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  • The Golden Harp:Mary de Morgan’s Centrality in Victorian Fairy-Tale Literature
  • James Fowler (bio)

If there is a drawback to a golden age of literature, it is in the muffling of a strong voice amid the chorus of a period's production. Such is the case with Mary de Morgan, one of the more talented of the fairy-tale writers, many of them women,1 who made the Victorian era a treasure trove of enchantment. While her work still appears in anthologies of literary fairy tales,2 de Morgan is conspicuously absent from most critical surveys of children's literature, an index lacuna between de la Mare and de Paola. When she is mentioned, it is often in passing. The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature gives her short shrift with the verdict that her stories, while "entertaining and not unmemorable . . . lack the visionary power of her contemporary George MacDonald" (145). Of course, one might counter that MacDonald was in a class by himself when it came to mystical evocation.

De Morgan, however, was fully capable of rendering mystery, pathos, and comedy, as demonstrated in her three collections of tales, On a Pincushion (1877), The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde (1880), and The Windfairies (1900). The usual, and just, observation that she was a respecter of folklore tradition with some stylistic resemblance to Hans Christian Andersen points up the seminal influence that the translated German Popular Stories (1823, 1826) and Andersen's literary tales had on the Victorian imagination (Hearn xix). Further, with an eminent mathematician for a father, and a brother, William, who came to figure prominently in the Arts and Crafts movement as a potter and tile-maker, Mary found herself from an early age moving in an illustrious circle of artists and intellects. Having published two solid collections by 1880, she seems to represent a full flowering of the Victorian fairy-tale genre that peaked in the '60s and '70s with the classic works of Carroll and MacDonald. Her stories at their best have a popular oft-told quality, yet at the same time resonate with the works of her contemporaries inside and outside the domain of children's literature. In both her life and her art, de Morgan occupied a central cell in the hive of Victorian activity.3 [End Page 224]

Before committing a story to paper, de Morgan told and retold it, usually to a child-audience.4 According to Jack Zipes, this process "accounts for the fine cadence and rhythm of her tales" (Headnote 163). Being single all her life, like Lewis Carroll, she tried out her inventions on the children of friends, most notably the Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, and Kipling scions. Partly schooled at her feet, young Rudyard would grow up to write his own brand of exotic tales. De Morgan for her part seems to have imbibed the preference for the handcrafted, the folkish, the nonconformist, that reaches back from Morris through the Pre-Raphaelites to John Ruskin, author of that early Victorian classic, The King of the Golden River. While promoting ideals of self-sacrifice in love and patience in ordeals, de Morgan peoples her tales with protagonists, male and female, as strong-minded and venturesome as herself.5

The balanced treatment of both sexes in her work, which depicts men and women alike capable of behavior ranging from heroism to folly or wickedness, is a prominent aspect of de Morgan's centrism. U. C. Knoepflmacher asserts that women writers in the genre saw themselves "as the rightful heirs of the unlettered female storytellers, peasant women or nursemaids, whose materials Perrault and Grimm had co-opted" (23). However, he subsequently implies in passing that folktales may not necessarily have been a matriarchal domain (23). The fact that generations of middle- and upper-class children from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries would have heard fairy lore from lower-class women—nannies and nurses—may partly explain the prevalence of such female literary icons as Mother Goose and Mother Bunch. Still, if folktales are indeed the narrative currency of the folk, and not half the folk, then these materials would have passed from women to men, and men to...


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