Not very surprising, since I am an eager reader of nineteenth-century literature. And Children’s Literature is a genre you cannot just ignore. You acknowledged it growing up, and dealing with fairy tales and nursery rhymes as an adult means winking at your inner child. And it feels so good! Sometimes the content of the tales may sound too moralistic or too simple, following more or less the same patterns, using the same characters (princes and princesses, witches, kings and queens, etc.), ending up well… But having a closer look at them, you realise there is something for everyone – children and grown-ups, sceptics and believers.
In the introductory section of Victorian Fairy Tales, The Revolt of the Fairies and Elves, Jack Zipes tells us that Victorian England came to a point where it needed fairy tales as a means to put things into perspective. The genre was resorted to in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe by writers who wished to express their opinion about the regime, customs and traditions, the evolution of their social environment. It didn’t reach England at that time but when it did in the nineteenth century, it was to condemn, for instance, the strictness of the codes of the Victorian society towards young girls, who are to behave properly in society – Cinderella by Anne Isabella Ritchie, published in 1868, and A Toy Princess by Mary de Morgan, published in 1877 are perfect examples. The condition of women and the praising of female intelligence is a common theme to many of the Victorian fairy tales – as in The Magic Fishbone by Charles Dickens (1868) and The Ogre Courting by Juliana Horatia Ewing (1871) – just as the denunciation of the devastating consequences of the gold rush on the human mind and heart, brought about by the British imperialism, and exposed in The King of the Golden River, or The Black Brothers by John Ruskin (1841), Heinrich; or, The Love of Gold by Alfred Crowquill (1860), and The Prince’s Dream by Jean Ingelow (1872).
And yet besides all moralistic input, some of the tales from Zipes’ compilation seem to purely feed buried imaginary worlds. I did get that feeling through George Macdonald’s The Day Boy and the Night Girl (1879). First, Macdonald’s writing is detailed, gracious, enchanting, spot on. I could sense the magic of the tale through the author’s choice of words. His talent starts before the story is told, before the reader can figure out what the plot is about. The first magical elements are found within the black letters against the white page, within the form of the text before appearing in its content. Macdonald’s poetic description of the “night girl”’s apprehension of the world through her ceiling alabaster lamp is simply magnificent:
“And besides the operation of the light itself after its kind, the indefiniteness of the globe, and the softness of the light, giving her the feeling as if her eyes could go in and into its whiteness, were somehow also associated with the idea of space and room.” (181-182)
Second, this tale is peculiar because it gives you the impression of having no purpose, which is rather rare as we have seen so far and so, very much appreciated. It feels like we are simply witnessing the encounter of a boy that is only familiar with the day, and a girl that lives exclusively in darkness. That moment is the actual point of the whole story. But what a magical climax! Macdonald’s power resides in his ability to create a macrocosm in a microcosm. The whole world is contained within their two personalities, and life becomes meaningful to them both – and the tale to the reader – when they finally acknowledge one another. No preachy discourse, no other pleasure in reading than that of going back in time and being children again. The aim of the narrative: to be splendid, overwhelmingly grand. Well, that’s what I want to believe because that’s what I perceived, what I enjoyed in this text. I am sure academics will find more concrete ends than the fate of the two protagonists, but I am happy with my gullibility!
Reading for the love of it… So good!