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  • Tame Fairies Make Good Teachers:The Popularity of Early British Fairy Tales
  • M. O. Grenby (bio)

No one would doubt that the fairy tale has long been one of the most popular forms of children's literature in Great Britain. A task of critics, bibliographers, and cultural historians is to determine how this happened. The standard history can be reduced to a five-stage process. Stage one postulates an indigenous tradition of fairy tales that circulates in oral culture, seldom written down, but occasionally filtering into posterity through works such as The History of Tom Thumbe by "R.J." from 1621. Stage two is heralded by the arrival of the new, French fairies in the work of Madame d'Aulnoy, Charles Perrault, the Arabian Nights and, slightly later, Madame Le Prince de Beaumont; these were all translated into English during the early and mid-eighteenth century. These classical tales, the standard history goes, were popular with adults and children until the second half of the century when they fell out of fashion. The third stage is a lull in the development of the form, usually attributed to suspicion of any writing involving the supernatural. This skepticism can be ascribed either to Enlightenment rationalism or Evangelical fervor, or both. In stage four, the hostility is confronted by innovating publishers such as John Harris, the successor to the house of Newbery, and Benjamin Tabart, whose Popular Stories series began in 1804, which was largely comprised of fairy stories and chapbook tales. Tabart, in particular, has been called "benevolent" because (it is said) he sought to free the imagination and liberate children from the shackles of the over-earnest moral tale. He is called "courageous" because he must have known the rancour with which his tales would be greeted (Moon 5). Theirs were not new tales, but rather retellings of both the French and indigenous British stories, revised, and now marketed directly at children. The fairy tales were often based on their recent dramatization on the London stage. Tabart and Harris routinely advertised their fairy tales as being inspired [End Page 1] by current theatrical productions. Tabart, for instance, boasted that his Cinderella; or, The Little Glass Slipper (1804) featured "representations of three of the principal scenes in performance at Drury Lane Theatre." Sarah Trimmer, noticing that Tabart's tales depicted "figures . . . in theatrical dresses," added the charge that they were "representations . . . of play-house scenes" to her indictment of these fairy tales in her Guardian of Education (Trimmer 4: 74).

Perhaps the fourth stage of fairy tales was the most significant because it paved the way for stage five, the arrival of a new wave of fairy tales from the European continent; the work of the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen has proved among the most enduring. These were popular, it is generally argued, because they suited a new romantic sensibility, or, in the words of one recent chronicler, appealed to those who were "seeking an escape from the ugliness of industrial society" (Avery 73). Gillian Avery's historical time period divisions are representative of this standard history, "The Medieval Period," "The Banishment of the Fairies," and "The Return of the Fairies" (66–77). According to Jack Zipes and others, it was such tales, cleansed of material deemed unsuitable, which encouraged the bourgeoisie to begin "changing its attitude toward the fairy tale for children during the course of the 1820s and 1830s" (Zipes, When Dreams Came True 20). This acceptance ensured that the fairy tale would live happily ever after.

This chronology presents various problems. Ruth B. Bottigheimer in "Misperceived Perceptions: Perrault's Fairy Tales and English Children's Literature," for instance, has questioned whether the classic, French fairy tales were actually as popular as has always been assumed in the period before 1770. One might also take issue with the notion that fairy tales gained popularity in the nineteenth century because they were the perfect antidote to industrialization. Most obviously, though, the chronology is too teleological. It subscribes to what Mitzi Myers called the "whiggish" history of children's books, which characterizes the history of children's literature as a struggle between "imaginative" writing, represented by the fairy tale, and more...


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