Up At A Villa by Helen Simpson

Henrietta Rae - The Sirens 1903

“Up At A Villa” is a short story by Helen Simpson, opening her 2011 collection In-flight Entertainment. This is a lyrical short story full of symbolism.

Cover copy tells us to expect work a la Alice Munro. Of all the stories here, the images in “Up At A Villa” are most reminiscent of Munro — young and old are juxtaposed, reminding the reader that we are all young and old at some point, and therefore young and old at once.

As for the style and storytelling techniques, this story is far more similar to the work of Katherine Mansfield than to Alice Munro.


This is a story of two groups of people. The first group comprises two heterosexual pairs of young people in their late teens or early twenties. The characters named Nick and Tina are romantic and flirtatious with each other. The other pair, Joe and Charlotte, do not feel that way about each other, or Charlotte does not feel that way about Joe. Helen Simpson paints this picture in extremely succinct fashion and we know it by the end of the third paragraph, observing these young people waking up from the forest after a drunken night of frolicking. We know this about them from the way they behave around the pool and in the water. We’d know it if we were seated nearby. And that’s where Simpson puts the reader. We’ve been given an invisible pool-side seat.

These two young couples juxtapose against another couple — older. This older couple has a new baby. This could of course be either of the young couples in another ten years’ time.


Herbert Draper - A Young Girl by a Pool
Herbert Draper – A Young Girl by a Pool. Angelic girls sitting prettily by contained bodies of water are far more dominant in the cultural imagination than Tina of this story.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema - The Baths of Caracalla
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – The Baths of Caracalla

There’s a fairytale vibe to this short story, which is probably set in Southern France. Local food provides this detail —pissaladière — cuisine of Nice. It’s Monday morning and everything is closed down in the village (fermé le lundi). The young couples have snuck onto this holiday villa to use the pool as they’ve run out of money, which reminds me of the opening of Brokedown Palace, the 1999 film about two young American women who eventually find themselves imprisoned for drug trafficking.

It’s mid afternoon and these kids have their morning sleeping in the forest, redolent with fairytale spookiness. Their hair is ‘stuck with pine needles’. They’ve become one with the forest, but could the story be making use of the double English meaning of ‘pine’, much as Robin Black did in her short story “Pine“?

In stories the forest can function as all kinds of things, most notably the subconscious. When they wake up in the forest, have they really woken up? What follows around the pool could easily be part of a dreamscape.

Helen Simpson inverts the general utopian beachspace of our imaginations by describing the Mediterranean this way:

Anyway they had fallen out of love over the last week with the warm soup of the Mediterranean, its filmy surface bobbing with polystyrene shards and other unsavoury orts.

‘Ort’ is an archaic word, linking this contemporary setting to an archaic world and means ‘a scrap or remainder of food from a meal’. Alongside breastmilk, this word choice links something which shouldn’t be eaten with food. (Of course breastmilk is food — the best human food that exists — but that’s not how the young observers see it.)

Three bodies of water are mentioned in this story: first the sea, then the pool, then the baby’s bath when Harvey asks the woman what’s so special about bath-time anyway? This creates a very subtle mise-en-abyme effect, from large down to small — the grievances are likewise becoming more petty, while at the same time carrying the magnitude of a sea for this couple.

‘Space’ and ‘Place’ are not the same thing. Drawing on spatial theory by Lawrence Buell and E. V. Walter, a place is seen, heard, smelled, imagined, loved, hated, feared, revered, enjoyed, or avoided. In contrast, the Space is the subjective dimension of located experience. Because certain Spaces exist in the shared cultural imagination, it’s possible to be familiar with a ‘space’ without having visited a ‘place’. For instance, if you live in Australia or have seen tourist advertising, you’ll be familiar with beachspace even if you haven’t ever visited (the place of) an actual beach. Likewise, we are all familiar with images of the Mediterranean even if we haven’t visited the Mediterranean:

Villefranche Beach, France
This picture of Villefranche Beach, France, is how I imagine the Mediterranean though I’ve never been there. It’s a beautiful blue edged and dappled in turquoise, and always a long distance view.

In other words, we know a Space of even if we don’t know the Place. This applies to the tourists in Helen Simpson’s story, whose knowledge of the Space has been replaced by unwelcome knowledge of the Place. Evoking the story of Adam and Eve — these kids were happier before they saw the polystyrene. Now their imaginative Space will be forever tainted.

What about the symbolism of the pool? In a few deft strokes, Simpson evokes a scene of ancient mythology — modernised, of course — but this pool could easily be a lake or a pond in a forest. The naked young people, the youthful bodies… well, they could be sirens, of course.

What do you imagine when you think ‘siren’? Probably of beautiful femme fatales fresh out of Romanticism…

Screenshot from Sirens, the 1994 movie
Screenshot from Sirens, the 1994 movie

… or perhaps something more like this…

Lord Frederic Leighton - The Fisherman and the Syren
Lord Frederic Leighton – The Fisherman and the Syren

… not the sirens of Ancient Greece, where winged and clawed bird-women lured sailors to destruction through the power of their song.

Sirens Are Actually Bird-Bodied Messengers of Death, Not Sexy Mermaids.

Audiences didn’t exactly appreciate John William Waterhouse harking back to the earlier era of sirens. I mean, these women are terrifying. And no one wants to go to an art gallery and look at terrifying women, do they? Women are supposed to be warm and sexy and alluring and welcoming.

[A woman’s] value [is] contingent on her giving moral goods to them: life, love, pleasure, nurture, sustenance, and comfort, being some

― Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny

John William Waterhouse - Ulysses and the Sirens
John William Waterhouse – Ulysses and the Sirens

The same thing has happened to witches, female vampires and basically any femme/androgynous mythical creature (including gothic male vampires). We love to sexualise anyone who’s not overtly manly.

Anyway, this story is perhaps Helen Simpson’s reclamation. Because of the varied history of siren mythology, these hybrid creatures are useful to storytellers when weaving an imagistic pattern. (Double-duty symbols always are.)

Though Simpson has left the siren mythology off the page, I think it’s there in her imagery. An important thing to understand about metaphorical chimera (and other metaphorical symbols in general) is that they also represent something within the characters. In common with a siren, these kids (especially Tina) are two things at once — their current youthful selves and the older selves they are forced to imagine.

If we read the young women of Helen Simpson’s short story as contemporary sirens, they are both of these creatures at once — tempting and terrifying.

What else is tempting and terrifying? All of us: tempting when young; terrifying when old.



Age has always terrified the young. When we are young it’s difficult to even imagine ourselves as older. If younger selves imagine older selves at all, we see them as separate identities. When Tina whispers “Oh, gross!” at the sight of the mother breastfeeding, what exactly disgusts her? The narrator describes breasts with ‘huge brown nipples on breasts like wheels of Camembert’. Cheese is nice. But anything that’s not cheese, when compared to cheese, is not nice. Weird how that works, but there we have it. We love cheese despite itself, I guess.

Using free indirect style, Helen Simpson encourages the reader to react with disgust to the spectacle of a woman breastfeeding her newborn. This is a modern reaction. Scroll through classic art from the Victorian era and you’ll find many beautiful breastfeeding images, clearly romanticising the act of breastfeeding as beautiful, natural, life-giving and good. Simpson’s story is an inversion — contemporary life has inverted this aspect of motherhood.

So the Weakness of Tina is that she is disgusted by what she herself may one day become.

“She’s hideous,” whispered Tina. “Look at that gross stomach, it’s all in folds.” She glanced down superstitiously at her own body, the high breasts like halved apples, the handspan waist.

Joe and Nick have a different reaction — they are fascinated by it.

At this point Helen Simpson makes an astute feminist observation on why people don’t listen to women:

At some subliminal level each of the eavesdropping quartet recognised their own mother’s voice in hers, and glazed over.


Everyone at the pool wants to have a fun time.

More deeply, the woman wants to reconnect with her husband, who has retreated into himself since the birth of their baby. The young people want to live in the moment.


Harvey and the unnamed mother are in marital conflict. It’s difficult to read without sympathy for them, especially the mother, who is in a very vulnerable position.

The complete lack of sympathy from the young people is striking.

The young couples came to France on a shoestring budget, buoyed by new love that didn’t last, because they’ve been let down by their surroundings. France is traditionally the country of love, but even France can’t help them. They’re each too self-absorbed to be in an adult partnership of equals (in common with Harvey, in fact).

Since the young couples want to live in the moment, the sight of older versions of themselves pull them out of that. (All are from England, cementing their more general similarity when in a foreign country.)


We can deduce why the new parents are here — perhaps the woman suggested it, as an attempt at a brief respite from new parenthood, hoping to rekindle something from their pre-baby days.

“I thought the idea was to get away from it all.”
“I thought we’d have a chance to talk on holiday.”


The married couple are failing at communication, clear from their conversation. The woman wants to talk; the man does not. The climax of their big struggle is when the woman howls in anger and grief.


The character of Charlotte has been kept silent for most of the story but after introducing her briefly as someone who has it together (aligning her with the mother), she brings her back in at the end.

Charlotte remembers a framed picture, and what follows is an ekphrastic description, cementing for the reader the subverted fairytale nature of this story:

As for Charlotte, she was remembering another unwitting act of voyeurism, a metaphorical framed picture from a childhood camping holiday.

It had been early morning, she’d gone off on her own to the village for their breakfast baguettes, and the village had been on a hills like in a fairy-tale, full of steep little flights of steps which she was climbing for fun. The light was sweet and glittering and as she looked down over the rooftops she saw very clearly one particular open window, so near that she could have lobbed in a ten-franc piece, and through the window she could see a woman dropping kisses onto a man’s face and neck and chest. He was lying naked in bed and she was kissing him lovingly and gracefully, her breasts dipping down over him like silvery peonies. Charlotte had never mentioned this to anyone, keeping the picture to herself, a secret snapshot protected from outside sniggerings.

Once again we have a description of breasts — symbolic, in this particular story, and metonyms for women at various life stages:

  1. The half-apple breasts of youth
  2. The sagging wheels of Camembert of nursing motherhood
  3. The full, womanly, pleasure-giving breasts of sexual womanhood

Charlotte is the character who experiences the Self-revelation in this story, and it’s interesting that Simpson kept her quiet. She needed to be quiet to be afforded time to reflect. Unlike Tina, Charlotte realises that growing into a woman’s body is not a disgusting, terrifying thing at all. She’s had the benefit of witnessing this other image, which counteracts Tina’s commentary of this scene before them, a few years later.

The Self-revelation in “Up at a Villa” is a great example of how a character can have an epiphany/understanding after connecting two experiences, even if the previous experience happened some time ago. In this case, the Self-revelation phase will probably comprise a flashback or dream.


High up on the swimming-pool terrace the little family, frozen together for a photographic instant, watched their flight open-mouthed, like the ghosts of summers past; or, indeed, of summers yet to come.

The final sentence links present time with future time, pulling that whole thread of the story together (the young are simultaneously old — that is why they fear it).

Why does Helen Simpson frame the little family statically, in a ‘photographic instant’? When the young couples run like deer, they’re not only running from the scene of the ‘crime’ — they’re running from the inevitability of youth.

So long as they’re running, by comparison that other, ‘gross’ family looks static, and behind that ‘frame’, completely separate. For this moment of running away, they can pretend they’ll never be older themselves.

Header painting: Henrietta Rae – The Sirens 1903

The Happy Hypocrite by Max Beerbohm

Mask of Apollo

The Happy Hypocrite” is a short story by Max Beerbohm first published 1897. Basically, in this misogynistic tale, a man who won’t take no for an answer pursues a much younger girl anyway. Her goodness improves his countenance for real, and he is rewarded by owning her forever after.

Lest you think “The Happy Hypocrite” is a story of its time, there have been many popular stories since in which a boy or a man who won’t take no for an answer pursues the girl anyway, and is rewarded with her at the end after undergoing an improving character arc.

Apparently, this sotry is a more humorous version of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, but since I haven’t read that this isn’t part of my response.

The Role Of Masks In “The Happy Hypocrite”

I’ve previously written about the role of masks in storytelling.

When reading this short story, I’m first reminded of a voice excerpt on the Paris Wells album Various Small Fires. A man says

My heart and brain concur.
I love but one more than you, the one I thought you were.

(You’ll find it at the end of “No Hard Feelings”.) In issue #383 of The Brag, Paris Wells explains this is poetry by a guy they met in a Jazz club in New York — “this old lovely Jewish guy in a wheelchair.” His name is Marvin Wildstein and she just had to put him in the album. (Here’s another of his poems.) Marvin died of pneumonia early April 2015.

Is it possible to be in love with someone who doesn’t exist? Atheists would say yes. Perhaps we are all in love with someone who doesn’t exist, insofar as it’s never possible to know another completely.

Is it possible to change completely? To what extent can being in love change us? Do we become more like our romantic partners?

Masks in stories tend to throw up these kinds of questions.

Storyworld of “The Happy Hypocrite”

“The Happy Hypocrite” takes a real world setting (specific parts of London) and marries it with Greek mythology to create a story which feels out of place in the Golden Argosy collection. It starts off feeling like a period drama, then feels like Greek mythology, then the happily married elopes into the woods and it’s a European fairytale. (Which woods? By 1900 Britain was 5% woods, which is half what there is now.) A sixteen-year-old girl falls in love with a bad man in a mask, and because she is so lovely, he becomes lovely too, atones for his sins in order to remain with her and they both live happily ever after, even after his mask comes off.

So although the story starts off with a premise I find really interesting, it’s quite a Victorian didactic tale with the moral that if you do good then you are good. This story is also a close relative of ‘female maturity formula‘, in which a female character is used to show a man how he can be a better person. Perhaps she is more closely related to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.

Note the binary between the debauched city (London) and the utopia of nature. Before his turn, George hates the country. He even hates flowers. But Jenny teaches him all about flowers, he learns to love the country and nature and he is turned into a better man. In other words, city = bad, country = good.



The story opens with a clear viewpoint homodiegetic narrator and a story starring the evocatively named Lord George Hell. His shortcoming (great naughtiness) is clearly listed straight away. He is ‘greedy, destructive and disobedient’. We don’t yet know who he is ‘disobedient’ to. This may also be his greatest strength.

He has a fondness for clothes, suggesting he dresses above his station, even though he is titled.

He is brutally honest. The narrator doesn’t see that as a good thing, since his honestly itself is evil.

I’m getting the vibe of a camp character, sort of the Gordon Ramsay of the street, passing judgment for fun and to deliberately insult. The narrator compares him to Caligula (a tyrannical Roman Emperor) with a dash of Sir John Falstaff (a loveable rogue invented by Shakespeare).

In fact, the entire first section is a character study of this man, highlighting his faults. How does the author make this guy interesting? An all bad character is pretty boring. But Lord George Hell has become a legendary figure, used as a Wee Willy Winky character by nurses when cajoling their young charges. The man has a few unusual traits — he doesn’t smoke when we might expect him to. And we don’t know why he’s allowed to get away with card sharking. ‘We can only wonder that he was tolerated at all.’ The fact that he hasn’t been completely ostricised from society already makes us wonder what he did to break the camel’s back.


It seems Lord George Hell is only interested in being king pin of his own local environs, hoodwinking others, getting rich as a result. But when he fells madly in love at first sight, with a girl less than half his age, we learn that he did desire true love after all.

This particular desire of his is not questioned in the text. It is taken as a given that a man who is good deserves a lovely sixteen-year-old girl for his bride, and that this is the pinnacle of ‘done well for himself’.

Yet this story is still recommended by some for a wonderful depiction of the beauty of grace. As you can probably tell, that’s not what I got out of it.


A mystery functions as opposition. A mystery is set up right away and the narrator is going to withhold this information for suspense: Why did Lord George Hell suddenly disappear? This applies to the wrapper story.

La Gambogi is a fairytale witch archetype who becomes George’s nemesis when she threatens to take off his mask.

The binary between ‘good girl’ and ‘evil woman’ is stark in this story, with the character of spurned lover La Gambogi compared to a large cat at the end, which is one way women are often dehumanised, whether women are fighting, talking or having sex.


When George falls in love at first sight he beseeches the object of his affection but because he is an asshole he won’t take no for an answer.


There is a physical tousle in the utopian world created by the lovers (in full limerance, having been together for only one month).


When the mask comes off and it matches his actual face, George realises that by being good he has become so.


This 35 year old man has atoned for all past sins, had a complete turn-around and will now live in the forest, humbly, with a 16 year old girl who is plenty young enough to bear many of his children.

Chicken Little, Cassandra and Modern Horror

chicken little little golden book

Chicken Little (mostly America) is also known as Chicken Licken or Henny Penny (mostly Britain).

I hope the current generation of children don’t grow up thinking the 2005 animated movie version of Chicken Little has much to do with earlier versions of this story. The movie log line sounds okay on paper:

“After ruining his reputation with the town, a courageous chicken must come to the rescue of his fellow citizens when aliens start an invasion”

But tonally, this Disney production is loud, bright and frenetic. The natural ‘opponent’ of the acorn has been turned into the more interesting and formidable aliens in order to sustain a movie length story. Against that tone, the frenzy of Chicken Little himself is absorbed rather than emphasised. Further than that I can’t comment, as I find the movie entirely unwatchable.

Then again, am I really advocating for the continued teaching of the moral of Chicken Little? What does this fable teach us, really?

It’s funny — we all grow up on a diet of stories about the lone voice of reason trying to warn everyone about some imminent calamity, from Noah to Jor-El, and instinctively side with this hero and despite the ignorant ovine masses who jeer him or try to silence him. And yet whenever such a person appears in real life, our reflex is to join in with the mobs of scoffers and call them alarmists, hysterics, conspiracy freaks, and doomsayers.

— Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing

Which stories is Kreider talking about? My first thought is Chicken Little, but in fact it doesn’t come under that umbrella because Chicken Little turns out to be wrong about the sky falling. We are urged to laugh at him, though I maintain his punishment is a little harsh.


Chicken Little is a cumulative tale — you know, the kind you get sick of reading to your kid unless the wordplay is excellent. The ending is tragic, depending on how kind you feel towards foxes. In any cases, we’re not really encouraged to side with the birds, so when they die it kind of feels like just desserts for them.


Chicken Little is all of the birds. The shortcoming of the birds is that they jump to conclusions, easily become hysterical and don’t question facts.

This is the sort of fable which leads to the mistaken idea that birds are ‘bird brained’, whereas in fact birds have more recently been shown to be far more intelligent than humans have traditionally given them credit for. (Keep an eye out for documentaries about the kea, an especially intelligent New Zealand parrot.)


The birds want to tell the King the sky is falling, assuming he’ll do something about it. (Another message here: Our politicians and leaders are basically gods and can be relied upon to fix natural disasters.)


The first opponent is nature. But a more ‘human’ opponent soon comes along — the hungry fox.


The birds have no counter plan at this point, which is their exact downfall. The fox concocts a plan on the spot, or has perhaps been trailing them, working out what the real deal is, Rosie’s Walk style. He lies to the birds that he knows where the king is, and leads them back to his den for a family dinner.


Since this fable really only occurs in picture books for young readers I have never seen the actual blood fest illustrated on the page. If you’ve ever seen (or heard) a fox in a chicken coop, it’s really quite disturbing. In my Ladybird easy reader version we see a den of satisfied foxes grinning with complicity at ‘the camera’.


The characters have no revelation but the reader should, in the form of a moral:

  • Don’t jump to conclusions
  • Don’t believe everything you hear
  • Question facts


The birds are dead and the foxes are satiated.

But sometimes there is a happier ending. One of the birds gets away and manages to alert the King. The birds are saved. (The foxes go hungry.)

The Disney film went with a happy ending. Wherever there is a happy ending to this category of folk tale, the moral morphs into ‘be brave’, with not much said about the earlier, ahem, misunderstanding.



Sticking with the tragic ending for a minute,  in these stories Chicken Little — as an archetype — is the flip side of Greek goddess Cassandra.

Cassandra was a princess of Troy. For whatever reason, could see into the future. Problem is, no one believed her. This weighed heavily on her because she knew that Troy was going to be destroyed by Greeks during the Trojan War. She saw the big wooden horse and knew that bringing it inside the gates would be the end of them. The phrase “Beware of Danaos (Greeks) bearing gifts” is attributed to Cassandra. In the end, she learns to shut her mouth. Or rather, she’s abducted as a concubine then murdered. Cassandra’s is not a happy tale.

Chicken Little does not have any psychic gifts, nor intellectual ones, nor life experience. He runs around telling all his birdy friends the sky is falling when it actually isn’t.

The tragic version of Chicken Little discourages its audience from reporting what they believe to be true. What happens when we teach little kids to keep quiet? I propose that Chicken Little’s main issue is not that he told everyone the sky is falling; it’s that no one told him he was wrong. 

At the other end of the spectrum, we end up with Cassandras, who are sometimes right about the doom and gloom they see, but know from having read Chicken Little as a wee one to shut the hell up about it or risk end up looking like a fool (at best).

And if the world is run by Cassandras, we end up with a world run like this:

Before Bernie Madoff got caught, before Hurricane Katrina and Fukushima devastated cities, and before ISIS formed, there was an expert for each one of those events warning people in power that it would happen. What did those powerful people do? Absolutely nothing. These experts are called ‘Cassandras’ in hindsight, because as global security expert Richard A. Clarke explains in a previous Big Think video: “Cassandra in Greek mythology was a woman cursed by the gods. The curse was that she could accurately see the future. It doesn’t sound so bad until you realize the second part of the curse, which was no one would ever believe her. And because she could see the future and no one was paying attention to her, she went mad.” So how can we graduate from sheepishly identifying Cassandras in hindsight, to recognizing and acting on their real predictions before the impending chaos hits? It’s tough because everyone and their uncle is trying to get in on the prediction game. Who can you trust?

Big Think

It’s called the “Cassandra Predicament” or the “Cassandra Dilemma”. In literary terms, it’s a metaphor. The Cassandra metaphor is applied by some psychologists to individuals who experience physical and emotional suffering as a result of distressing personal perceptions, and who are disbelieved when they attempt to share the cause of their suffering with others, in which case it’s “Cassandra Syndrome”.

Cassandra Metaphor As Horror Trope

gone movie poster
In a classic example of the Cassandra horror trope, even the police don’t believe Jill (Amanda Seyfried) was ever abducted by a crazed serial killer. They believe she is the crazy one.

Emily Asher-Perrin describes the problem with this trope at Tor.com:

Some of [the lessons of horror stories] are cautionary, which explains all the teenaged kids making bad spring break choices. But some of these lessons are simply mirror images of terrors we know all too well—like a girl telling someone that she isn’t comfortable, and being told in response that she’s the worst kind of downer for daring to admit it.

I hate this trope more than anything, perhaps because of its ubiquity. Or perhaps because it asks the most basic question of all, one that our society struggles to answer even to this day:

Why didn’t you believe her?

She told you she heard something, or saw it out of the corner of her eye. She told you she was scared, that she didn’t want to go into that boarded up house or creaky old cabin, that she didn’t want to keep making out, that she didn’t like this corner of the woods. She told you she was scared and you laughed at her. She told you she had a bad feeling and you thought it was adorable. She whined at you and she tugged at your sleeve and sometimes she even begged you to leave it, to just go home deal with it all later. You thought that made her a wet blanket, or worse, a tease. As though that somehow mattered more than the sanctity of her life. Or yours.

But she was right. And you were wrong. And if you had just listened….

Every woman knows what this feels like, they know what it means. They know how hard the world works not to believe them. And this particular narrative device always feels like a pointed jab, a great big spotlight on that precise problem.

The Peril of Being Disbelieved and the Intuition of Women

What does this hackneyed, sexist horror trope have to do with Chicken Little?

These fables each exist at the extreme end of a continuum. Let’s call it the Continuum of Disbelief. While Chicken Little sees danger where there is none, and everyone believes him without questioning, Sarah Connor sees horror within the setting of The Terminator, is correct, and no one believes her. She ends up in a psychiatric hospital.

They do have something in common: The stars of the story meet a sorry end, or in ‘happy’ versions they win a pyrrhic victory.

But if we, as individuals, don’t voice our concerns, the Cassandras keep quiet. There is only one useful takeaway moral in Chicken Little fables, and it is not ‘Keep quiet when the world alarms you’. It is ‘Question what you see, feel and hear’.

Pygmalion In Modern Stories And Literature

J.C. Leyendecker- the toy maker

Pygmalion was a sculptor who falls in love with an ivory statue he had carved. The most famous story about him is the narrative poem Metamorphoses by Ovid. (Pygmalion can be found in book ten.) In this poem Aphrodite turns the statue into a real woman for him. In some versions they have a son, and also a daughter together.

In Ovid’s narrative, Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory. According to Ovid, after seeing the Propoetides he was “not interested in women”, but his statue was so fair and realistic that he fell in love with it.

In time, Aphrodite’s festival day came, and Pygmalion made offerings at the altar of Aphrodite. There, too scared to admit his desire, he quietly wished for a bride who would be “the living likeness of my ivory girl”. When he returned home, he kissed his ivory statue, and found that its lips felt warm. He kissed it again, and found that the ivory had lost its hardness. Aphrodite had granted Pygmalion’s wish.

Pygmalion married the ivory sculpture changed to a woman under Aphrodite’s blessing. In Ovid’s narrative, they had a daughter, Paphos, from whom the city’s name is derived.

In some versions Paphos was a son, and they also had a daughter, Metharme.

Basically, Pygmalion/Daedalus is a story in which a man gives birth to a woman. You might say, it’s a type of wish fulfilment for men: The wish to create someone, especially someone in his own image. The creator might be deformed, and wishes he could have the advantage of beauty, like a beautiful woman. (Because women are the main objects of The Gaze.) Or maybe he’ll change a small thing about her to make her his version of ideal. Or it might be about controlling her fertility. 

Edward Burne Jones painting of Pygmalion
Pygmalion and The Image by Edward Burne Jones

The Pygmalion/Daedalus story has been told many times, and continues to be told. There is inherent sexism in this story, of course, or at least there is in many modern renditions, unless the whole point of the retelling is to point out the sexism. The modern narrative is that a man makes a woman into who she is. Ironically, the men do not find fulfilment for having helped a woman fulfil her potential. His control of her generally leads to his downfall rather than to exultation.

As feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey once put it, the woman stands as a “signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command, by imposing on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as a bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”


Some examples in stories for adults:

  • The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare, about controlling pregnant women’s bodies among other things
  • Million Dollar Baby, the 2004 film starring Clint Eastwood, who turns trailer park kid Hilary Swank into a prize fighter. The film poster would have you believe that this is a film about a female protagonist, but the real hero — the one who changes over the course of the story — is Clint Eastwood.
  • Annie Hall, the 1977 Woody Allen movie. Annie actually resists Alvy’s attempts to turn her into something in his own image, subverting the story. (Woody Allen is a feminist? Who knew!)
  • The Phantom of the Opera, who falls in love with an obscure chorus singer Christine, and privately tutors her while terrorizing the rest of the opera house and demanding Christine be given lead roles
  • Titanic, becauseJack helps Rose speak out and assert her independence from her suffocating family and fiance.
  • The Birth-Mark by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in which a man is repulsed by the birth-mark on his wife’s cheek, so dreams he cuts it out with a knife while she’s asleep, comparing himself to Pygmalion. The man is a natural scientist, so in real life makes a concoction and has her drink it.
  • George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. A professor of phonetics wagers that he will be able to transform the cockney speaking Covent Garden flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a woman as poised and well-spoken as a duchess.
  • Pretty Woman, in which creator and created are united at the end (and is probably why audiences loved it so much)
  • John Cheever’s short story “Metamorphoses” translates legends from Ovid into Westchester settings.

Stories in which a man helps a woman have a sexual awakening might also be considered part of the Pygmalion wish-fulfilment fantasy of men. This can be traced at least as far back as fairytales:

The disadvantage — or, if you prefer it, the advantage — of being a princess is that you are essentially passive. You just sit there on your throne, or on a nearby rock, while the suitors and the dragons fight it out. In an extreme form of this passivity you are literally asleep or in a trance like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White. This particular archetype is one that has always appealed to men, and it turns up again and again in their fiction. The trance takes different forms: sometimes it is physical virginity, sometimes it is a sort of psychic virginity. Often the princess is frigid, or sexually unawakened like Lady Chatterley; sometimes she is intellectually or politically awakened, like Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda or like the Princess Casamassima in Henry James’s novel of the same name, which is in  many ways, and not always successfully, very much like a fairy tale.

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The subversive power of children’s literature

This Pygmalion trope is not limited in stories for and about men, written by men; take the Fifty Shades of Grey series by E.L. James. The success of this series shows that the trope has worked its way into a widespread female fantasy of the 2010s.

Edouard Joseph Dantan (1848-1897), French
Edouard Joseph Dantan (1848-1897), French


The Pygmalion effect, or Rosenthal effect, is the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. A corollary of the Pygmalion effect is the golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance; both effects are forms of self-fulfilling prophecy.


What about Pygmalion stories as they apply to children’s literature? Well, there are many, many children’s stories about talking toys. Toys have a place in certain types of wish fulfilment stories: The wish to have a friend and also the wish to never die, especially when toys are mended, or when they can be re-wound, in the case of a wind-up toy. (The modern version would be having its batteries replaced, if this kind of story were more common today.)

The wish for one’s toys to come to life as friends is a common wish-fulfilment fantasy in children’s literature, and I propose that this is the childhood analogue of the adult Pygmalion fantasy.


Maria Nikolajeva makes no distinction between the role of talking animals and the role of talking toys in children’s literature. Whatever can be said of animals can also be said of toys. Though the function is the same, Margaret Blount does make a distinction between who tends to tell which kind of story to whom:

Human is what the child wants his toy or pet to be, the substitute friend or brother, like himself but exempt from all the dreary rules attached to childhood and growing up, the eternal confidant or companion, steadfast and unchangeable. Stories about pets that speak are as old as Dick Whittington or the talking horse Falada, but those about toys that ‘come to life’ are most often of the kind that fathers and mothers tell to children in order, as C.S. Lewis mentions in Three Ways of Writing For Children, to give one particular child what it wants. They do not date back much before the Victorian Age and the time when childhood began to be considered in isolation and regarded in sentimental or romantic fashion.

Animal Land


  • Miniature people (who often have the bodies of mice), supernatural creatures and animated objects have similar roles throughout literature.
  • Imaginary friends can go into the same category.
  • Stories with talking toys therefore are quite often ‘sentimental’ and ‘romantic’.
  • Talking animals are never killed — it would be too much like murder. Especially when toys are in the shape of animals, the author might as well be writing about an animal. That’s how much readers can empathise.
  • There is usually no eating and drinking when it comes to talking toys and pets — it’s a bit uncomfortable that humans eat creatures without conscience.
  • Characters who are toys often have delightful predictability, and sometimes mechanical behaviour which can be used to humorous effect (especially if they wind up at the back).
  • Some toys talk only under certain conditions.
  • Sometimes only their owner can hear them.
  • Toys are made to be loved, yet what they seem to do is endure hardship with patience and steadfastness e.g. The Little Wooden Horse, who is sneered at for being simply and plainly made. (The Ugly Duckling story but in toy form.) Toys make good aesthetes since they don’t even need to eat. (See above)
  • Mark Haddon has said that ‘Ultimately, there is no narrative without death‘. It seems as difficult to write about toys without saying what happened to them as it is to write about humans without  mentioning death. (The town dump in The Mouse and His Child, ‘a big grim box’ for Leotard and the Ark etc.



It is not until 1846 that you get a story like The Little (Brave) Tin Soldier; and in nurseries, the gradual additions of strange creatures to the more conventional ‘human’ families — toy animals, the Golliwog and that indispensable piece of nursery furniture, the enduring Teddy Bear. Adults made the toys talk, and they became a child’s companions on magic adventures.


Though the product is a boy, this is still a Pygmalion story.


The ideology of toy stories is often that one must take care of one’s things, as if they were almost sentient. I wonder if the throwaway culture of today has contributed to the demise of this kind of morality — it’s no longer necessary to treat your teddy bear with such great respect as an object — when my daughter’s bear went missing it was very sad but I was able to buy an identical one for two dollars at the second hand shop. In fact, the idea that a child should be so attached to their things is almost the antithetical morality of today’s stories. (Including in my own, The Artifacts.)

The children in Sarah Trimmer’s (History Of) The Robins (1786) were taught to feed the birds and be kind to them, as Tom had to be kind to the caddis worms. Talking toys too can give a story a certain moral ring; one must be kind to objects or possessions and the screw is turned when they prove to  be human after all. Bad brother breaks his sister’s doll with the excuse that Toys Can’t Feel. Night comes and the toys come to life and of course they can feel and sometimes take a nasty revenge in a place where they are powerful and children are not (Rupert has this experience several times and once with Freudian additions in Mary Tourtel’s Rupert and The Wooden Soldier, 1928. The style is long lasting.) In fact, Toyland becomes a recognisable place for fantasy happenings and sometimes retribution from F. Anstey to Enid Blyton.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land



Only Toys book cover

[This story] has a toys’ vengeance theme and more interesting experiences of doll’s house living, which turns out to be as awkward as Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb found it. Torquil and Irene, transported to the place where toys are real, find their own doll’s house a very inconvenient place to be — the food is inedible, the drink not what it seems, the fire won’t burn and the kettle won’t boil. The dolls have a stiff hierarchy as wooden and artificial as themselves. But few toys stories exist without  human interaction. Toys have owners as pets do and in Toyland toy and owner meet on equal terms. All animals speak, whether ‘real’, carved or stuffed; it is a place that everyone recognises, with wooden trees and animals out of the Ark, always dreamlike, an after dark playground where nothing goes really wrong — one always wakes in time.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

F Anstey


Racketty Packetty House

You may remember in The Little Princess that Sara Crewe has a doll house and she imagines the dolls talk while she’s not there. This lesser-known book for younger children stars those talking dolls, and is told by a fairy narrator. The introduction reads:

Now this is the story about the doll family I liked and the doll family I didn’t. When you read it you are to remember something I am going to tell you: If you think dolls never do anything you don’t see them do, you are very much mistaken. When people are not looking at them they can do anything they choose. They can dance and sing and play on the piano and have all sorts of fun. But they can only move about and talk when people turn their backs and are not looking. If anyone looks, they just stop. Fairies know this and of course Fairies visit in all the dolls’ houses where the dolls are agreeable. They will not associate, though, with dolls who are not nice. They never call or leave their cards at a dolls’ house where the dolls are proud or bad-tempered. They are very particular. If you are conceited or ill-tempered yourself, you will never know a fairy as long as  you live.

Queen Crosspatch

I do wonder how many young readers wondered why they weren’t visited by these fairies even though they were on their best behaviour.


The Magic City cover

Quite the most interesting and unusual Toyland was written about by, as might be expected, E. Nesbit in The Magic City — the only book, as distinct from her short stories, where she deals with talking toys. Nesbit children usually do not need toys they are too busy having imaginative adventures by other means. Like F. Antsey’s Torquil, they might remark that toys are ‘a babyish pursuit…except when they are exact models of things’. The Magic City, or rather series of cities, is a place that can be entered only by those who have helped to build it with books for bricks; and it is populated by creatures and people that have been put there, or have managed to escape, out of the books from which it is made. H.R. Millar’s drawings give the city that slabby, Babylonian/Aztec look of any structure made of books, ornaments, chessmen and dominoes. The story has that odd, logical but numinous quality shared by The Enchanted Castle, when the children who enter the city find that it is greater inside than out and has a history, prophecies and laws that seem to be older than its creators. That the dragon outside is a toy with a winding key does not make it any less fearsome; but it is still dreamlike — and one never dies in a dream. The lions in the desert that the children encounter are Noah’s Ark lions, but fierce and predatory. These lions are killed, and when dead are found to have turned to wood once more — a dreamlike easing of otherwise intolerable consequences.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land





All of these stories lead up to Pixar’s Toy Story, released 1995 to huge critical acclaim and huge box office earnings.



Christopher Robin enters a world (The Hundred Acre Wood) where his toys can talk and he never has to go back, unlike Paddington/Mary Plain/the Pushmipullyu. Winnie the Pooh was modelled on the toy bear of illustrator Shepherd’s son Graham. The actual bear is quite a bit thinner, though.

A bear character is never inconsiderable; no Teddy bear takes second place in the toy hierarchy. He is always King, the first in a child’s affection. As Pooh progresses his rotundity increases, his legs and arms shorten, his back becomes humped (a rare characteristic only seen in vintage bears and never on modern ones), his head pokes forward as if in deep thought. He is the first famous fictional bear and all the others owe him something; his size, his fondness for honey, ponderous naïveté and occasional flashes of brilliance have left their mark on other lesser bears, real or toy; and there is no question about Pooh’s reality. His adventures in the Forest and Hundred Acre Wood spring as naturally from character as the happenings in any real life.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

Pooh bear plush toy

Toys in popular children’s books are great for people in the modern era to make money — not by selling the stories themselves but by making cheap stuffed toys in China and selling those. Winnie-the-Pooh continues to be the most popular teddy bear from literature, helped along by Disney, who actually made a pretty terrible movie out of the character with none of A.A. Milne’s original wit.

Disney, 2011
Disney, 2011

Rupert Bear (1920s and 1930s)

The Adventures Of Rupert And The Little Lost Bear

Take a fairy tale from Grimm, one of the more exciting but less grotesque — say, ‘The Golden Goose’ or ‘The Frog Bride‘ or ‘Rumpelstiltskin‘. Add to this some of the glamour of The Arabian Nights, some of the magic and mysterious qualities of the King Arthur cycle and some of its knightly heroism. Add a homely taste of folk tale. Blend these ingredients very smoothly. Dilute the effect by a contemporary setting or framework. Express the result in drawings of beautiful, accurate detail, with no cartoon facetiousness, and then ration the dose to a picture a day, ensuring that addicts will always demand more — and you have the Rupert Bear adventures of the twenties and thirties, and some of the reasons why he enjoyed, and still enjoys, such success and popularity.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

  • The Rupert Bear entry at Wikipedia tells you the full history.
  • There is no real reason for this boy to be a boy rather than a human, which makes him an ancestor of modern characters such as Olivia the pig.
  • But when he was created it was pretty normal for a child hero to be an animal (a la Pip, Squeak and Wilfrid, the Bruin Boys, Bobby Bear, Teddy Tail).
  • The character was created by talented illustrator Mary Tourtel.
  • Tourtel tended to give Rupert stories too much plot rather than too little. The stories became simplified over the years.
  • The first story was called Little Lost Bear, and was probably inspired by Goldilocks and Red Riding Hood combined. It’s a home-away-home story in which Rupert goes out into the forest, meets a variety of characters then returns home to his mother. (Woods are for getting lost in, in children’s literature.)
  • Tourtel was also inspired by The Arabian Nights tales, and Perrault and Dickens.
  • Tourtel’s collaborator was her husband, who was an editor. After he died — in 1931 — her stories went downhill, possibly because he acted as a restraining force. (Tourtel was first and foremost an artist, storyteller second. The pictures stopped being self-explanatory, requiring lengthy explanations to help the plot along. Also her drawing skills went downhill, due to failing eyesight.)
  • The subsequent Rupert Bear stories are also of this type. “Rupert’s fate was so monotonously terrible that one wondered why he went out at all, and conversely, why his parents never bothered to worry.” — Margaret Blount
  • Rupert Bear stories continued to be written by different authors, as were Sexton Blake, Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High and The Hardy Boys.
  • Rupert grew younger and was brought more up to date over the decades. He also passed from animal-boy to boy-in-a-bear’s-body. But he still retains a sort of magical power that can only come from being part human part animal.
  • The setting is a place called Nutwood with no towns or cities. It’s populated by other animals and people in about equal numbers. It’s a bit like Narnia in that regard.
  • Animal characters tend to be good; people (witches, magicians etc.) tend to be bad. (Apart from wolves and the occasional dragon, of course, who are also bad.)

Pooh has several direct descendants, but the closest is probably Albert, created by  Alison Jezard from 1968 onwards.

Albert cover

Illustrator Margaret Gordon even makes him look like Winnie.

TEDDY ROBINSON (1955 onwards)

dear teddy robinson cover

Teddy Robinson’s life is limited to that of his owner Deborah, and he lives in the real world of ‘I said to Teddy and he said to me’, or of Christopher Robin’s Binker, ‘I have to do it for him.’ He moves when Deborah moves and stays where Deborah puts him. His adventures are those of a toy who has thoughts and makes remarks, but is quite unable to move or initiate action. To Deborah he is a child, bear and friend. […] In Deborah’s absence, Teddy Robinson can talk to blackbird, snail, tortoise and kitten; and to Deborah he makes short, simple, acquiescent remarks. Each loves the other wholeheartedly and their lives are totally shared — in many ways Teddy Robinson is the most ‘natural’ bear of all. His personality reflects Deborah’s in the ageless way of well-loved toys, and his adventures are those of getting lose, left behind (on a sandcastle) and forgotten (in a tool shed), placed for sale in a shop window, thrown into a tree by ‘a boy who ran round the garden shooting at people who weren’t there until they were all dead, bouncing on a piano while it is being thumpingly played at a party, playing the games that one insists on one’s toys playing too, being turned into pirate or Indian, or sent to the toys’ hospital.

Margaret Blount

Some of these adventures may remind you of more contemporary books. For example, Shirley Hughes uses the ‘gets lost and winds up for sale’ in her story Dogger.



There are still plenty of talking animals in picture books — take Ian Falconer’s Olivia series, for instance. But modern stories don’t tend to be talking pets and toys — they are just animals that talk, no more questions asked. There are plenty of good reasons for depicting people as animals in picture books, especially.

Also common in modern children’s literature are imaginary friends, or if not friends, creatures who stick around for a short time then depart.


After the 2016 American Election, with my feeds full of Trump news interspersed with the odd grim images from my earthquake wracked hometown, I was glad to come across a positive article for a change — a biographical piece on a woman called Margaret Hamilton: The pioneering software engineer who coded humans to the moon. I’m going to spend the next four years reading about women and people of colour, I had already decided.

So I read the article and soon came across two full paragraphs not on Margaret herself but Professor Lorenz, the man behind the woman:

Professor Lorenz was one of the people who most inspired Hamilton throughout her life. He taught her a lot about software and gave her freedom to experiment with new ways of doing things.

Hamilton said: “Lorenz loved working with his computer and he would share with me his computer-related experiences and what he had learned from them, for which I was most grateful. Known as a genius by his colleagues, his humility stood out and he was one of the nicest people I have ever known.”

This seems fine, right? I’m sure Professor Lorenz was indeed a great mentor.

That said, when was the last time you read a biographical piece about a man with the achievements of Margaret Hamilton, wherein not the man himself is called a ‘genius’, but rather the wo/man behind the man.

Margaret is rendered passive here. Professor Lorenz gave her freedom.

This is something that regularly happens to women. Her agency is diminished. She is instead the product of a man.

I’m aware that much of that is quoted from Margaret herself, who sounds like she may be prone to typically feminine self-deprecation.

Mind that kind of writing which minimises a woman’s achievements while elevating the men in her periphery.

Another example is Hypatia.

Hypatia (c.355–415) was the first woman known to have taught mathematics. Her father Theon was a famous mathematician in Alexandria who wrote commentaries on Euclid’s Elements and works by Ptolemy. Theon taught his daughter math and astronomy, then sent her to Athens to study the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. Father and daughter collaborated on several commentaries, but Hypatia also wrote commentaries of her own and lectured on math, astronomy, and philosophy. Sadly, she died at the hands of a mob of Christian zealots.

Mental Floss

In sum, when writing about high-achieving women, be careful not to elevate the men around her in a way that actually overshadows the woman you’re aiming to highlight, even if you’ve found some self-deprecating quotes from the woman herself.

When reading about high-achieving women, keep an eye out for this almost invisible marginalisation and see it for what it is: a very long history of sexism, in which we cannot accept high-achieving women without attributing their successes to that of men.

Related to the Pygmalion principle of writing female biographies is the tendency to talk about the men and children in their lives more than talking about the woman herself:

Emilie Du Chatelet (1706–1749) was born in Paris in a home that entertained several scientists and mathematicians. Although her mother thought her interest in math was unladylike, her father was supportive. Chatalet initially employed her math skills to gamble, which financed the purchase of math books and lab equipment.

In 1725 she married an army officer, the Marquis Florent-Claude du Chatalet, and the couple eventually had three children. Her husband traveled frequently, an arrangement that provided ample time for her to study mathematics and write scientific articles (it also apparently gave her time to have an affair with Voltaire). From 1745 until her death, Chatalet worked on a translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia. She added her own commentaries, including valuable clarification of the principles in the original work.

Mental Floss

Sarah La Polla, literary agent (update: now freelance editor), points out on her blog that she sees this trope often in submissions:

Regardless of what happens in November, I hope Hillary Clinton’s candidacy will help make a trope I hate finally go awayand that is the Female Character Falling Ass Backwards Into Power. My literal examples are all TV-related:

  • Veep, Male president resigns, female VP rises
  • Commander In Chief, Male president dies, female VP rises
  • Battlestar Gallactica, Everyone in the line of succession dies, female Sec. of Education becomes president (and is amazing, of course, but still)

Seriously, did no one think a woman could just, ya know, get elected? All by herself. Can’t we have even a fictional world where the people chose a woman voluntarily and not because a male option was dead? (But I digress…)

In not-so-literal examples, some trends I’ve noticed in submissions are:

  • Female athlete who learned everything from her dad, who may or may not be the coach of her team too.
  • Battle of the Sexes science fairs or class president elections.
  • Propelled into the plot because of a missing father.
  • Propelled into the plot because her father is the doctor/detective/scientist directly involved in the story.

In each of these stories, the girl is in the shadow of a more powerful man, and then — and only then — can she find her inner strength. It takes an “anything you can do, I can do better” approach to feminism that feels outdated.

Header image: J.C. Leyendecker- the toy maker