• The Victorian 'Woman Question'.

    One of the most contentious issues of the C19th was what the Victorians termed the ‘Woman Question’, an ongoing debate about the role and nature of women in society that was stimulated by historical changes that occurred throughout the Victorian period. Although women in England were not granted the right to vote until 1918, women’s suffrage was an active movement from the 1840s, involving suffragettes demonstrating and petitioning for women’s political, legal and domestic equality. This climate of political reform, concomitant to the changes in women’s lifestyle and labour brought about by the Industrial Revolution, was reflected in the literature produced throughout the Victorian period. By forcing lower and lower-middle class women to perform grueling labour in factories and textile mills, opposed to their traditional feminine locus of ‘home & hearth’, the Industrial Revolution challenged conventional ideas about women and their role in society.

    Texts throughout the C19th addressed the hardships faced by women forced into manual labour, as well as demonstrating the contrasting opinions of those who celebrated women’s movement beyond the position of housewife, and those who believed a woman’s limitations lay within the domestic sphere. The issues concerning the Victorian ‘Woman Question’ are thematically prevalent and discursively represented in fairy tales of the nineteenth century. In contrast to the traditionally patriarchal folktales and Kuntsmarchen of Europe and Germany, the literary fairy tales produced by both male and female British writers demonstrate an emerging feminist stance. Throughout the texts included in this collection there is an abundance of female protagonists who exhibit emotional, mental and moral strength and self-reliance, and an emphasis is often placed on equality between male and female characters. Often, a mutual dependency is realised between the sexes, and instead of being genetically preordained masculine and feminine qualities are exhibited equally and as the situation requires.

    It is worth mentioning that this is a predominantly male-authored collection; what female writers there are, notably Christina Rossetti, are widely documented as presenting ‘feminist’ utopian schema in their work, concerned with women’s self-discovery and self-determination. Yet a critique on Victorian inequality between the sexes, and a celebration of a burgeoning revolution in women’s rights, is apparent throughout a disparate selection of these works. A new perspective emerges as writers transform traditionally patriarchal fairy tale motifs and narratives to represent and encourage a change in political climate and Victorian society as a whole. Women are represented as successful in efforts beyond the domestic sphere, often surpassing male characters in mental agility and physical endurance.

  • Little Red Riding Hood

    Charles Perrault's revision of an oral folk-tale into his stabilized literary fairy tale, first published in 1697, incorporates the motif of a young girl learning to navigate and contend with the world around her, in particular a predatory member of the opposite sex. A prevalent theme in numerous recorded folk-tales since the classical myth of Pausanias' Euthymus and Lykas, the story of a child threatened, eaten or raped by a figure associated with a wolf had maintained a persistent role in the social consciousness before Perrault moulded it into 'the literary standard-bearer for good Christian upbringing' it was recognised as in the eighteenth century (Jack Zipes, Why Fairy Tales Stick, (Oxon: Routledge, 2006) p.35). The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century folk-tale Perrault most probably derived his version from, 'The Story of Grandmother', is a distinctly adult tale constituting a catalogue of taboos; the wolf kills the grandmother, saving her flesh and blood, which in due course he encourages the Little Red Riding Hood to eat and drink. Having coerced her into cannibalism, he then forces her to strip naked and join him in bed, during which the grandmother's cat labels the child a 'slut'. The heroine's distinctive garb itself stands as a symbol for precocious sexuality, as red is the enduring colour of danger, and sexual violence; Bruno Bettelheim has argued that the red cap given to the child by her grandmother in the Grimms' 'Little Red Cap' represents the 'premature transfer of sexual attractiveness' (Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, (New York: Random House, 1977) p.173) which ensures her downfall, her young age and innocence rendering her unable to handle the responsibility of the 'Cap' and what it signifies.

    The fairy tale was prolifically reproduced throughout the nineteenth century, its motifs of sexual repression and implicit warning against trusting strangers particularly appealing to the Victorian sensibility. It was considered, as Catherine Orenstein states, ‘the quintessential moral primer’ (Catherine Orenstein, Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale, (New York: Basic Books, 2002) p.4). Yet like all fairy tales Little Red Riding Hood evolved: the sexual element was censored if not removed entirely, and towards the beginning of the twentieth century the moral of the tale was more aligned with ‘stranger danger’ than the perils of sexual proclivity in pubescent girls. This narrative charts the arc of this evolution, and in doing so highlights how the Victorians sanitized and stabilized the story into the form we recognise and propagate today.

  • Christianity and Moral Didacticism

    Pre-capitalist folk-tales, with their adult themes and amoral impulses, were strictly edited and censored for public consumption during the Victorian period. Regarded by clerical powers as being inspired by the devil, and considered by the bourgeoisie to be counter-Enlightenment, literary fairy tales published throughout the nineteenth century were generally considerably diluted versions of these oral traditions. For example, although the Grimm’s first collection of tales was faithful to their original orally disseminated form, following editions were tampered with to an increasing degree, with any sexual content removed or revised and often with the embellishment of Christian themes and motifs. The majority of Victorian fairy tales, despite their magical and fantastical elements, were motivated by religious zeal and moral didacticism. Intended to promote and glorify the attitudes of the emerging middle-class, these fairy tales strove to sermonize as well as entertain, and adhered to morally aspirational social ideals. Folk-tales in their original state, considered amoral in their disregard for the prevailing social order, particularly virtues such as modesty, discipline and industry, were likely to incite ‘rebellious’ behaviour in children and the oppressed lower-class alike.

    The nineteenth century fairy tale was designed to advise against and repress these ‘animal’ instincts. Practically all of the fairy tales published in the mid-nineteenth century make allegorical statements about the benefit of Christian morality opposed to the materialism and avarice which were considered deplorable sins, and rife in English society. The conflict here is apparent; the middle-class writers and readers who produced and consumed these tales were empowered by the Industrial Revolution, and yet the vices which they condemned were distinctly capitalist. These themes also completely alienated the lower-class, and in the fairy tales included in this narrative the bourgeois influence on narrative perspective is glaringly obvious. The fairy tale no longer belonged to the people, as the oral folk-tale had, but was now an instrument to promote the moral virtues of the Christian Church and the interests of the ruling class.

  • The Changeling