The Symbolism of Broomsticks

Henry Meynell Rheam - A Maid Sweeping

Broomsticks are useful storytelling symbols that serve double duty — they are a symbol of female oppression (tied to the house and the drudgery of housework) but also, by leap of imagination, turn into a vehicle by which to escape. Broomsticks may keep a woman housebound, but also afford the imaginative freedom to fly.

This is how broomsticks became associated with witches. There is another theory about why broomsticks became connected to witchcraft. (It’s not safe for work, possible paywall.)

For those of us with vacuum cleaners, it’s hard to imagine the amount of time once tied to brooms, brushes and dustpans. The task of keeping dirt and dust from the home was constant — and necessary — because without constant attention the home would attract rodents. At certain times in history, rodents in the house meant death.

For this reason, in Ancient times brooms in a temple were considered sacred. You had to have clean hands to use one.

There are plenty of superstitions concerning brooms, because the act of sweeping is inherently metaphorical.

One version of ‘correct’ sweeping looked like this: Start by the door and sweep inwards. If you sweep your dust outwards towards the front door you will sweep your luck away. (I’ve been doing it wrong my whole life.)

Brooms have had both indoor and outdoor uses, all resulting in hard work.

Weeding the Pavement 1882 George Henry Boughton 1833-1905 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01539
Weeding the Pavement 1882 George Henry Boughton 1833-1905

Brooms have phallic associations (and doesn’t everything?). According to one old superstition, if a single woman stepped over a broom lying on the floor, she would become pregnant out of wedlock. The degree to which people imagine stuffing things inside women to control us will forever baffle me.

It wasn’t just women who have been symbolically tied to brooms. Victorian era British art often depicts boys alongside brooms, as a shorthand symbol of poverty. These are working class boys, some are perhaps chimney sweeps.

The boy below is sitting outside in the dark. Darkness and brooms don’t go luckily together. In Europe it considered unlucky to sweep your home after dark.

Augustus Edwin Mulready - A London Jo - the end of the day 1884
Augustus Edwin Mulready – A London Jo – the end of the day 1884
Augustus Edwin Mulready - The Little Spies 1886
Augustus Edwin Mulready – The Little Spies 1886

The broom does another double duty — in the pleasant and calming scene depicted below, the broom seems to simply add balance to the composition, and also act as another feature of the home, alongside gardens and pets.

Charles Edward Wilson - Feeding the Pets ca. 1890
Charles Edward Wilson – Feeding the Pets ca. 1890

Here’s a similar bucolic composition from the same painter:

Charles Edward Wilson - Louisa - The Rabbit ca. 1920
Charles Edward Wilson – Louisa – The Rabbit ca. 1920
George Bernard O'Neill - The Surprise
George Bernard O’Neill – The Surprise
William Henry Lippincott - Farm Interior - Breton Children Feeding Rabbits
William Henry Lippincott – Farm Interior – Breton Children Feeding Rabbits
William Hahn - Forbidden to go Sleigh Riding
William Hahn – Forbidden to go Sleigh Riding

The outdoors equivalent of the hygge broom is the garden rake:

Charles James Lewis - Mother and Child
Charles James Lewis – Mother and Child
 
George Sheridan Knowles - Summer's Fun
George Sheridan Knowles – Summer’s Fun
John Burr - Waking Dreams 1869
John Burr – Waking Dreams 1869

In the painting below we may wonder at the inclusion of the broom. We see a pretty girl admiring herself in the mirror — what’s with the broom edging into the scene?

It all becomes clear when we learn the title of the painting: Borrowed Plumes. A plume is a long, soft feather or arrangement of feathers used by a bird for display or worn by a person for ornament, or anything that spreads itself out as a bird plumes its feathers.

So these are not her clothes. This is a little brown bird dressing up as a fancier bird. The broom nearby tells us she’ll never be free of her mundane duties though, significantly, the broom isn’t positioned to appear in the mirror image.

George Goodwin Kilburne - Borrowed Plumes
George Goodwin Kilburne – Borrowed Plumes

Below, children dress up for play. A broom is a mandatory accoutrement when dressing as Cinderella.

Charles Hunt - Cinderella
Charles Hunt – Cinderella
 
BROOMSTICK WEDDINGS

Broomstick weddings were common term during the 18th and 19th century England and referred to weddings not regarded legal.

In America slaves who lived on plantations were often refused the right to marry. Naturally they fell in love and yearned to commit themselves to the love of their life. When two lovers jumped over a broom together they were considered married. This tradition is related to the metaphorical act of ‘sweeping away’ — and fresh beginnings.

Others claim the stick on the ground represented a division between their old home and the new. Lovers thereby jump into their new home together, this time as a couple.

 
The Old Plantation, attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, South Carolina, probably 1785–1790
The Old Plantation, attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, South Carolina, probably 1785–1790

Supernatural Creatures

Brooms can be used to get rid of unpleasant things from the house — other than just dirt and dust. According to Chinese folklore, you can get rid of a vampire (jiangshi) by sweeping it out with a broom.

The Cider Duck by Joan Woodberry

The Cider Duck (1969) is an Australian picture book written by Joan Woodberry and illustrated by Molly Stephens.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR AND ILLUSTRATOR

Joan Woodberry (1921-2010) was an influential, widely-travelled Tasmanian feminist whose efforts made women’s lives palpably better in Tasmania.

Finding information on Molly Stephens is a little more difficult partly because she was also known as Molly Pascall, her birth name. The Cider Duck is perhaps the only published book she illustrated. It seems she was a fine artist and teacher the rest of the time. She may have liked cats? If it’s the same Molly Stephens, she left some of her estate to The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Like Joan, Molly was a teacher. She was born in 1920 and educated in England, as an artist, then after the war spent a while in Egypt. She then emigrated to Australia. She lived in Tasmania until her death in 1970, first in Smithton, then in Hobart. She specialised in portraits. Continue reading “The Cider Duck by Joan Woodberry”

Enid Blyton, Food and Ginger Beer

I’m no Enid Blyton apologist when it comes to word echo and other matters of style, but Enid Blyton never wrote the phrase ‘lashings of ginger beer’. This phrase was used in a popular parody called Five Go Mad In Dorset, and is now often mistakenly attributed to the author herself.

Enid Blyton ginger beer
an advertisement for commercially produced ginger ale from 1894

 

Enid Blyton did use the word ‘lashings’, and there was a lot of ginger beer. I also remember lemonade, but what was it the children were actually drinking? Well, it wasn’t 7UP. The lemonade consumed by the Famous Five would have been sugar and lemon juice mixed in cold water, not the very high sugar carbonated variety. That’s simple enough to make. What about the ginger beer? Was it alcoholic? Were the children getting drunk, imagining those pixies, goblins and mushroom rings with lands at the tops of trees and chairs that grew wings?

In Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, the Swallows pretend that they’re drinking ‘grog’ instead of ginger beer. (This is all part of their pirate fantasy.)

Enid Blyton food drink schweppe's advertisement
Do you call it fizzy drink, soda or pop? In 1894 it was called ‘table water’.

To make traditionally brewed, homemade ginger beer, you will also need some lemons. Lemons plus ginger root and sugar and cream of tartar and brewer’s yeast. You can find a recipe for it here. The fizziness comes from the fermentation process, and required about four days to make — these are cooking skills which have been lost today. But our guts coevolved with the bacteria found in fermented foods and we should probably to go back to eating more of them to achieve well-balanced guts. That fermented stuff would not have been as sweet as today’s beverages by far, despite requiring quite a bit of sugar — that’s because bacteria eat the sugars in order to populate. (Hence, traditionally made sauerkraut is so sour — the bacteria has eaten any fructose out of it.)

Ginger Beer Brew

There probably was a bit of alcohol in it if left for weeks, but if left for less than a week the alcohol is negligible. Basically, we don’t really know if Joe, Bessie and Fanny were getting pissed when they took a picnic into the woods, because we didn’t know how long it had been brewed for.

Edith Nesbit was also a fan of ginger beer. It makes me wince when Robert uses it to wash sand out of Lamb’s eyes, but remember it wasn’t the super fizzy stuff you’re probably thinking of:

The thoughtful Robert had brought one solid brown bottle of ginger-beer with him, relying on a thirst that had never yet failed him. This had to be uncorked hurriedly — it was the only wet thing within reach, and it was necessary to wash the sand out of the Lamb’s eyes somehow. Of course the ginger hurt horribly, and he howled more than ever. And, amid his anguish of kicking, the bottle was upset and the beautiful ginger-beer frothed out into the sand and was lost for ever.

Five Children and It

Australians were busy making their own ginger fizzy drinks, lest you think it was limited to the British Isles:

Ginger ale advertisement from 1880
from 1880

Food In The Work Of Enid Blyton

Blyton’s most prolific period of writing took place during the war era when food rationing meant that the majority of people in England were eating less than they had throughout the whole of the twentieth century. Following the outbreak of WW2, food rationing began in January 1940 and continued until 1954. The average weekly rations consisted of one shilling and sixpence worth of meat, eight ounces of sugar, four ounces of butter or fat, one egg, one ounce of cheese, with jam and honey also heavily rationed. Fresh vegetables were in short supply, unless grown in the home vegetable garden.

While the Famous Five were consuming fat red radishes, their readers were being fed banana sandwiches made with parsnips and banana essence or carrot tart glazed with lemon jelly to make a pudding, and while the Secret Seven breakfasted off well-buttered home-baked bread with chunky marmalade, their devotees never even saw fruit like oranges and bananas and had to make do with the infamous Woolton Pie, a combination of carrots, parsnips, turnips, and potatoes, covered with white sauce and pastry.

— Barker

[…] Blyton can hardly be portraying the period realistically. […] the original appeal of Blyton’s food fantasies was intensified by the reader’s knowledge that their own family teatime was never likely to be as scrumptious as the feast Blyton served for them. And, for contemporary readers, the appeal lies in the huge quantities and the exoticism of the homemade foods in her narratives which, because of healthy-eating discourses and the lack of time generally available in contemporary households to produce such meals, are usually denied them. From this perspective it can be seen that a large proportion of the readers’ enjoyment is vicarious, a form of voyeurism, a chance to experience gluttony second-hand.

— Carolyn Daniels, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature

 

Enid Blyton and Froebel Training

Enid Blyton would have had all the skills of a good housekeeper, even if she preferred to write instead. As a student teacher Blyton received Froebel training, which encourages housekeeping, cooking, gardening and farming as a means of expression for young children.

Blyton’s ideal was one in which the earth-mother or a substitute earth mother provides food (preferably home-grown) for her cubs.

— Barker

Mothers in Enid Blyton’s books tend to be plump, good at home-making and cheerful. While the children were out having their adventures, we can guess at what the mothers were doing: They were in the kitchen, fermenting fizzy beverages and making fruit cakes.

The History And Influence Of Cinderella

“Cinderella” is a classic rags-to-riches tale and can be found, written straight or subverted, throughout the history of literature. It’s worth pointing out that Cinderella wasn’t truly from ‘rags’. She was related to middle class people, so was at least middle class herself. No one wants to hear about actual starvation, rickets and whatnot at bedtime. This is a middle-class-to-aristocrat tale.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CINDERELLA

Cinderella Is From China

Although we think of Cinderella as a quintessential European fairytale, it originates from China. If you’ve ever read the novel Chinese Cinderella, this renders the title a little moot!

Chinese Cinderella
Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Ma is a memoir, but uses the term ‘Cinderella’ because the English speaking audience would be familiar. The reader knows the archetype. We immediately presume her step-mother is wicked. (Of course we’re only getting one side of the story.)

The Chinese title is Ye Xian (English speakers can approximate the sound by saying ‘Ye Shen’). The plot originated in the 5th century, which makes it about 1500 years old. This is a tale from the end of the ancient world, and marks the very beginning of when stories began to be written down. (Known also as the early modern era.) In Ye Xian Cinderella has a golden fish in a pond. She likes to go and talk to this fish, imagining it’s her dead mother. Her tears mingle with the water in the pond. She lives with a wicked stepmother who hates her, and as an act of cruelty the mother kills the beloved fish/spirit mother, cooks it and serves it up to Cinderella who is made to eat it. An old travelling man happens by and says, “Do not fear, the bones of the fish have great power.” He tells her to take them and use them at great need. The rest of the story is as we know it today in the West. Cinderella ends up asking for help from the bones (rather than a fairy godmother). The dress she wears to the ball is golden like fish scales. It’s no real surprise to learn that Cinderella comes from China when you consider the degree to which (small) feet have traditionally been fetishised on the Chinese continent. The Chinese story does continue past Cinderella’s marriage to the handsome prince. Unlike European stories, Chinese fairytales have tended to continue past the happily ever after = marriage. In the Chinese Cinderella, there are problems in the marriage because the king is jealous of those magical fish bones. He ends up throwing the bones away so he can have his wife to himself. He is coercively controlling, in other words. Not a happy ending at all. (At least, not for women.)

How did Ye Xian make it to Europe?

The story of Cinderella makes its way from China across to Europe along the silk roads, together with the silks, spices and diseases. Marco Polo was famously one of the first Europeans to penetrate China. He returned to Venice in 1290. We can see the beginnings of the earliest Cinderella stories in Europe from the early 1300s.

The tale was written down by Giambatissa Basile in Italy in the 1500s. There is now no mention of the golden slipper. The Chinese small foot fetish thing wasn’t a thing in Italy you see, so it didn’t survive. That’s not to say that footwear wasn’t associated with women’s sexuality. Basile’s heroine does wear very high heels to keep her skirts from being muddied. Basile wrote down his tales in Neapolitan, a very rare dialect. His versions weren’t translated into other languages until the 19th century.

Perhaps because Neapolitan was a rare dialect, Charles Perrault’s French version of Cinderella is more famous. No one knows how French storytellers were able to get their hands on the Neapolitan tale. There must have been someone who could both read Neapolitan and speak French, but that storyteller has been lost in history. (Perhaps because she was a woman.)

Perrault’s tongue-in-cheek attitude makes it clear that he himself was sophisticated enough to find the story of Cinderella a little silly, but many popular versions of the story simply disregard Perrault’s tone and focus on the cheerful optimism of the events themselves. – Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

To read Perrault’s version online, see Project Gutenberg.

In Romania there’s a version called Fairy White. The girl who is mistreated only has a cow (called Fairy White). The stepmother serves the cow to Cinderella character. So the Romanians remember — from the original Chinese tale — that the girl has to cannibalise her fairy spirit.

In Italy the story gets sexy. Oftentimes the violence and cruelty in Cinderella tales was more akin to horror comedy such as we see coming mainly out of America today, notably in TV series like Dexter and Santa Clarita Diet.

The Grimm Brothers’ version was transcribed from the oral retelling delivered by a very old, very poor woman. It was written down October 1810. Theirs is a far more vivid, dark and wicked tale than the version by Perrault — is this because the woman who told it was herself living in dire circumstances?  The Grimm title translates to “Ash Fool” (Aschenputtel). In this version the girl has golden slippers. The Grimms oral source was not the French tale but came from China, bypassing Europe altogether. This shows that there are different streams and tracks for the migration of fairytales – following the various silk roads.

The Shoes

This tale is also sometimes known as The Little Glass Slipper.

The glass slipper in the French retelling makes the story so memorable. Glass was always extremely rare, fragile and expensive. It really came from Venice, just as the story did. Venice was the hub of the world’s trade and also of storytelling. Stories came from places like Persia via Venice and disseminated elsewhere. The glass makes the girl perfect and rare.

The shoes have an element of cruelty/fetishism to them. This is especially true in the Grimm version. It’s all about how tiny the shoe is. When the prince comes and tries to put the step sisters’ feet into it the feet won’t fit. The mother tells the first step sister to chop off her toes. So she does. The doves that had helped Cinderella say ‘Too wit too woo, there’s blood in the shoe!” ruining it, for both step sisters, who have both chopped their own toes off.

Glass may have been a mistranslation of ‘fur’ from French.

Why Does The Tale Of Cinderella Survive?

This is a story of justice being served. A girl who is mistreated and has nothing — a journey towards being loved and having a happy home of her own. This is a universal longing.

Cinderella paints some of the worst passions that can enter into the human breast, and of which little children should if possible be totally ignorant; such as envy, jealousy, a dislike to mothers-in-law and half-sisters, vanity, a love of dress, etc., etc. — a lady who wrote to Mrs Trimmer’s Guardian of Education in the 18th century

In the real world, underdogs don’t often win, for the simple reason that those who are powerful use their power to control things. But the magical elements in fairy tales allow events to take place that couldn’t easily happen in real life. […] the magic in fairy tales isn’t capricious. In fact, the laws of physics or logic are suspended only to get the ‘good’ characters into trouble or to help them get out of trouble, or both. Pumpkins become coaches only when underdogs like Cinderella are in enough trouble to need a suspension of reality; the magic allows her to triumph, and then it stops. – The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

Continue reading “The History And Influence Of Cinderella”