The trope of the adult who lies to children hoping to protect them from very real fears is utilised frequently to this day in stories. This kind of adult dishonesty continues to be punished in the majority of these narratives, if only because the child is proven correct, exposing the adult as a fool and a liar.
[Goethe’s] ‘Erlking’ … personifies death as a danger above all to the young, who are credited with a more intense perception of the other world in the first place; this intimacy with the supernatural makes them vulnerable to its charms and its desires. Fear is the child’s bedfellow.Marina Warner, No Go The Bogeyman
Goethe’s ballad has been set to music by several composers, most notably by Franz Schubert.
Many artists have illustrated Goethe’s “Erl-King”. The etching below evinces an unmistakably scary, Gothic tone.
But other artists, long before Angela Carter got to it, saw the erotic potential in Goethe’s ballad. The natural target for this objectification was not The Erl-King himself, because these classic artists were largely heterosexual men, but the Erl-King’s daughters.
ANGELA CARTER’S RE-VISIONING
Once Angela Carter gets hold of the Erl-King story, she gets rid of the daughters and instead sexually objectifies the Erl-King, handing the gaze to our narrator. (She also inverts the gender of the male gaze with various other tales in her Bloody Chamber collection.)
Most readers coming to Carter’s short story will be at least somewhat familiar with Goethe’s original, though it stands alone. This is a prospective retelling, though familiarity with Goethe’s ballad illuminates Carter’s feminist take.
I came to Carter’s “Erl-King” expecting she’d do more with the misty, windy environment, but she does much more with the autumn leaves. I thought there’d be a horse but there isn’t. Familiar with many of Carter’s other works, I thought the story might be about the Erl-King’s daughters, but my expectations were wrong.
I own an out-of-print copy of the collected short stories of Angela Carter and I think the image on this 1996 cover might depict “The Erl-King”. The character manifests a 1990s version of femme-androgyny. They are crowned like royalty. There’s a forest in the background, and the character becomes one with the dropped foliage in the foreground. This character is part human, part forest; betwixt female and male; neither real nor unreal (like any fear); both powerful and vulnerably lying back; unmistakably inviting our gaze.
CARTER’S TREATMENT OF TIME
Carter’s re-visioning takes place in a fairytale world, with a forest both protective and scary, and in a place which runs on mythic time (kairos) rather than linear time (chronos).
Unlike classic fairytales, Carter does give us some specificity with the time. The story opens with a rainy day in late October. This accounts for the crunchy leaves of Goethe’s ballad, of course. “Withered blackberries withered like their own dour spooks”. Blackberries are paradoxically symbolic, being both delicious and a pest of a plant, covered in thorns. Here they indicate that summer was a forest cornucopia, but now — in another example of liminality — summer is turning into winter. (The in-between seasons have liminal potential.)
The autumnal light is personified (striking the wood ‘with nicotine-stained fingers); winter is subsequently personified (it ‘grips hold of your belly and holds it tight’). The little stream has ‘grown sullen’, the trees make sounds like the taffeta skirts of women lost in the woods, and so on. This is a story in which the setting is a character in its own right. Carter takes this storytelling technique to its extreme, because The Erl-King equals the forest.
But when does this story take place, exactly? It works on ancient, fairytale time, which turns back on itself, repeats with each season (the underlying reason why Carter mentions season), and note that although Carter places us firmly in a particular season, ‘grass grew over the tracks years ago’, which reminds me of the timelessness of fantasy worlds such as Narnia. Clearly, time works differently through the gates of this forest portal: because ‘once you are inside [the wood] you must stay there until it lets you out’. There is no specificity of time in these details.
Also, the story begins in present tense and later switches to past tense, which is another way of making the switch from iterative (kairos) to singulative (chronos). (It’s done a bit differently in most children’s stories.) Kairos is all about the time of antiquity whereas chronos describes modern, linear time. Kairos is sometimes switched out for the phrase ‘mythic time’.
Notice the story opens with second-person narration, unusual outside the genre of pick-a-path adventures. In general, audiences don’t have much patience for lengthy passages of second person narration. Carter doesn’t stick with it for long — just long enough to make us feel as if we are the main characters of our own story. This forest is the subconscious, and every single one of us has one of those — this story is about all of us, and no one in particular.
The second person narration ends at mention of Little Red Riding Hood, which reminds us that this is a fairytale world. “She will be trapped in her own illusion because everything in the wood is exactly as it seems.” This is the perfect metaphor for the deep, dark subconcious; though the veridical world is nothing like our dreams, our dreams are nonetheless real to us, because we experience them as real while asleep; our fears and desires guide our actions in a very real way.
Little Red Riding Hood turns into a ‘character’ called ‘the interloper’.
Then the unseen character becomes ‘I’ before switching back to ‘you’: ‘Erl-King will do you grievous harm’, but this time the second person address is clearly ‘universal you’, something dished out as eternal advice.
SPATIAL HORROR OF CARTER’S “ERL-KING”
Writers use a variety of tricks to produce discomfort in the reader and no writer I’ve ever seen has a larger toolbox than Angela Carter. Her stories are full of spatial horror. She is constantly working to disorient. What’s in her toolbox?
MISE EN ABYME
Carter uses mise en abyme in “Peter and the Wolf”. She uses it here too when describing how the woods ‘enclose and then enclose again’. This mise en abyme effect is repeated in Carter’s description of the stripping of the heroine, who has several layers; first her clothes, then another layer, her ‘last nakedness, that underskin of mauve, peralised satin, like a skinned rabbit’. Then the mise en abyme reverses as the Erl-King dresses her again.
the intimate perspectives of the wood changed endlessly around the interloper, the imaginary traveler walking toward an invented distance
There’s something very Escher about that.
I am not afraid of him; only afraid of vertigo, of the vertigo with which he seizes hem Afraid of falling down.
Falling as a bird would fall thorugh the air if the Erl-King tied up the winds in his handkerchief and knotted the ends together so they could not get out.
The equinotical gales seize the bare elms and make them whizz and whirl like dervishes
THE FOREST SETTING AND ITS CONNECTION TO THE REAL WORLD
“The Erl-King” is basically an evocation of setting, but this is no ordinary forest: This is a forest of the imagination, and an allegory for how it feels to be a woman straddling that impossible dichotomy between ‘virgin’ vs ‘whore’. That’s the well-known feminist reading.
LIMINALITY AND GENDER
Carter’s Erl-King transgresses gender lines:
He goes out i the morning to gather his unnatural treasres, he handles them as delicately as he does pigeon’s eggs He makes salads He is an excellent housewife.
Carter wrote “The Erl-King” over 40 years ago in the midst of second wave activism. Fast forward to 2020 and I propose the virgin-whore dichotomy has lessened a little for women, at least in some cultures and subcultures. But there are many outworkings of liminality. These days the word ‘intersectionality’ is widely known. ‘Liminal’ in allegory might equal ‘intersectionality’ when applied to social justice activism. Carter’s liminal, feminist, gender expansive “Erl-King” remains relevant as ever.
THE GENDER OF THE NARRATOR
The Erl-King’s gender is not very important to the narrator. Commentators have assumed the narrator is female. For example, Marina Warner calls our narrator-guide ‘the heroine’, because she embodies femme-coded characteristics. This is a fair conclusion because this story is clearly a critique of prison-like matrimony. Doves settle on the Erl-King and those rings around their necks are ‘wedding rings’.
There are other intertextual clues that tell us the narrator is female. The Erl-King keeps other femme-coded characters in cages and captures this narrator. We traditionally associate birds and cages with femme-coded characters, no doubt about that. (And no story stands in isolation from its cultural context, etcetera.)
I suspect Angela Carter was very familiar with the trope of women compared to birds (and also cats). If you spend half a day looking through classic art from Europe it really stands out — young women and girls with birds, birdcages, birds all around them. In literature, women are often compared to birds via metaphor and simile. This is two-fold: A human being with an affinity for birds embodies appropriately gentle feminine attributes. Also, birds are small and vulnerable, much like women-and-children (I mindfully hyphenate that phrase).
But what if the story is more gender expansive than that? If The Erl-King transgresses gender roles, might our narrator be of any gender when re-read in the age of marriage equality?
Okay forget the here and now, let’s briefly go back to Ancient Rome, when sexual identity was not contingent upon a person’s attraction to a particular gender/s, but instead on how much ‘control’ people were able to exert over their impulses (sexual, economic and so on).
Our modern focus on gender as a main determinant of our orientation and identity is very new in the history of humankind. (Michel Foucault went deep into this.) But what if we instead divided people into ‘those turned on by satin sheets’ or ‘my orientation is feather boas’ or whatever? What might we call someone turned on by their awe of personified nature? The narrator in this story is clearly aroused by the forest, which they regard as alive, personified throughout the entire story, evinced by Carter’s choice of imagery. Might attraction to ‘the power of nature’ not just as easily function as an orientation in its own right? And if you are part human, part forest, do you even have a gender? Reading this story in 2020 makes me want to throw the boundaries of gender identity and sexual orientation out the window.
Although Carter’s “Erl-King” is a lyrical exploration of setting and character (one and the same in this case), does it have a structure to speak of? First requirement: a character shortcoming.
Before looking into any moral or psychological shortcomings we need a main character. This is an example of a story in which a viewpoint character (the narrator) looks on and describes another character in great detail, in which case the very concept of ‘main character’ becomes moot.
Warner describes the narrator’s main shortcoming thusly:
Like Goethe’s poems, Carter angles the terror through the fascinated eyes of the Wellings prey. The heroine is in thrall despite herself to the woodland spirit’s feral, eldritch [sinister or ghostly] charms.
So let’s call her ‘the heroine’. We might also call her the ‘victim muse’, a Gothic archetype of the Romantic era.
The heroine may be a victim of Stockholm syndrome, in which a person falls in love (or in this case, lust) with their captor.
[A]nxiety about sexuality and the imagery of engulfment are also combined in [The Bloody Chamber]. This is particularly visible in “The Erl-King” … In the story, the protagonist dwells on her attraction to a fae figured called the Erl-King. The Erl-King captures women who stray into the woods and transforms them into birds that he keeps in cages. Despite this danger, the protagonist allows him to seduce her.Alex Rouch at BookRiot
In “The Erl-King”, Angela Carter creates a man who literally transforms a woman into a bird, but this is allegory for how men typically consider women: As both gentle and vulnerable.
Is this heroine both gentle and vulnerable? I argue no, not until The Erl-King turns her into a bird and puts her inside that cage. She is brave. You have to be brave (or stupid, I guess) to enter a creepy forest all the while knowing you might not come out alive. She is also fully in touch with her erotic side, slightly wild. He tames her via the metaphorical equivalent of marriage.
So at the start of the story, the heroine/victim muse is basically horny, driven by a baser instinct. The forest is so overwhelming that she is sexually in awe of it. ‘Nature’ is her orientation. I’m reminded of a scene from Melancholia.
‘Desire’ in Carter’s “Erl-king” is both narrative and sexual. Apart from communing with nature, the narrator doesn’t want anything.
This is because they are written in the Romantic style.
In tales influenced by the Romance era, character desire is less important than mood and symbolism. Romantic poets weren’t about creating an active participant, giving them a goal then showing the audience how they go after it, foiled at every turn. Instead, Romantic characters are tortured souls, the original Goths, haunted by poetry, at the whims of strong forces, often supernatural, outside their control and understanding.
Angela Carter retains Romantic characterisation in her re-visioning. Like Goethe’s ballad, we know nothing about what the characters want. We don’t know where the father and son had been, for what purpose. We don’t know what the Erl-King wants with the boy (and it doesn’t bear thinking about). I suspect contemporary audiences of Goethe would not have even asked why the Erl-King wanted the boy; nor would they have asked why Rumpelstiltskin wanted a firstborn in exchange for spinning straw into gold. Babies, especially boy babies, were considered desirable alongside gold. Everyone wants gold and everyone wants a baby. This is assumed fact.
The heroine knows that the Erl-King (nature) could kill her. She seems to believe in some kind of reincarnation and tells us ‘He could thrust me into the seed-bed of next year’s generation and I would have to wait until he whistled me up from my darkness before I could come back again.’
He wields a magic over her. When he beckons, she comes, both literally and sexually. He beckons her to his cottage in the woods where he vampirically sinks his teeth into her neck, draining the life force out of her.
Angela Carter, as Anton Pieck does his illustration above, does not create an outright hideous Erl-King. Pieck creates a pretty regular old man. If Angela Carter’s Erl-King is hideous, this is because of his chimerical one-ness with leaves and the earth. But chimeras throughout the history of art are often depicted as sexually alluring characters. (Take a look at some of the classic art in this post.)
Carter uses the colour green to connect the Erl-King to the fairy realm — fairies and green are closely associated throughout folklore: ‘Eyes green as apples. Green as dead sea fruit.’
Driven by her awe of nature, the narrator enters the subconscious/forest, follows the Erl-King, enters his cottage and lies on his bed.
To call this a ‘plan’ is a bit of a stretch. Whatever it is, it’s the Romantic equivalent. This narrator is under some kind of influence bigger than themselves. Awe and horniness are both forms of arousal, and it seems a legit theory to me that sometimes they become conflated. I suspect this is what goes on in the minds of pyromaniacs, both awed by their own ability to create catastrophic damage and also sexually aroused by it (accounting for the young male demographic skew), though it’s a point of pride that I will never fully understand the urge to light murderous fires at the peak of an Australian summer.
All of Carter’s pre-introduced moments of spatial horror culminate at the climax of “The Erl-King” — the description of the Erl-King’s eyes, a blend of claustrophobia, warped perspective and the whirlpool effect.
By comparing his eyes to a mirror, Carter even manages a fresh take on mise en abyme. Note how she plays with warped perspective:
What big eyes you have [RED RIDING HOOD REFERENCE]. Eyes of an incomparable luminosity, the numinous phosphorescence of the eyes of lycanthropes. The gelid green of your eyes fixes my reflective face [MISE EN ABYME, MIRROR]. It is a preservative, like a green liquid amber; it catches me. I am afraid I will be trapped [CLAUSTROPHOBIA] in it for ever like the poor little ants and flies that stuck their feet in resin before the sea covered the Baltic. He winds me into the circle [WHIRLPOOL] of his eye on a reel of birdsong. There is a black hole in the middle of both your eyes; it is there still centre, looking there makes me giddy [DIZZINESS], as if I might fall into it [VERTIGO].
Your green eye is a reducing chamber. If I look into it long enough, I will become as small as my own reflection. I will diminish to a point and vanish. I will be drawn down into that black whirlpool and be consumed by you.
I looked up ‘reducing chamber’ wondering if it were a real world contraption but it appears to be a fantasy technology invented by Carter, perhaps a riff on the decompression chamber utilised by scuba divers. The ‘chamber’ is another type of cage.
Now the reason for all of this spatial horror becomes apparent:
I shall become so small you can keep me in one of your osier cages and mock my loss of liberty. I have seen the cage you are weaving for me; it is a very pretty one and I shall sit, hereafter, in my cage among the other singing birds but I — I shall be dumb, from spite.
Welp, the narrator is beholden to him now. Captured by a rush of love hormones, he might as well have locked our narrator in a cage using allure alone, though she entered into this arrangement supposedly of her own volition, knowing her fate full well.
This uneasy combo of choice versus being drawn in reminds me of something said by James Flynn (before he became so controversial) when asked in an interview why young women keep having babies if children so clearly make poor women’s life worse. His response was that procreation is a human impulse, and we should not expect anyone to restrain it in the face of economic logic. Also, for the least privileged women of all, having children is a logical way to live a meaningful life, far more logical a choice than a privileged outsider often assumes.
In Angela Carter’s lifetime, matrimony for women, despite its restrictions, was the safest, most logical way for many women to live their lives. Matrimony itself was an allure as much as a gilded cage.
The narrator secretly plans to kill the Erl-King and tells the reader exactly how she means to do it. It involves cutting off the Erl-King’s hair. But will she? Does she have a hope in hell against this supernatural creature who can shrink people and stuff them into bird cages? Doubt it. If this were ever going to happen, I’d expect Carter would show it. She didn’t exactly shy away.
There is no escape from patriarchy, even if there is escape from matrimony in individual cases.
Our narrator will eke out a living imaginatively, ie., by imagining how she might kill her captor.
A related take:
The reflection [in the Erl-King’s eyes at the climax] could be symbolic of the view of these women from the perspective of the male figure, which holds them in a particular image that they have trouble finding their way out of. The narrator, at the end, plans to find her way out, though; still, she has to ask him to turn his gaze away first before she can do so.
The narrator is also comforted by the fact they are not alone. Take for example the cock robin, whose plumage implies it has been stabbed in the heart. (Note how Carter also used the ‘wedding’ ring around the pigeon’s neck — part of its plumage — for symbolic reasons.)
Robins have long been illustrated dead with their legs in the air, as you can see in the collection below.
Surface reading: The narrator is terrified of a sexual encounter with the Erl-King but because they’re under some kind of magic spell, they’re required to go through with it anyway.
A feminist reading: The struggle is between the narrator’s wish for freedom from the patriarchal nature of partnership with a ‘king’ (archetypically identical to ‘father’ in fairytales), and their simultaneous sexual attraction to these king-fathers.
When we consider this story and its place within a real world that still runs by the rules of patriarchy, Carter illuminates the relationship between sex, gender, power and entrapment.
People who have come out of emotionally abusive relationships often explain that love for a coercive controller acts as an invisible cage. This story is the perfect allegory for that. An episode of Dear Sugar Radio features an episode called Emotional Abuse, and Steve Almond mentions another short story which also makes an excellent allegory: “Runaway” by Alice Munro.
Rosamund and the Purple Jar is a didactic story for children, written by Maria Edgeworth, first published 1796. To remind myself how old this story really is, what else was going on in the world at this time?
In 1796, Horace Walpole died. (He kind of invented the ‘Gothick’ with The Castle of Otranto.) Jane Austen turned 21. Ten Presbyterian missionaries arrived in Tahiti to try and save a population a decade after Captain Cook’s arrival had totally upset the island’s equilibrium. John Adams defeated Thomas Jefferson in the U.S. presidential election. The first two white women to ever visit New Zealand had arrived only the previous year. Australia opened its first theatre in Sydney. Japan was fully isolated.
So this story is very old. Of course it’s overtly didactic by contemporary standards. But what are the messages? And have the messages themselves held fast?
STORY WORLD OF “ROSAMUND AND THE PURPLE JAR”
This story might take place in any number of English speaking areas. Maria Edgeworth was herself an English-Irish writer. She was born in Oxfordshire England but moved to Ireland after her mother died and her father remarried. This story is set in London, where all the best things could be found.
Most of Maria Edgeworth’s stories were domestic, taking place inside the home. This is a rare outing for a little girl character. (Of course she’s bowled over by the experience!)
The family is a nuclear family with a mother, a father, a son and a daughter. The Every Family. They are neither fabulously wealthy nor poor. We learn more about Rosamund’s family life from the other Rosamund stories: They live in a comfortable, cosy home with a fireplace to warm up and a safe garden to play in. She shares her bedroom with her sister Laura.
In this story, Rosamund will only have to wait a month for new shoes. For the standards of the day, this isn’t too bad. Many people had no shoes at all, ever. Many wore hand-me-downs. For the purposes of this story, money is not the issue. Prudence is the issue. So a not-too-rich, not-too-poor circumstance is perfect.
Conspicuously absent from Maria Edgeworth’s Rosamund stories: Toys. We might expect a seven-year-old girl to fall in love with a doll or a teddy bear, but no. She has a thing for glass. I find this adorable. I can totally imagine falling for glass products. It is therefore a massive punishment when she is not allowed to visit the Glass House. It’s almost as if the father has invented this trip and then disinvited her precisely to punish her for making the wrong choice. In this way, the story is similar to Saki’s “The Lumber-Room.” To punish a young boy, the adult caregiver decides to take the other children to the beach just so she can leave him behind. I therefore suspect this was acceptable parenting practice in the Victorian era.
Rosamund is a naïf who has difficulty moderating her desires. She wants everything but must settle upon one thing. She has trouble accepting this. Later we witness her difficulty accepting the consequences of her choice.
Rosamund stands for all of us, because we all grapple with these cognitive biases:
We don’t always know what’s going to make us happy until after we’ve made a decision.
It is hard making decisions. (Decision paralysis.)
It is hard realising we’ve made the wrong decision. (Post buyer’s regret.)
We want everything but can only ever enjoy a portion of it in our lifetimes.
Rosamund is also given a shortcoming specifically punished in girl characters: She is taken-in by the prettiness of something (guided by emotion) rather than looking at its function (guided by supposed logic).
She is so enchanted by the jar that she’ll underestimate the amount of pain caused by the hole in her shoe. She also underestimates how quickly the shoes degrade after today. Worst of all, she underestimates the extent to which her father will punish her for failing to choose the shoes.
Rosamund wants all the pretty things. She wants the jar. She wants to admire the jar as it sits on the mantelpiece. I guess she’d like others to admire the beautiful jar as well, otherwise she wouldn’t put it pride of place in the shared living area.
The mother is the stand-in opponent for an entire moral universe in which no one can have everything. The universe forces us to choose, no matter how much money we have, in fact. Simply by making one choice we cut off the life we could have had by taking the other path. This theme is often conveyed symbolically in stories using crossroads. But not in this story.
The mother is also a fairy godmother or genie-in-the-bottle archetype, granting only one wish.
Rosamund’s executive function isn’t well-developed. She’s being dragged around these shops, full of carefully-positioned items, all of them designed to create a Gruen Transfer in the days before that particular set of marketing tactics even had a name.
The mother has a plan. She will let her daughter make her own decision and deal with the consequences.
The big struggle scene contains a blood substitute in the form of purple liquid that, when drained from the jar, renders the jar transparent and ordinary.
For Rosamund this is a complete let-down. She realises she hasn’t examined the jar properly. If she had, she might have realised the colour belongs to the liquid, not to the glass. She realises she has made the wrong decision when Maria Edgeworth includes another painful step in the story: She has been looking forward to an outing with her father and brother, but now he refuses to take her because she is ‘slip-shod’.
Rosamund is punished for two main reasons: For making the impractical choice and also for not standing by her decision. “You made your bed, now lie in it,” she is basically told.
This is a lesson quite often doled out to girls and young women in stories. Take “The Frog Princess” as the O.G. fairytale example. The Frog Princess also chose a pretty thing (her golden ball returned to her) in exchange for her body and her life. Yet the message in almost all the versions of this disturbing fairytale is the same as presented in this one: “You made your decision, girl. Now deal with the consequences. You may never change your mind, even if you realise the entirety of the consequences of your decision become apparent only after you have made it.”
Notice the link between this message and rape culture. “You went to his flat/to the alleyway/to the pub with him. What did you think would happen next?”
The idea that one decision leads fatally into an entire raft of unintended consequences requires intense scrutiny. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-Gyl_Gf0Xo
The Kovacs song is a contemporary Just Desserts story, complete with the gender flip. This time a woman dishes out punishment. With Angela Carter-esque feminism, the female victim is ‘hairy on the inside’ (turns into a wolf) and murders the man who tries to harm her. Where do these violent woman revenge stories come from? This anger?
Well, there’s a very long history of “Rosamund and the Purple Jar” brand of ideology, of course. There’s a lot to make up for.
Using Rosamund as proxy, the reader is supposed to have learned to examine goods properly before buying them, to make a practical decision over an emotional one, and to listen to your mother’s guidance when offered obliquely.
Here’s what I also took away from this story:
Girls should be roundly punished for wanting more beauty in their lives. But fathers who refuse to take their daughters out on a trip to a wonderful ‘glass house’ (perhaps this one?) because she’ll embarrass him due to her poor-condition footwear receive no such judgement. People will think poorly of the father, for failing to provide his daughter with good shoes. An image-based decision if ever there was one.
In other words, men can make decisions based on appearance and their decision is considered reasonable. When girls use the same metrics to make their decisions they are regarded shallow and silly and deserve punishment. In this case, Rosamund’s punishment comes both from ‘the universe’, with the consequence of a sore foot, but it also comes from the father, who shuns her.
Here are the parenting ideologies Maria Edgeworth was known for:
Let children use their own reasoning to govern themselves.
Let children make their own decisions.
Open children up to experiences so they learn wisdom.
Let children suffer the consequences of their actions. It may be painful, but the long-term rewards will be worth it.
Offer children freedom by holding back with our own adult opinions. (Ironic, given the overt didacticism of Edgeworth’s actual stories.)
She didn’t like toys for kids. Highly coloured miniature versions of real things were all bells and whistles so far as Edgeworth was concerned. Children should learn to appreciate the ‘real’ world around them.
I don’t know about you, but these child-rearing tactics sound pretty modern to me. In fact, that last one, about the toys, could be switched out for ‘electronic devices’.
What about the messages of “Rosamund and the Purple Jar”? There’s a nasty flip-side to all of this ‘let her make her bed and lie in it’, but it’s not limited to didactic tales from the 1700s. Many contemporary girl characters in middle grade fiction are punished for their choice of pretty accoutrements. The sexism of this is offset somewhat by the fact that the main, viewpoint character is generally a feisty girl these days. But I have already written extensively about that.
Some commentators have read “Rosamund and the Purple Jar” as a tale about menstruation (even before the widespread use of menstrual cups). I feel this is a stretch. Rosamund is only seven years old. But if this is about menstruation, what is said, exactly? I can only guess it’s this: Don’t be too quick to grow into pretty ladies, little girls, because the reality of womanhood will disappoint. Womanhood is all about wearing a mask. Underneath, we’re all just ordinary. We are all debased, leaky vessels who make meaty humans, underneath those pretty clothes, those jewels, those cosmetics.
“Rosamund and the Purple Jar” as a parable about capitalist consumerism is perhaps more obvious.
Header painting: Rosamund and the Purple Jar exhibited 1900, by Henry Tonks
In a picture book version, intelligently illustrated by German artist Binette Schroeder in the mid 1980s, the coincidentally similarly named Anne Carter retells a tale which — I was surprised to learn — dates only so far back as the mid 1700s. This is a ‘literary fairy tale’, meaning that unlike a ‘true’ fairy tale, it did not originate from any oral tradition. It was written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and published in 1740 in La Jeune Américaine et les contes marins (The Young American and Marine Tales).
The story was then bowdlerised (rewritten for children) in 1756 by a French governess who had the most erudite sounding name. It almost sounds fictional in its own right: Mme Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.
BEAUTY AND PSYCHE
Anne Carter explains in the afterword of the Carter/Schroder version that “Beauty and the Beast” is similar to a Greek myth about Cupid and Psyche called “The Golden Ass”. This myth dates from the second century C.E. Both stories feature:
the return home
The main differences:
In the Greek myth the monster turns out to be merely invisible
Psyche’s journey is towards intellectual/spiritual love; Beauty’s is a journey towards understanding the difference between the superficial and the real.
The main differences between the original literary tale and many modern retellings is that the original author:
Wrote the tale for adults, not children
Emphasised that what makes for a good partnership is respect, understanding and the ability to see past your partner’s superficial charm and into their deeper soul. Modern retellings tend to sensationalise the romance.
Perhaps surprising to a modern audience, Villeneuve’s novel doesn’t force the character of Beauty into anything. When we think of women in antiquity, we tend to think of them owned by men as chattels, and this is certainly true in some eras and some parts of the world, but the original “Beauty and the Beast” reflects the 1700s emphasis on individual rights and freedoms. The story is suggesting to its audience that even women might be afforded this right. Subsequent retellings lost this early feminist message. 1800s and 1900s retellings took Beauty’s agency away from her.
The ideas of Sigmund Freud had an impact on how “Beauty and the Beast” was retold. These are the retellings which go into themes of self-awareness and psychological development, in line with what Freud had to say about adolescent development.
With a modern reading, Beauty is indeed a flawed character. She is far too willing to please. But to a contemporary audience, Beauty was perfection itself. A model of feminine virtue, sacrificing herself to the needs of the men around her and acquiescing to her older sisters in the family hierarchy.
It’s possible that Beauty’s mother died in childbirth. I think that because she is the youngest in a large family and because women often died in childbirth in the 1700s. Perhaps Beauty’s ‘ghost’ or backstory, is that she feels guilt for bringing this misfortune upon the family, and why she feels she needs to be her father’s stand-in female companion in his old age.
When Father returns with the news that one of his daughters must marry a terrifying Beast, Beauty offers herself as sacrifice, feeling that the rose incident, too, is her fault.
It’s worth remembering that Christianity in the 1700s looked a bit more like modern-day fundamentalist Islam in the respect that the devout really, truly believed that if they lived their lives according to the word of God, they would find themselves in a Heavenly paradise. When Beauty sacrifices herself to the Beast it is clear that she believes she is going there to die. But she also believes she will end up in celestial Heaven due to having been good all her life.
The Hans Christian Andersen tales are based on the same belief. That’s why the ending of “The Little Match Girl“, in which the eponymous main character dies from hypothermia (I guess) and goes to meet her grandmother in Heaven, was written to be a ‘happy ending’, and the evolution of Christian belief is why modern young readers usually fail to find it so.
As Anne Carter says in the afterword: ‘for Beauty the challenge is to move from the superficial to the real, to see through the loathsome outward appearance to the goodness within. Only then, when Beauty knows and loves the virtue of her Beast, can the transformation take place.
Beauty and the prince were married in great state and lived together throughout the length of their lives in the most perfect and deserved happiness.
Why is this fairy tale so resonant? No one seems to know why. It may have appealed to a middle class wish fulfilment fantasy in which a middle-class girl can become a member of the aristocracy, elevating her entire family. (We just need to teach her to settle for someone she’s not personally attracted to, I guess.)
Today you can find this story adapted as plays, operas, film, picture books and in works of fine art. Disney adapted the tale for film in 1991. Contemporary re-visionings tend to be more feminist. Sometimes the genre of science fiction is chosen to tell a more feminist Beauty and the Beast tale e.g. “Beauty” by Tanith Lee (1983). This is an intersectionally feminist tale which also challenges homophobia and racism.
Angela Carter wrote a famous feminist re-visioning of The Beauty and the Beast in “The Tiger’s Bride” (1979). A man loses his daughter and everything else he owns in a card game. The beautiful daughter is also the narrator. She is taken to the Beast’s run-down palazzo in Northern Italy where it is, symbolically, winter. Horses live in the ruined dining room and the Beast sleeps in the den. In this story, it’s not the beast who undergoes a transformation but the virgin daughter. She takes off her clothes and even her skin and turns into a tiger.
Some modern revisionings convey the message that fear comes from resisting knowledge and difference. This is a tale which is especially prone to reinterpretation, according to the politics of the day.
FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
Exogamy is the word we use to describe the practice of marrying daughters out. This still happens in some cultures today. Daughters are expected to adapt to a completely new family, and sometimes these new families speak an entirely different language.
My own revisioning of Beauty and the Beast is called Winter Rose.
Even going by the most generous estimates, Mrs. Potts, the Beast’s faithful housekeeper, is clearly way too goddamn old to have given birth to her “son,” Chip. […]
Stockholm syndrome is often mentioned in relation to Beauty of Beauty and the Beast, but Pop Culture Detective makes an argument in favour of avoiding that term, because it heaps undue blame on the female victim, assuming she has been brainwashed. In fact, these characters show great resilience in the face of extreme abuse.