From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers

By Warner, Marina | Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers


Warner, Marina, Michigan Quarterly Review


From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers

Visiting Fellow Commoner, Trinity College, Cambridge University

Before I was sent to boarding school in England, across the Channel from my parents in Brussels, I didn't have any secrets, except the precious hoard I accumulated in my treasure drawer, which nobody else was allowed to open without my being there: a set of tiny white porcelain Chinese horses in different poses (most fascinating the one rolling on its back); a filigree brooch in the shape of a tennis racket with a pearl attached for the ball; some shiny studio portraits of stars (Leslie Carom Howard Keel, Mel Ferrer) cut from my mother's monthly magazine from London; miniature detergent packets, plaster-of Paris painted vegetables, and tiny scales and weights for playing toy shop; the pink frou-frou hat, complete with hat-pin, worn by my doll Jennifer, who had been given to me in a wonderful box rustling with tissue paper by my mother, in Rome when we went back to her home country for the first time; some numbers of the weekly comic Girl, and a few feathers, relics of my pet birds, bought in the Grand Place at the Sunday market. They always died because their feet fell off. (Since then, I've learned that fowlers trapped them with lime or nets that damaged their legs.)

My treasure drawer doesn't point forward to what I have become-I never liked riding or tennis. However, Girl did run on its back page a series on Heroines of History, and I've since studied and even written about several of them (Joan of Arc, Emmeline Pankhurst). But later, posted to the huge, imposing convent of St Mary's with its cobwebby pine copses and bleak playing fields, I developed a far deeper secret life. I was engulfed by a sense of being severed from everything familiarfrom family and, in my case, even language; at home, in the kitchen, we spoke Italian when my father was at work, and with my friends in Belgium I spoke French, so when I first arrived at St. Mary's I appalled my new schoolfriends with my curious, unchildlike English, acquired from books and adults only. The food was strange to me as well; I couldn't penetrate the barter economy of toffee and fudge and gobstoppers and liquorice bootlaces and humbugs because I didn't know what any of these things were, as I'd never eaten English sweets. In the drab Belgium of the 1950s, children's treats were limited to marzipan sabots (clogs) on December 6, St. Nicholas's day, and bunches of lily of the valley at the beginning of May-to mention "les muguets de mai" would have set my English classmates hooting with derision.

So I built ramparts and defenses around enclaves that nobody could spoil by sarcastic mockery. These secret places hold in kernel far more of my future than the contents of my treasure drawer and yet, at the same time, the normal banality of that little girl's accumulation doesn't feel as alien to me now as the private world I fervently made up as a refuge from England.

The school day followed a rhythm set by monasticism: chapel, breakfast, study punctuated by prayers at noon (the Angelus bell sounding); lunch in the refectory, followed by a period of "recreation"; then more schoolwork (prep. for the next day's lessons); supper; more chapel (every other day); games and dancing to 45s in the school hall (this was the era of Cliff Richard's hit, "Livin' Doll"); followed by bedtime, and, if we were lucky, "My Curly-headed Baby," sung in her thrillingly big soprano voice by Mother Barbara in the dormitory. This timetable, with its long stretches of imposed tedium, its structured contrasts of activity and quiet, its punctuating rest bars and pauses, now strikes me as a genuine achievement of the Catholic faith, and its disappearance from the crammed schedules of children today a profound mistake. As Adam Phillips observes, "It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. …

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