Festivals & Events at Edinburgh Napier University

Review #edbookfest: Michael Newton and Victorian Fairy Tales

Michael Newton makes it clear, in his talk on Victorian fairy tales linked to his recent anthology, that compilers of such compendiums face a grave risk: will they simply recreate the story collections that they enjoyed as a child? Over the course of an hour Newton, and chair Stuart Kelly, led the audience through a range of stories, drawing out their common themes, contextualising the work and drawing frequent parallels to 21st century conventions and cultural forms.

Some key points were made early on:

  • There is resistance to fairy tales from some quarters, where fairies are seen as ‘sappy’. The stories themselves though are often pretty tough, challenging tales that don’t conform to our modern stereotypes of what a good fairy should be.
  • Going back to a family anecdote from 1938, when Disney’s ‘Snow White’ film was shown at a small local cinema, Newton recalls how his relative saw the movie as a portal into another world, one of magic and fear and a whole lot more. Some fairy tales will, indeed, scare you.
  • Right now, there is a resurgence of interest in fairy tales, in both popular culture and academic activity. Newton’s English Literature students, for example, are keen to portray modern tales as having freed up their female characters to be both evil and bold, in contrast to the more restricted norms of earlier ages. (Newton isn’t convinced. Victorian authors generally did a better job of avoiding kitsch in their stories, an altogether more subtle age where important points could still be made.)

The audience were also introduced to the ways fairy tales change over time, reflecting the ages in which they were conceived and later revised. In the tale of the Three Bears, for example, the bears were not originally a family, nor was their visitor a young blonde girl but rather a housebreaking old woman. An altogether more random affair. The author, Robert Southey, had an intriguing back story of international politics and Romantic poetry. In part this latter connection reflects a recurring theme in fairy tales, that they are a way to resist the modern and transport their readers to a pre-industrial time.

Links between fairy tales and childhood were drawn throughout the event. For children themselves, fairy tales tend to be their first exposure to sophisticated reading material. Not just that, but it is reading matter that emphasises the post-modern, the random and the surreal, as well as drawing from a range of other stories. These children then grow up to create some of the most important and innovative cultural work of our times, so perhaps these stories are where the seeds are sown.

Gender plays a part here too, when reflecting upon the experiences of fairy tale authors. Newton sees merit in the argument that gendered life experiences have shaped the ways authors approach the genre. Whereas male authors may be keen to hark back to their childhoods, the female lived experience is one that in restrictive Victorian times was closer to that of children anyway. An infantilised role in society was not one to be celebrated, leading to more subversive work that questioned the culture and the politics of the time.

The question and answer part of the event took the discussion into areas of folk songs, nationalism, morality, Christianity, the relative literacy of Victorian audiences compared to today’s, modern authors who are not necessarily writing for children, and Star Wars. The fairy tale is not going away; it has an established place in literary and film culture and much to tell us about the ways we experience and perceive the ‘real’ world around us.

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