Victorian Cinderellas: Revisions, Adaptations, Parodies

Francesca Arnavas is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tartu. She works within the research group on Narrative, Culture and Cognition. Her theoretical interests are Victorian literature, cognitive narratology, fairy tale studies, unnatural narratology. Her first book, Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” and Cognitive Narratology: Author, Reader and Characters, has been published by De Gruyter in January 2021. She tweets at @Yvonne_deGalais

Edward Dalziel, illustration from Cinderella or the Little Glass Slipper, 1865 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cinderella_1865_(6).png

At the beginning of the nineteenth century fairy tales were regarded with suspicion, and “Cinderella” was no exception. In 1802, The Guardian of Education described the story of Cinderella as “one of the most exceptionable books that was ever written for children… it 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.”. However, later on, with the attenuation of the influence of the most radical currents of the Anglican Church, the Victorian age witnessed a huge revival of interest in fairy tales: the translations of the Brothers Grimm and Andersen’s fairy tales (respectively in 1830, with illustrations by Cruikshank, and in 1846) were big literary successes; also the new conception of childhood as inherently pure contributed to the idea that fairy tales could not corrupt children, who were, as Ruskin wrote, “unaware of right and wrong” (83). This proliferation of old and new fairy tales was nevertheless characterised by specific ideological nuances: if, on the one hand new fairy tales (like the ones by MacDonald, Kingsley, C. Rossetti) presented often moral messages, the old ones were reinterpreted according to the cultural fashion of the period.

The destiny of “Cinderella” in the Victorian age was to be another expression of this Victorian perspective on old fairy tales; more specifically, though, the story of Cinderella offered an ideal ground for this development, more than most of the other fairy tales. Bonnie Cullen in her article “For Whom the Shoe Fits: Cinderella in the Hands of Victorian Illustrators and Writers” analyses the transformations and the features “Cinderella” assumed in Victorian culture. She highlights how, of many different versions of “Cinderella” (like the grotesque one by the Brothers Grimm, the almost feminist one by Madame D’Aulnoy, or the more complex and metaphorical version by Basile) “it was a somewhat revised Perrault that prevailed in Victorian England” (61), and this happened, Cullen remarks, because of the peculiar traits Cinderella shows in Perrault’s story. She is “the ideal bride, from the gentleman’s perspective” (72): Perrault’s Cinderella is the most passive of the various versions of the story. Moreover, her slipper becomes a glass slipper, symbol of virginity and purity, and also a material particularly important in the Victorian period.

The Victorians brought some modifications to Perrault’s fairy tale though, such as the introduction of the step sisters as ugly (their physical appearance was not explicitly outlined by Perrault), in order to mark their contrast with Cinderella’s perfect beauty, which, consequently, became one of her most significant traits (while Perrault stressed the fact that it was not so much the beauty which counted but the “bonne grace”). Another change Perrault’s Cinderella experienced in Victorian England was the loss of her sense of humour: while Perrault’s showed several times, as highlighted by Cullen, signs of wit and irony, Victorian Cinderella appeared as a mostly flat character: “whatever vivacity she may have had, at mid-century it has been purged by most English illustrators and writers” (66). Cinderella’s main asset is now her beauty. On the one hand this focus on her physical perfection matches nineteenth century’s theories of physiognomy: Cinderella’s beauty could not but be a sign of her good character. On the other hand, the combination of idealised appearance and passivity forms the image of what Coventry Patmore famously defines as “The Angel in the House”: the perfect, quiet, angel-like wife. Different editions all aimed at emphasising mainly how “Cinderella made a most excellent wife, . . . universally loved and respected for her sweet temper and charming disposition” (The History of Cinderella and the Glass Slipper, c. 1850).

The interpretation of “Cinderella” in the Victorian period thus matched the specific cultural atmosphere of that time, but not only in the appearance and the behaviour of the main character: the glass slipper itself worked as a powerful symbol of so-called “Victorian Glass Culture”. Isobel Armstrong in her Victorian Glassworlds persuasively points out the relevance of glass in Victorian industry and imagination, stating that “the gleam and lustre of glass surfaces, reflecting and refracting the world, created a new glass consciousness and a language of transparency” (1). Moreover, she emphasises how “Victorian glassworlds produced a many-faceted poetics of glass” (16). It is in this sense that Victorian “Cinderella” is meaningful in the way in which it affirms and articulates a mythography of glass, as seen in Cruikshank 1854 version of the story, in which the glass slipper is shown as a product of transformation, the ultimate symbol of “Cinderella” ’s metamorphic element. Many things in Cinderella’s story metamorphose from one category to another, “with magic, vegetative life becomes a vehicle, a thing, a moving object, creatures are mobilized as human bodies, crossing categories […] the boundary firstly between animal, vegetable and human, and secondly between living beings and things, bodies and objects, is disrupted” (Armstrong, 207).

George Cruikshank, “Cinderella in the Chimney-Corner”, from Cinderella and the Glass Slipper, 1854. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. https://victorianweb.org/art/illustration/cruikshank/fairy14.html

The most famous symbol of this glass culture was the Crystal Palace, the physical expression of Queen Victoria reign’s grandeur and a symbol of Victorian luxury and excesses. Some Victorian revisions of “Cinderella”, share this other important feature: the exploration of the glass culture as associated with consumerism and obsession with fashion and luxury. As Laurence Talairach-Vielmas puts it, these revisions enabled writers “to tackle new constructions of the ‘real’ resulting from the rise of capitalism, its illusions and its phantasmagoria” (95). In this context, particularly significant is Anne Thackeray Ritchie’s satirical version of “Cinderella”, where the heroine meets Prince Charming at the Crystal Palace, the enchanting location of a splendid ball where everything glitters in a sort of magical fairyland and where fashion and romance goes together in shaping Cinderella’s destiny. Cinderella’s “glass fantasia” expresses itself in the constant presence of glass surfaces: mirrors reflecting her beauty and her transformation, glass-houses full of magnificent flowers (the Fairy God Mother is a skillful gardener), the Crystal Palace and, obviously, the glass slipper, the symbolic element par excellence, representing Cinderella’s female fragility, and the inconsistent ephemerality of fashion. Commodities are not only the means by which Cinderella manages to marry the prince; Cinderella herself is a commodity, presented to the prince as the perfect, well-adorned wife. Thus, the glass-house containing beautiful flowers shown by Ritchie at the beginning of the tale works as a metaphorical image of Cinderella encased in the glass magnificence of the Crystal Palace.

The myth of a passive Cinderella thus began to be criticized, as Ritchie’s satire proves, and as the characterization of female protagonists in novels such as Jane Eyre, Villette, Vanity Fair, The Mill on the Floss (and, later on, Tess of the D’Urbervilles), further demonstrates. Looking closer at a couple of examples, even before Anna Thackeray Ritchie’s “Cinderella”, her father also famously played and parodied the Cinderella myth in the novel Vanity Fair, presenting the figure of Becky Sharp as “a new Cinderella who turns out to be a comic avatar of the wicked stepsisters” (Polhemus, 129). Becky’s path from rags to riches is determined by her own ambition and her obsession with glamorous clothes and opulence– and she focuses all her intellectual energies and her social skills in pursuing her selfish and vain goals. In her manipulative social ascension Becky, uses the people around her, the pompous and snobbish inhabitants of the vapid Victorian noblesse, but she does so because she wants to become like them, proving herself a victim of “the mentality that holds that diamonds are a girl’s best friend” (Polhemus, 132). Thackeray explicitly associates Becky with diamonds and precious stones, making her the extreme caricature of Cinderella. 

If Jane Eyre can be seen as “an updated Cinderella” (Seelye, 23), Charlotte Brontë’s last novel Villette further emancipates its heroine from the Cinderella stereotype: Lucy Snowe, in spite of her Cinderella’s biographical story similar to Jane’s, in her personality and appearance is explicitly portrayed in opposition to a Cinderella-like character, the sweet, beautiful, and remissive Paulina. Marriage works no more as the conclusion of the story: the marriage actually does not happen, because the would-be husband dies before it, and the best period of Lucy’s life is the one in which she can realise her career’s goal and in which, significantly, her lover is away overseas. The Victorian semantic of glass is also present and parodied in Villette: one memorable passage describes Lucy dressed up for a night at the theatre, finding herself in front of a huge gilded mirror. Lucy initially fails to recognise herself, for a brief instant she mistakes the people in the mirror (herself and her party) for other people. When she understands her mistake: “no need to dwell on the result. It brought a jar of discord, a pang of regret” (195-196). The glass surface is not here a complement of Cinderella’s beauty, it does not give her back the magnificence of her appearance and the mystery of her glittering transformation; instead, the mirror participates of the general philosophy of disillusionment depicted in Villette, and it works firstly as a deceiving entity and then as a harsh sarcastic one, though inspiring at the same time more complex reflections on the meaning and perception of one’s identity.

Bibliography:

Armstrong, Isobel. Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830- 1880. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Brontë, Charlotte. [1853]. Villette. Wordsworth Classics, 1993.

Cullen, Bonnie. “For Whom the Shoe Fits: Cinderella in the Hands of Victorian Writers and Illustrators”. The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 27, no.1, 2003, pp. 57-82.

Perrault, Charles. Contes de Ma Mère l’Oye, Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé (Par le Fils de Monsieur Perreault). Paris: 1698.

Polhemus, Robert M. Comic Faith: The Great Tradition from Austen to Joyce. The University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Ruskin, John. “Fairy Stories.” Ed. Lance Salway. Signal (May 1972): 81–86.

Seelye, John. Jane Eyre’s American Daughters: From the Wide, Wide World to Anne of Green Gables. A Study of Marginalized Maidens and What They Mean. University of Delaware Press, 2005.

The History of Cinderella and the Little Glass Slipper. London: W. S. Johnson, [c 1850, n.d.].

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