Saturday, September 8, 2012

Ladies Full of Grace: A Book Review

Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Tales by Alison Lurie

Clever Gretchen, Kate Crackernuts, Rosa, Mizilica, Molly Whuppie.  

These are the names of fairy tale heroines the average child probably hasn't heard about.  Alison Lurie desires to bring what have become "non-traditional" fairy tale dames to that child's attention and imagination.

In her introduction to Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales, Ms. Lurie writes that the original tellers of the tales were

not frail Victorian ladies, but working women: farmers' wives, shopkeepers, craftswomen, household servants, children's nurses, and midwives.  They lived active, interesting lives, and the stories they told show it.

The fact that women did live rich and interesting lives prior to the twentieth century and outside of the feminist movement is something I think we modern readers have forgotten; not least because I supsect we have grown to doubt the value of farmers' wives and children's nurses, or any woman not working in an office or in academia.

Que our blog patron, G.K. Chesterton: "[Feminism] is mixed up with a muddled idea that women are free when they serve their employers but slaves when they help their husbands."

This collection of tales illustrates Chesterton's quote beautifully.  
The Wise Little Girl, Kate Baylay ("Manka and the Judge")
Manka from "Manka and the Judge" outsmarts her husband several times.  He comes to realize that not only is she his equal in all things, but that he is remiss not to make use of her offered gifts.

Here is an excerpt:

For a while the man swore that no one had aided him, but at last he confessed that it was His Honor's own wife who had told him what to say.  "I thought so," said the judge.  He went home and said angrily to Manka, "You have broken your promsie, and I cannot live with you any longer.  You must go back to your father."

"Very well, if that is your wish," said Manka.  "I will go this evening after supper; only give me leave to take with me whatever I love best in the house."  "So be it," said the judge.  "Take whatever you want."  Manka threw her arms around him and kissed him, and they sat down to supper.  But as they ate, she slipped a sleeping potion into his glass, and he had hardly finished when he fell into a heavy sleep.

When the judge was snoring, Manka called the servants and told them to set him in the carriage and drive with her to her father's house.  There they put him to bed.

What I enjoy so much about this story is that Manka is a Mona Lisa.  She just smiles knowingly, and never seeks to bludgeon her misguided husband over the head with his ignorance.  That is grace. 

And she truly loves her husband.  The affection and respect between them is tangible.

The wife in "Gone is Gone" displays the same patient grace when her husband complains that her role as a housewife is easy.  I fancy many an acquaintance could learn as much as the husband by switching roles with the stay-at-home mom for a day.

The above mentioned were folk tales more than fairy tales, but there are stories of magic and the numinous, too.

Kate Crackernuts, in the story of the same name, refuses to become the jealous ugly stepsister of fairy tale custom.  Instead, she takes her poor, cursed sister under her wing, finding fortune and happiness for the both of them.  She also rescues herself a prince in this female-protagonist version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses.

The whimsical illustrations by Margot Tomes serve the tone of the stories perfectly.  Clever Gretchen is a fun and important book for your fairy tale collection, or at least to be familiar with..


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