Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Horace Walpole's Fairy Tale

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Horace Walpole's Fairy Tale

Article excerpt

Editor's Introduction

Drawing on his urbane reputation as an accomplished author, art historian, antiquarian, Whig politician, and court socialite, Horace Walpole (1717-1797) famously complained that "this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel"1 In fact, both parts of Walpole's sentiment could be used to define the ethos of eighteenth-century satire: high literary polish thinly glossed over raw human emotion. "A Fairy Tale" (1743) is at once witty, charming, bitter, angry, comical, envious, scolding, self-mocking, wistful, and wry. Amusing for its sheer panache, Walpole's slender tale also represents a significant literary moment of profound interest to fairytale scholars because, as a fairy tale that is both highly personal and highly political, Walpole's text exemplifies the British equivalent of the more famous courtly fairy tales being produced in France. Moreover, the tale is of striking importance to gender and queer theorists because the eponymous "fairy" in this tale is based on an openly bisexual character, one whose unique gender performance is a focal point of the story.

The French fairy tales published between the late seventeenth and mid-eighteenth century are as well-known for their loose grounding in the oral tradition as for their political subtexts, and Walpole's work draws on both elements.2 However, his tale is also indebted to British fairy literature in the tradition of Spenser's Faerie Queen and Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, which borrows a medley of characters from Greco-Roman myth and the British oral tradition while radically changing the plots and formal structures of those traditional tales; such texts are only fairy tales in the sense that they feature "things which really exist not.. . of this nature are Fairies, Rgmies, and the extraordinary effects of Magick" (Dryden, "Apology," 15-16).3

Walpole's plot is drawn entirely from the real-life wedding of his dear friend Constantine Phipps (1722-1775) to the Honorable Lepelle Hervey (1723-1780), daughter of the famous court socialite (and infamous bisexual) Baron John Hervey (1696-1743); Walpole uses the hyperbolic trappings of the fairy tale primarily to exaggerate the actions and personalities of the characters involved. For example, Constantine Phipps becomes the heroic "Prince Phippis," and his grandmother the Duchess of Buckingham is transmuted into the tyrannous "Buckinda: Queen of the Ducks." However, in every context where Walpole could choose to embellish the fairytale aspects of the plot or foreground the political bite of his work, he invariably sacrifices the fairy tale's coherence for a wicked satirical aside. Walpole carefully explains the political context of his tale in a series of notes, all of which clarify the fact that Prince Phippis's fairy-tale romance is truly a forced political alliance calculated to gain support for the Jacobite cause.4 The fact that the marriage was concocted by Lady Catherine Darnley, the Duchess of Buckingham (who appears as "a Large Old Lady of a Frowning Aspect with the Head of a Medusa") and Baron John Hervey (who enters the plot as a delicate fairy, who "would have been vastly Pretty if it's cherry-lips had 'nclos'd any Teeth"), only highlights Walpole's sly use of fairy-tale caricatures to amplify his political point.

Yet although the ostensible hero of the text is Prince Phippis and although the principal asides are focused on key Jacobite figures, by far the most expansive character description is reserved for the titular character, "a Dainty little Figure .. . whom [Phippis] takes for a Fairy." The Fairy is unique in Walpole's text because its name is undisguised: "the Being screwing up its Shoulders, and stretching out a long bony little finger, said; 'What a Terrible Creature!-I am not a woman; I am My Lord Hervey'/ (That was the Name the Fairy apum'd)." Walpole's emphatic characterization suggests that Hervey was already a fantastical figure, one who did not require a mask to exist in a fairy-tale setting. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.