The Home Girls by Olga Masters

William Frederick Yeames - For the Poor

“The Home Girls” is a short story by Australian writer Olga Masters (1919 – 1986), and the first story of Masters’ 1982 collection, also called The Home Girls. I’m interested in Olga Masters partly because her fiction wasn’t published until she was in her 50s. Then, when she was published, she won a bunch of awards. The Home Girls won a National Book Council Award in 1983.

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A Glossary of Genie and Djinn Words

Abu Al-Jann — Father of the Jann.

Aforetime — God said he created the djinn ‘aforetime’. Stories of the djinn predate the Quran. The concept of the djinn is ancient.

Aladdin — Disney’s Aladdin is a presentation of a stereotypical genie as we view them in the West. Aladd in is only loosely based on the folklore of the djinn. Like “Ali Baba”, “Aladdin” is a French-Syrian tale dating from the start of the 1700s. “Aladdin” is such a popular and widespread story that it forms its own tale type (ATU 561). There’s a simpler version known as a Magic Ring tale (ATU 560). In these tables a poor young man with the help of a magic object builds a palace more beautiful than the king’s. He marries a princess. But he loses his palace and princess due to a second magic object. He recovers everything lost.

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The Fairytale Importance of the Literary Salon and Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy

“Grand Salon” Hôtel du Collectioneur, Paris 1925. Arch. Emile Jaques Ruhlmann

First, what is a salon?

1. A RECEPTION ROOM IN A LARGE HOUSE

The common feature of a salon: It is set up for social interaction.

Madeleine Lemaire - Le Gouter au Salon du Peintre 1891
Madeleine Lemaire – Le Gouter au Salon du Peintre, 1891.

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.)

Fiep Westendorp, Dutch illustrator (1916-2004)
Fiep Westendorp, Dutch illustrator (1916-2004)

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

Sean Carroll and Joe Henrich in conversation

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 Rapunzel and 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. 

Britannica

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The Symbolism of Water Wells

Henry John Yeend King - By the Well

In folklore and fairytale, round, enclosed structures — towers and wells — are closely associated with lunar figures which stand in for cyclic time ie. dragons, serpents, werewolves or other related creatures who abduct maidens. And also, by the way, dishevelled hair and shaggy furs worn as garments are the other symbol set which go hand-in-hand with round, enclosed structures. These symbols are associated with moon phases, menstrual cycles and, more broadly, renewal through death.

In a very deep well you can see a star even on the brightest day.

IVAN’S CHILDHOOD | ANDREI TARKOVSKY (1962)
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The Golden Age Of Brownies

Palmer Cox (1840 - 1924) for The Brownie Year Book 1895

A brownie is a fairy from English and Scottish folklore.

They live in houses (so are a type of hobgoblin — ‘hob’ referring to the cooking equipment with hot plates).

They are industrious.

Like German poltergeists, they sometimes mess up the joint. This is done out of mischief rather than malice.

However, the Yorkshire boggarts and bogles of Scotland are malicious, no different in their behaviour from poltergeists.

If you hear soimething at night, it might be a brownie cleaning your house. (I guess mischievous brownies like to mess things up because they like cleaning so much.)

They are offended by gifts left out for them, except for bread and milk/cream, which they love. Leave it by the hearth. (The hearth is considered a liminal space in a house, where fairies can get in.) The tradition of leaving cookies and milk out for Santa (a sanctified chimney demon) is clearly descended from brownie folklore.

They’re similar to the Scandinavian tomte in that they keep watch over the farmstead at night. (Though I’m not sure if brownies are thought to peer in through windows and keep watch over children.)

A brownie cleaning the house (I’m guessing at night). Artwork by Arthur Rackham. Brooms themselves are thought to have magical powers.

A puck is similar to a brownie. In old Middle English the word ‘puck’ meant ‘demon’. Fast forward to Elizabethan times (1558 – 1603) and pucks are more fairy than demon, indisguishable from hobgoblins/brownies. You may know the character of a ‘puck’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595/96) by William Shakespeare. Written near the end of the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare’s Puck is of course an Elizabethan archetype, mischievous rather than ‘demonic’.

Brownies endured in UK folklore as mischievous creatures with childlike qualities. Naturally, when the phenemonon of ‘literature for children’ emerged, brownies were perfect as characters in children’s books. The Golden Age of Brownies began in the late 1800s. A guy called Palmer Cox led the charge.

Palmer Cox (1840 – 1924) was a Canadian illustrator and author. He wrote a series of funny rhyme called The Brownies. These are thought to be some of the first comic books. The cartoons were published in several books, such as The Brownies and Their Book (1887). One of the earliest cameras purchased by consumers was called the box brownie, apparently inspired by Palmer Cox’s stories.

How big are brownies? In The Brownies and Prince Florimel, Palmer Cox said they were the size of twelve-year-olds, but in other stories he shrinks them right down. Basically, fairies can be as big or as small as a story requires. Take a fairytale such as Snow White and Rose Red: The dwarf in that story seems to increase and decrease in size as fits the scene. Brownies are no different, though I had never thought they were as big as twelve-year-olds. (I saw a large group of twelve-year-olds last week — some are the size of adults, others the size of children.)

Palmer Cox encoded another significant change to popular conception of brownies: Beforehand they had been considered solitary creatures. But Cox’s brownies hang out in large mobs, more like today’s Minions. In the wild, solitary creatures are the most formidable: You don’t want to meet a male grizzly, for instance. By giving these creatures lots of friends he gave them a party vibe, and now they were properly bowdlerised. Despite being called Brownies, these are folkloric brownies in name only. They are now basically pixies.

Another influential person in the Golden Age Of Brownies was Julia Horatia Ewing. In 1870 she wrote a short story called “The Brownies”. (She was only 23 at the time.) Although brownie stories were common in oral folklore, this is one of the first written works to feature brownies.

As far as their gendering goes, big mobs of Cox brownies are kind of like Smurfs: We are to use the masculine pronoun, while also considering them ‘gender-free’. (A linguist’s commentary on that.) Cox describes the brownies as age-less and super beautiful — virtues more traditionally associated with idealised femininity.

Their loveliness of face and form was beyond all description.  Just try to think of the prettiest girl you ever saw.  Well, even the plainest of these fairies were ever so much prettier.

The Brownies and Prince Florimel

Instead of a patriarchal Papa Smurf, Cox’s brownies are ruled by Queen Titania.

ENID BLYTON

I grew up reading Enid Blyton’s stories, which were already old by the time I got to them. Influenced by Cox’s version of Brownies, Blyton’s ‘brownies’ are basically pixies. These creatures make for excellent main characters in stories because audiences love tricksters.

C.S. LEWIS

When creating his Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis utilised pretty much every folkloric character he’d ever encountered and smooshed them together in a bizarre creation which somehow, for some reason, worked. Lewis’s brownies are more similar to the folkloric kind — hobgoblins who stay in the house and do your housework.

THE GUIDES (BROWNIES)

Settling upon a name for the younger (formally Girl) Guides has proven problematic. At first the 7-10 year olds were called ‘Rosebuds’. Lord Baden Powell listened to the girls who complained that they did not like this name. He decided to rename the younger girls Brownies after Julia Horatia Ewing’s short story. Younger Guides were called Brownies until 1996. Now, Guides of all ages are simply called Guides.

It makes sense that Baden Powell renamed 20th century guides after folkloric brownies. Like archetypal little-mothers, brownies are homebound, industrious and always cleaning up after people. It may have felt somewhat progressive to name girls after brownies, because brownies are also mischievous and enjoy a degree of self-determination. Reading the story today, I wonder if “The Brownies” was ever enjoyed by children. Like the vast majority of Victorian writers for children, Ewing wasn’t really interested in entertaining children. She was teaching them to be helpful and submissive.

An illustration of (Girl Guide) Brownies by South London illustrator Margaret Tarrant, 1888-1959. This is one of a series of works commissioned for the Girl Guide and Brownies. Brownies used to wear these blue tunics.

Although we no longer call the younger guides ‘Brownies’, the phrase ‘Brownie points’ remains in common English usage. This originally referred to the merit badges (or six points) earned by Brownies for carrying out good deeds.

Brownie Scout Handbook, Girl Scouts of the United States of America, illustrated by Ruth Wood, 1954
Brownie Scout Handbook, Girl Scouts of the United States of America, illustrated by Ruth Wood, 1954

BROWNIES IN CONTEMPORARY CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

I don’t know for sure what prompted the Guides’ shift away from the word ‘brownie’ in the mid 1990s, but I feel it is indicative of a shift in the associations we have with the word. Few kids grow up with stories about folkloric (pixie-like) brownies anymore. Do an Internet search and the brownie is more commonly associated with a chocolate-y baked good. Even J.K. Rowling, who has certainly done her bit to keep old folkloric characters alive for younger generations of readers, has ensured brownies go the way of baked goods:

The brownie is a flat, baked square or bar sliced from a type of dense chocolate cake, which is, in texture, like a cross between a cake and a cookie, and is made by the Hogwarts kitchen House-elves .

The Harry Potter Wiki

As you can see, Rowling does utilise the folklore of the brownie; she simply does not call them ‘brownies’. She calls them house-elves, and she also rounds out their characters.

Aside from the baked goods, there’s also the ‘drop a brownie in your pants’ association, as well as offensive ones. This may have contributed to the demise of the children’s book brownie, whose Golden Age has long since gone, but who remains with us, mostly under different guises. A bestselling exception is The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Toni diTerlizzi, with standout brownie creature called Thimbletack.

Palmer Cox Our Brownies ABC Adventures; 1898
Palmer Cox Our Brownies ABC Adventures; 1898

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Header: Palmer Cox (1840 – 1924) for The Brownie Year Book 1895

The Home Hearth in Art and Storytelling

Frank Holl - Faces iFrank Holl - Faces in the Fire 1863-67n the Fire 1863-67

In his book Home, Witold Rybczynski describes a typical European house:

Heating was primitive. Houses in the sixteenth century had a fireplace or cookstove only in the main room, and no heating in the rest of the house. In winter, this room with its heavy masonry walls and stone floor was extremely cold. Voluminous clothing, such as Jerome wore [in the famous etching [St Jerome In His Study] was not a requisite of fashion but a thermal necessity, and the old scholar’s hunched posture was an indication not only of piety but also of chilliness.

Home, Witold Rybczynski

This is the 1514 etching he’s talking about:

Albrecht Durer, St. Jerome in His Study (1514)
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Old Mother Frost

Old Mother Frost” is a German fairy tale also known as “Mother Holle“, “Mother Hulda” and “Frau Holle“. Across cultures, other weather conditions are used: Lady Snowstorm, Old Mother Blizzard in Russia. The Grimm Brothers collected this story for their book Children’s and Household Tales (1812). The narrative seems to comprise jigsaw pieces from Cinderella (for the wicked stepsister and mother), The Frog Princess (for the well/spring) and religious dualistic thinking. It’s clearly a story for and by women and girls. The central image of the spindle suggests it was told among spinsters. This one also has a didactic function: Good girls do housework; bad girls slack off.

New Year postcard by Schmucker
This New Year postcard by Schmucker reminds me of imagery from Mother Holle.
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The Grim Reaper In Art And Storytelling

The Man with the Scythe exhibited 1896 Henry Herbert La Thangue 1859-1929
The Man with the Scythe exhibited 1896 Henry Herbert La Thangue 1859-1929

SLEEP AS A MINI DEATH

Adventures In Sleep from All In The Mind podcast

Scientists still don’t know why we need to sleep. Contrast that lack of full understanding with nutrition science, in which we fully understand why animals need to eat, how nutrition enters the blood stream, how it is metabolised and so on. Sleep remains far more mysterious.

But we do know more and more about sleep, partly thanks to people with disordered sleeping. Some people sleepwalk, drive cars and cook meals in their sleep. Because of this, we have come to understand that parts of the brain can be asleep while other parts remain fully awake. This also applies to the sleep deprived, who won’t notice that part of their brain is asleep while they are technically still ‘awake’, but they will know they’re not on top of their game.

The inverse of sleepwalking is sleep paralysis — a terrifying experience. This is where your brain is awake, but your body remains asleep. To make matters worse, this experience often goes hand in hand with the nightmarish visions in which dark figures seem to be creeping into the room.

In many ways, symbolically and experientially, sleep can feel like a form of death. Also, a common time to die is in the early hours, when metabolism plummets. People near death are at their most vulnerable at about four in the morning.

Visions of death near the bed are therefore commonly found in stories and art.

Death Listened to the Nightingale – The Nightingale, Edmund Dulac
illustration by the 19th century legend of illustration, Gustave Doré
illustration by the 19th century legend of illustration, Gustave Doré
Death Dealing Arrows (1903) - John Everett Millais
Death Dealing Arrows (1903) – John Everett Millais
Birkin, Charles (ed.) - The Haunted Dancers (1967) (LennyS-aMouse) grim reaper
Birkin, Charles (ed.) – The Haunted Dancers (1967) (LennyS-aMouse)

La Thangue was well-known for his realist rustic scenes. Here, uncharacteristically, he introduces a symbolic dimension to his work. A mother discovers that her young daughter has died, presumably after an illness. At the same moment, a man arrives at the gate carrying a scythe, the traditional symbol of death, the ‘grim reaper’.This rather melodramatic treatment can be compared with the more grimly realistic picture of child death Hushed, by Frank Holl, also shown in this room.

Gallery label at The Tate, July 2007
Ingrid von Dardel (Swedish, daughter of painter Nils von Dardel, 1922-1962), Figure med hjärta (Character with heart), 1948, gouache on paper, 44,5 x 36,5 cm. Special collection
Eugene Grasset December calendar

The modern Grim Reaper is more often a man, but the Black Death was seen as an old woman walking the land, with a broom and a rake. Where she raked, some survived. Where she used the broom, everybody died. Old women are more common than old men, which probably accounts for much of the opprobrium directed at old women.

The Pest passing the Mountains 1901 Theodor Kittelsen
The Pest passing the Mountains 1901 Theodor Kittelsen
Sidney H. Sime, The Shadow on the House. Illustration from Pall Mall Magazine; 1906
Sidney H. Sime, The Shadow on the House. Illustration from Pall Mall Magazine; 1906
Charles Robinson
Charles Robinson
Death on a Pale Horse, Gustave Dore, 1865
Death on a Pale Horse, Gustave Dore, 1865

Whenever folklore contains a scary old woman, later artists will always, always subvert the idea of witch-like power by depicting her as an alluring young woman.

Death and the Gravedigger by Carlos Schwabe (1866–1926)

Skeletons As Death

Not surprising, of course, that skeletons are associated with death.

The Symbolic Inverse of the Grim Reaper

In contemporary lore, death more often looks like a man. The painting below is a useful portrayal of symbolic opposites. Death is a malnourished male figure holding a scythe, whereas the inverse of death is a pregnant woman decorated in flowers and pears. The painter Ivar Arosenius did this painting three years before his own death. Perhaps he was contemplating his own demise.

Death & Life (1905) by Ivar Arosenius (1878 – 1909)
Illustration of Prince Prospero confronting the Red Death by Arthur Rackham, 1935
Illustration of Prince Prospero confronting the Red Death by Arthur Rackham, 1935

DEATH AND THE ANCIENT GREEKS

You don’t see much of Hades, God of the Underworld, in Greek art because the Ancient Greeks were so scared of him! They didn’t even want to say his name, so he goes by many other names.

Hades ruled the Underworld and was therefore most often associated with death and feared by men, but he was not Death itself — it is Thanatos, son of Nyx and Erebus, who is the actual personification of death, although Euripides’ play “Alkestis” states fairly clearly that Thanatos and Hades were one and the same deity, and gives an interesting description of Hades as being dark-cloaked and winged; moreover, Hades was also referred to as Hesperos Theos (“god of death & darkness”).

Wikipedia

STORIES WHICH PERSONIFY DEATH

Header illustration: René Bull (1872-1942) 1913 illustration for Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

The Elves and the Shoemaker

The Elves and the Shoemaker Little Golden Book

Read a modern re-telling of “The Elves and the Shoemaker” and you might conclude it’s a tale in praise of gratitude: Gratitude is noble. If someone does you a kind turn, be nice in return.

But that was not the takeaway message for earlier audiences of this tale, told to people with a very different, supernatural worldview. Back when people sort-of-really did believe in fairies, “The Elves and the Shoemaker” tales offered a warning: Do not, whatever you do, make clothes for fairies. DO NOT DABBLE IN ELF-CRAFT. DO NOT ENCOURAGE THEM INTO YOUR HOME.

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