- Mothers, Monsters, and Morals in Victorian Fairy Tales
In Victorian England one of the most pervasive forms of children's literature was the moral tale, often cast from the 1830s in the mode of literary fairy tale. Many writers of these didactic fairy tales—Francis Edward Paget, Catherine Sinclair, Mark Lemon, and others—used the fairy tale mode to reinforce bourgeois moral lessons on thrift, industry, piety, and other plodding Victorian virtues. As I have written elsewhere, many of these writers exhibit a deep split in their creative purposes, one which is often manifested in the divided structures of the stories themselves. Such writers often profess to believe in the imagination, fairy tale, and liberated possibilities for children; yet they give in finally to explicit moral didacticism. Perhaps even more provocative and finally more subversive of bourgeois values, however, are those writers who set out to write moral tales in the mode of fantasy and fairy tale but in whose writings are embedded truly liberating messages deeply at odds with the prevailing moral tone of the narrative. Margaret Gatty's Fairy Godmothers (1851), Mary Louise Molesworth's The Ruby Ring (1892), and Lucy Clifford's haunting tale, "The New Mother" (1882), all contain buried subtexts which modify, contradict, and sometimes unravel the threads of moral tapestry altogether. These tensions and contradictions may express the authors' deep distrust of the conventional Victorian values which they purport to espouse.
Margaret Gatty's work for children, according to her more famous daughter, Juliana Horatio Ewing (1841-1885), was "essentially educational and domestic in its aim and its efforts" (Darton 290). Harvey Darton likewise describes Mrs. Gatty's most famous work for children in less than flattering terms: "Her Fairy Godmothers (1851) were not merely like the godmothers of traditional fairytales in being the vehicle of definite morals: they invented morals beforehand, and stressed them, with a good deal of verbiage" (Darton 291). While Darton is correct that the narrator of The Fairy Godmothers intrudes often on the narrative with explicit moralizing, his description of the fairy godmothers themselves is not only inaccurate; it in fact dismisses an extremely interesting treatment [End Page 47] of character. The text of The Fairy Godmothers contains significant implications for Victorian notions of both social class and gender.
Gatty was the first editor of Aunt Judy's Magazine (No. 1, May, 1866), and in one of her early editorial statements she wrote that "parents need not fear an overflowing of mere amusement" issuing from the pages of her magazine. To be sure, the moral is always paramount in Gatty's writing, but, as Darton notes, the magazine included enthusiastic notices of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, as well as the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Even Darton admits that, "Aunt Judy was on the side of the fairies as well as the angels."
One of the ways that The Fairy Godmothers subverts its overtly moral messages is through its exquisite descriptions of Fairy Land. While a writer fond of commenting on "Our Precious Savior" might be expected to depict Fairy Land as the realm of heathens and while many other moral tale writers depicted it as a spiritual realm strongly tinged with quasi-Christian Neo-Platonism, Gatty's fairy land is a painless, transcendently beautiful place inhabited by "good-natured Fairies." These fairies are emphatically not the moralistic creatures Darton describes; rather they are ". . . odd little creatures, rather conceited, and fond of everything pretty; consequently they like to be floating about the rocks in their white dresses when the crimson and golden hues of sunset shine on them, knowing very well they look like so many bright flowers on occasion" (2). These beings seem to toy with human beings as a mere diversion and to bestow fairy gifts not really for the benefit of the young mortal maidens but to satisfy their own vanities and to amuse themselves.
The plot of The Fairy Godmothers reminds readers of Perrault's "The Sleeping Beauty." Three fairies bestow gifts which they believe will bring the greatest happiness to their god-children. Fairy Ianthe insists upon making her mortal baby beautiful since, "for an earthly beauty there would...