ENCHANTED IDEOLOGIES: A COLLECTION OF REDISCOVERED NINETEENTH-CENTURY MORAL FAIRY TALES by Marilyn Pemberton, Reviewed by PC Fleming
 

ENCHANTED IDEOLOGIES: A COLLECTION OF REDISCOVERED NINETEENTH-CENTURY MORAL FAIRY TALES
By Marilyn Pemberton
(Lambertville, NJ: True Bill) 307 pp.
Reviewed by PC Fleming on 2010-03-03.

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Every anthology makes an implicit argument. Marilyn Pemberton's is quite clear: "the fairy tale," she tells readers, "changed its format and function during the nineteenth century, in accordance with the changes that were happening to its readers, who were, after all, members of an ever-evolving family, and an ever-evolving society" (52). British society certainly changed between 1818, the earliest date Pemberton gives for a tale in this collection, and 1899, when the last tale was published. Enchanted Ideologies is designed to reflect this change.

Aiming to provide a historical context for this collection of fairy tales, Pemberton, in her introduction, rightly asserts that middle-class values like "thrift, self-control, restraint, personal ambition, and deferred gratification" found their way into didactic stories long before the middle class gained real political power (31) and that although female education before the 1870s was minimal, "with the main emphasis being on the acquisition of those domestic and social accomplishments deemed necessary for them to fulfill their role in life as wives and mothers" (44), by the end of the century "the New Woman had found her voice" (52).

Besides explaining the importance of class and gender during the Victorian period, the introduction leaves much to be desired. As many critics have noted, the Romantics played a major role in the nineteenth-century reception of fairy tales (see for example Judith Plotz's Romanticism and the Vocation of Childhood and Alan Richardson's Literature, Education, and Romanticism). But Pemberton skips straight from the late eighteenth-century pedagogues like Sarah Trimmer and Maria Edgeworth to the Brothers Grimm, completely ignoring the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

The most important task for an introduction to an anthology is to make clear the governing principles; in an anthology of moral fairy tales, one expects a detailed discussion of what a "moral fairy tale" is. Pemberton notes that scholars haven't established a firm definition of fairy tales, and mentions the major fairy tale critics (like Jack Zipes, Maria Tatar, Bruno Bettelheim, and Vladimir Propp). But this section of the introduction feels rather perfunctory. Pemberton never makes it clear what is at stake among the different definitions, or what makes a moral fairy tale different from other kinds of fairy tales. And perhaps most importantly, she makes no mention of the numerous critical works specifically about Victorian fairy tales (like U. C. Knoepflmacher's Ventures into Childland or Jack Zipes's anthology Victorian Fairy Tales: The Revolt of the Fairies and Elves).

A chart of "fairy tales included in this book" (53-4) precedes the tales themselves. The chart includes columns for the name and sex of the author; the date and medium (book or periodical) of publication; the main theme; the sex of the protagonist; and whether the fairy tale includes a wish and/or ends in marriage. Such quantitative analysis illuminates details that are presumably important to Pemberton's implicit argument. The chart makes it clear, for example, that all the tales after 1880 feature female protagonists, and that while early tales teach female readers how to be amiable, supportive wives and mothers, the later tales are more concerned with true love and happy marriages between equals.

Some of the items in the chart, however, are not as quantitative as they first appear, and potential challenges provide an entry point into a discussion of the tales themselves. A category as simple as "sex of the protagonist" proves problematic in certain cases, as with Dinah Mulock Craik's "Magnus and Morna: A Shetland Fairy Tale." Pemberton claims the sex of the protagonist to be female, privileging Morna, although Magnus is arguably just as central a character. Morna is a fairy (a sea-maid), which perhaps accounts for Pemberton's choice, but for the anonymously published "Lady Sybil Fancourt" she lists the protagonist as female, even though the fairy is male.

Perhaps the most problematic of the columns marks whether or not the tale "includes a wish." This column seems present in order to justify the inclusion of Mary Martha Sherwood's "The Wishing Cap," which is the only story included in this collection that doesn't include elements of magic or the supernatural. Pemberton's footnote to the story reads, "This is not a fairy tale, but is included because it uses a common fairy-tale device of the wish" (81). There is nothing about a wish, however, in the definition of "fairy tale" in the introduction, which is sufficiently vague that a case could be made that "The Wishing Cap" is a fairy tale. In Sherwood's story, a wealthy benefactress buys children whatever toys they wish for, and the moral is that one should wish only for God's blessing; in Mary de Morgan's "Leila's Gold", a woman gives an unsolicited magical gift that turns out to be a curse. One could perhaps come up with a definition of "wish" that applies to both stories, and the introduction would be the place to do so. But no such definition is offered.

The quantitative analysis in the chart pays off in the category "main theme," however, which I had at first expected to be the most problematic. But since many of the fairy tales offer explicit morals, and Pemberton means the collection to demonstrate a thematic progression, this column in the chart is essential. Pemberton nicely summarizes the tales' themes, and the progression she portrays is clear: early tales have themes like "Proper female behavior - to be amiable" (the anonymously published "Elmina: A Tale for Young Ladies" [1834]), while later ones have themes like "Proper behavior - selfless love and female self-sufficiency" (Mary Louisa Molesworth's "The Three Wishes" [1898]). I question why "use of a flower" is listed here; if important at all, it would seem to warrant its own category, and is certainly less ambiguous than a wish. I would also quibble with a few of Pemberton's readings: Mary Senior Clark's "The Ivory Harp" has more to do with abuse of power than with happy families, and Ponson du Terrail's "The Christmas Fairy" is not at all about greed. But in general she pinpoints the tales' main themes accurately, and the presentation in the chart accomplishes what she wants it to.

Enchanted Ideologies will be most useful to scholars interested in the authors included here, and looking for previously unavailable texts. Contrary to the publisher's statement about the book, these authors are not "unknown today": many are central to current discussions of children's literature. Marah Gubar discusses Craik, Nesbit, and Molesworth at length in Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature (2009), and both Sherwood and Evelyn Sharp regularly appear in studies of nineteenth-century children's literature. Access to fairy tales by these authors will open doors to further scholarship.

Unfortunately, the format of Enchanted Ideologies makes the book less useful than it might otherwise be. The biggest problem is the table of contents, which lists only titles, and not authors: one must go to Pemberton's chart, buried on pages 53-54, for a full list of authors. And the poem by Nesbit at the beginning appears just as if it were one of the tales, which is confusing since all of the tales, except this poem, are in chronological order.

The footnotes are also too intrusive. Even when they are useful and insightful, like those in "The Christmas Fairy" about French coins, they take up too much space: a one-line footnote takes up three inches on the page, most of it empty white space. And sometimes the content of a footnote raises more questions than it answers: in a note to the anonymous "Elmina: A Tale for Young Ladies," for example, Pemberton suggests that the tale may be based on Charles Masson's Elmina; or the Flower that Never Fades, published by E. Newbury (Pemberton likely means Newbery) (87). A quick Google search reveals that this work went through at least six editions between 1791 and 1812. Surely Pemberton could have checked some of these against the text she includes, and explained why this is the only republished tale in the collection.

Scholars interested in nineteenth-century children's authors (especially Sherwood and Sharp, who each have two tales in this collection) may find Enchanted Ideologies a useful resource. But in an age when so many texts are available digitally, a printed anthology should provide a useful scholarly introduction and present its texts in a practical manner. This book, unfortunately, does neither.



PC Fleming is a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia. His dissertation, entitled "The Moral Tale and Its Legacy," investigates connections between the novel and late 18th-century children's fiction.




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