My Cinderella Is Alive and Well

I come to my blog page today with happy news: a new short story publication! Gilded Dragonfly Books‘ anthology of romantic tales Finding Love’s Magic, set in the fictional small town of Cupid’s Bow, near Savannah, GA, is now available for purchase. Included is my story “Neighbor Haint,” which I adapted from my first ever play for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, “The House Across the Way.”

I mentioned in my earlier blog “Fairy Tales and Me” that “The House Across the Way” is my take on the Cinderella myth. You know the one — persecuted heroine breaks free of her abusive situation thanks to the appropriate application of magic and the love of a man a few rungs above her on the social ladder. Not long after I posted that blog, I got the commission to write a story for Finding Love’s Magic, and since “Nothing-at-All” and “Christmas Rose” had done well when adapted to prose, I set about transforming “The House Across the Way” into “Neighbor Haint.” In doing so, I revisited the Cinderella myth. There’s something about Cinderella that keeps us coming back, even if we suspect she may not be good for us.

We go back a long way, Cinderella and I. As a child I loved the 1950 Disney animated feature and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and I even loved The Slipper and the Rose, the live-action musical with songs by the Sherman Brothers and with Richard Chamberlain (an early crush of mine) as the Prince. But it wasn’t until I was in graduate school at Auburn University and began to work on my dissertation that I really examined the story at close range. I chose to write about fairy-tale patterns in Victorian fiction, and my first chapter concerned three versions of the Cinderella story: Charles Perrault’s iconic “Cinderella” (Cendrillon), the Grimms’ “Aschenputtel,” and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

The Perrault story is the source for most film and stage adaptations, but I found that to my grown-up mind, it suffered by comparison with the Grimms’ version. Perrault’s story is all shiny slippers and beautiful gowns, while the Grimms go to dark places, with a heroine in mourning for her lost mother and two villainesses mutilating their feet to make them fit the golden shoe. But what struck me most was the difference in the heroine herself. In Perrault, that cute-as-a-button fairy godmother is the source of all the story’s magic, and she dresses Cinderella like a doll, with Cinderella herself contributing very little. Grimm’s Aschenputtel, however, engineers her own transformation from drudge to incognito princess, thanks to her spiritual connection with the spirit of her lost mother, embodied by the tree Aschenputtel planted on her grave. Perrault’s Cinderella has to leave the ball or risk being exposed as a commoner, while Grimm’s Aschenputtel chooses to leave. Aschenputtel is much more in control of her own fate. True, the ending is the same: rescue comes in the form of marriage to a prince. It’s tempting to judge the story harshly on these grounds alone, but to do so would be to forget that Aschenputtel is not a modern-day heroine with an abundance of choices open to her. She does her best with the options she has, and that may be why her story has such lasting appeal.

Most of today’s writers who take on the Cinderella myth like to play with it, to reshape it so that it falls more into line with contemporary ideas of what a heroine should be. This malleability is part of fairy tales’ staying power, and “sticking with the script” is not necessarily a virtue. The 2015 Kenneth Branagh film, though generally well reviewed, came in for some criticism because he chose to tell the story straight, in a faithful adaptation of the 1950 film, rather than looking for ways to tweak and twist. I have to admit I’m not in a rush to see the film, though I may catch it on Netflix. “Have courage and be kind,” the advice Cinderella receives from her dying mother (interestingly, this comes more from Grimm than from Perrault), is sound, but I wish some room could have been found for “Be clever.”

I may still value the fairy tale and even have a soft spot the classic Disney film (in which the heroine does have a personality, even a touch of humor), but the retellings I favor these days don’t play the story straight. I prefer the movie Ever After, in which the tough, bookish Cinderella rescues the Prince from a gang of thieves by hoisting him onto her shoulders; Marissa Meyer’s YA science fiction novel Cinder, in which Cinderella is a cyborg mechanic; and Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, in which Ella’s inability to disobey her heartless family is the result of a stupid fairy’s “gift.” I’m also fond of the Native American version of Cinderella, in which truthfulness and insight, rather than beauty, lead to the heroine’s deliverance. In looking at our various Cinderellas, we should consider how and why they are rewarded. Need it be all about passive patience and gorgeous clothes?

“Neighbor Haint” is set in the mid-1800s. My Cinderella figure, Hope Caudle, is a smallpox survivor, but her vain mother, deeply ashamed of the girl’s scarred face, pretends before the community that Hope died of the disease. In true Cinderella fashion, Hope is used as a drudge by her mother and lazy sisters. She doesn’t try to escape, as she’s convinced her ravaged face will earn her the loathing of anyone she might meet in the outside world. But she manages to use two of her chores, cooking and quilting, as channels for self-expression. She keeps her imagination sharp as she seizes upon her few opportunities to read and watches, from her window, the house across the street (hence the title of the ARTC play). No magic comes to her aid. She doesn’t transform. Instead, her compassion for the son of the house, in the aftermath of his father’s death, may offer her the key to escape her prison.

I’m proud of my own contribution to Cinderella mythology, and I hope you will enjoy it.

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