Sunday, 17 July 2011

Fairytale Feature: Why You Don't Want a Godmother! (but you do want the book)

The most fitting poem I could find to start this month’s feature is from Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. It’s too long to put up here without it taking over the entire post, so instead you can read it here, and my challenge to you is try to get through it without laughing madly. I bet you can’t.
Originally, Cinderella was going to be my inaugural feature. I was planning to compare it with either the Disney film of the same name, the Drew Barrymore film Ever After, or both. I didn’t purely because I went to see Tangled that first month, and so talked about Rapunzel instead. I think Cinderella and I would both have lost out had I reviewed it then, as I would have missed the chance to read Godmother: A Cinderella Story, and Cinderella would have lost the opportunity to be enriched by it. After reading Mermaid and Godmother, Carolyn Turgeon is going on the list of authors whose every word I must immediately devour. You’ve been warned – I loved this book.

The first recorded version of Cinderella came from China sometime between 1850 and 1860; the next version, published in 1697 was Charles Perrault’s. The Grimm Brothers’ got to the party quite late. Their version was originally called Ash Girl or Aschenputtel  in the original German, and does not feature a fairy godmother at all, but rather birds who drop down dresses and other such wish –fulfilling items from the hazel tree which Cinderella has planted on her mother’s grave.
During my (continuing) studies of women, feminism, and fairytales, the vast majority of the academic texts I have read make heavy reference to the figure of the fairy godmother. I find this really interesting, considering that the godmother doesn’t appear in the original tale, and of the three tales I’ve discussed Perrault’s is the only one in which such a character appears. I wondered why Perrault would add a magical woman into the mix when in other versions, animals suffice for all the purposes she fulfils. Is it purely because she is human? Having not read Perrault’s version, I’m going purely on the Godmother from the Disney film (probably not the best idea I’ve ever had...), who surely is there to provide the maternal element which is so lacking from the step-mother. The film provides Cinderella with many nurturing friends of the animal persuasion, but at the end of the day, none of them can give her a hug and tell her not to worry like the godmother can. Part of the Godmother’s magic is in her ability ‘make everything better’ for Cinderella, in much the way that a child goes to its’ parents for reassurance, relying on them to fix things. It is the failure to fulfil this maternal and nurturing role that tortures Lil throughout Godmother.
Coming to it from this angle (which the more I think about it, seems to make sense), makes for very interesting comparisons with Godmother.
As I’ve mentioned, I liked Godmother. In fact, it was absolutely so amazing that the word amazing does not suffice, and I cannot find a word that’s strong enough to express the intensity of the feelings that I have towards this book. The story was absolutely riveting – involving, unbelievably vivid, full of bright colours, beautiful dresses, and stunningly lifelike characters. Writing about it is frustrating me, because my vocabulary is NOT BIG ENOUGH TO EXPRESS THE AWESOME! I need word a day toilet paper or something...
The godmother of the title is Lil, banished from the world of faerie for failing to get Cinderella to the ball. Living in New York City and spending her days sorting second hand books at the used bookstore she works in (dream job – dreamy sigh), the novel follows her story, through flashbacks, as she attempts to atone for her failing of  Cinderella, by sending another beautiful girl, Veronica, to the ball. Lil’s story is poignantly told through interspersing chapters taking place in New York with chapters occurring in the faerie world, leading up to the tragedy which resulted in her exile, the reason for which is revealed in stages, so you do not realise the full awfulness until the very end of the book, but Godmother definitely plays on and develops the potential darkness contained in the original. The idea of concepts of femininity kept returning to me as I was thinking about this feature, as Turgeon plays around with them a lot. Although when we meet Lil she is obviously an old woman, during the part of the story involving Cinderella, she is young and stunning. Turgeon is then able to use this to explore ideas of sisterhood and rivalry; what if the Godmother fell in love with the prince? What if Cinderella wasn’t the perfect, beautiful, happy princess she’s always portrayed as being? What is she was, as the novel states, broken? Do only undamaged people get to have happy ever afters?
It was Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber which got me interested in the idea of reworkings of fairytales in general, and specifically from a feminist point of view, and I really enjoy the way that Carolyn Turgeon’s novels, like much of Carter’s, really play with ideas of what people  are capable of, and the potential that they have for darkness. If you’ve not read The Bloody Chamber , I highly recommend it although it’s not for the faint of heart. Throughout the collection Carter uses the genre to subvert and question concepts of femininity, and it’s just so clever. Turgeon’s writing is similar in its intentions, but provides more room for forgiveness, redemption, and hope.
“All my old loves will be returned to me” is a quotation written in French inside one of the old volumes in Daedalus Books, where Lil works, and it completely sums up the mood of the book while encapsulating the quest to belong present in the original story. In the case of Lil, the loves she has lost are many; she is filled with regret for loss of her sister and friends, the faerie realm, Cinderella, and the Prince. For Veronica, the sharp witted, vivacious young hair artist Lil befriends, her losses are less tangible, but there’s a bad breakup in there somewhere, and she has in some ways lost her sense of self, and for George, Lil’s employer and owner of the bookshop, his loves are the books that he collects, but although he has a shop full of books, his life appears to be devoid – he has suffered a bad divorce, and gives off a great feeling of isolation and sadness throughout the novel. I liked the cyclical nature of the book, and the way that, in the end, everybody’s loves were returned to them.
For me, Turgeon’s finest moment in Godmother was its triumphant ending. She brings the ideas of belief and perception to their extreme: Veronica cannot see Lil’s wings, begging the question of whether Lil is truly a faerie, or a crazy old lady. At the end of the day, it all comes down to what you believe. You have to decide, as J.M Barrie so rightly said, whether or not you believe in fairies, and for me that was the most amazing thing. I love that the story wraps you up and twists you around and engrosses you in Lil and her life and her secrets and the fact that nobody must ever find out, and then turns around and goes OH WAIT, HANG ON, IT MIGHT NOT EVEN BE REAL!!! Mindtrip!
My ‘original’, being as how it’s a Grimm Brothers version, does not have a happy ending. In fact, at Cinderella’s wedding the birds that substitute for the fairy godmother come and peck out the stepsister’s eyes as payment for their crimes against Cinderella. Where Godmother ends with the possibility of forgiveness, the Grimms are all about the judgement. It’s also interesting to note that in this fairytale, as in many others, it is other women repressing Cinderella and preventing her from fulfilling her true destiny. Women hold her back, while the Prince (a man, duh!) saves her. And yes, I am up on my ranting high horse, sorry about that! The Grimm’s Cinderella is held back by her family and saved by the Prince, where Turgeon’s Cinderella is held back by herself and destroyed by a combination of the Prince and her Godmother. In Turgeon’s version, love and destiny are not all – conquering, and sometimes the destruction of self can be so total that it’s impossible to see a way to be happy.
If you read Godmother in the way I did (basically, I believe in fairies!), the ending is a very happy resolution for all concerned: Lil finds forgiveness and escape from her self-torture, and Veronica and George each find their own happiness. It’s lovely, and personally I prefer it to the ending of the original – give me forgiveness over judgement any day!


  1. Dear Bex,

    You are my favourite person in the whole world, with your fairytale-studying, godmother-wishing and general happiness-making. In fact, will you marry me?


    But seriously, I do love this article. You can tell you studied this at degree level! I wish I'd done something that interesting...

    I think you've recommended tis book to me before, but I'm finally going to run off and buy it (or at least swap request) it this week.

    Also, I love Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes too.

  2. Dear Hanna,
    You just totally made my afternoon :-) yes of course i'll marry you


    Lol but seriously, this feature is pretty much for me to indulge my mental need to analyse and rant, I didn't think anyone actually read it, so thanks for that! :-D and let me know what you think about the book. I'm posting yours to you tomorrow -would've been sooner but I had to wait for my day off as i'm scared of the boiling hot, tourist infested one where I work!

  3. Don't worry about the book - I skipped merrily off to Sheffield without thinking to post it to you, so it won't be sent until I get home tomorrow either!