There is absolutely no better way to spend Christmas than submerged in a stack of new books, especially when said stack includes previously unread Ruth Manning-Sanders anthologies. I am not, however, starting with one of those. This story comes from A Book of Enchantments and Curses, a copy of which I’ve had for as long as I can remember, and which has for almost as long been missing a crucial page. Without that page I couldn’t review one of my favourite ever fairy tales.
Guess what lovely new book I have in front of me? Open to what page? Let’s start the new year with a Sicilian fairy tale about destiny, politics and the healing power of cake.
It begins with the invasion of Spain. Tactfully, the nationality of the ‘neighbouring king’ is kept vague, but wherever he’s from just turned into a fledgeling empire. The king of Spain is captured. His wife and seven daughters manage to escape, taking up residence as ordinary cottagers in a faraway village, but they are not exactly equipped for the change in circumstance. Their best employment asset is skilled embroidery, and that’s not much in demand in these parts. Life is not easy.
The queen, however, is a kind-hearted woman. One day when her daughters are out looking for strawberries, an old woman comes to the door offering cheap lace and the queen invites her inside to share a bowl of broth before the fire. The old woman eschews a simple thank you in favour of Prophecy. “In your family, you have a daughter who is indeed unfortunate,” she proclaims, “and it is due to her that all this misery has befallen you. She has an evil Destiny. Send that daughter away and you will win back your king and your kingdom.” Appalled, the queen asks how she would even be able to identify which is the cursed child, and the old woman has an answer for that one too: all the other princesses will sleep on their right or left side tonight. Only the daughter with an evil Destiny will be lying on her back with her hands folded on the covers. Having finished her soup and delivered her warning, the old woman departs, leaving the queen with a moral catch-22.
Her miserable contemplation is interrupted by the return of her daughters. They have, as usual, found no strawberries. That night, when they have all gone to sleep, the queen goes from bed to bed with a candle until she comes to the youngest of the seven, who lies sleeping on her back. The girl wakes to the sound of her mother’s crying and demands to know what’s wrong. Reluctantly, and very unwisely, the queen tells her. They agree to discuss the matter properly in the morning, but of course, by morning the princess is gone. She leaves her name behind; she is now only Unfortunate.
Even princesses afflicted by the whims of cruel Destiny have to make a living, however, and at length she finds service as a maid in the house of some weavers. During her exile she’s had some experience with such work and she does so well that her employers trust her to take care of the house and their stock when they go away to visit some friends. Is this a change in her luck? Not really. She wakes that night to the sound of snipping and tearing, and comes downstairs to find a wild-eyed old hag destroying all the weavers’ work. When Unfortunate runs to stop her, the hag simply disappears. Not your run-of-the-mill vandal.
She leaves Unfortunate with a house full of rags and no explanation. When the weavers return to find the destruction, they throw her out, with a beating to speed her on her way. She has nowhere to go and no idea what to do next; nightfall finds her in a strange village, staring into a grocer’s window full of delicious food. She’s an honest girl with no intention of stealing, but she’s very hungry. The shopwoman notices her standing there and kindly invites her in, offering a square meal and a bed for the night. Unfortunate is too desperate to say no.
It might be better if she had. As the princess lies sleeping, an uninvited and entirely unwanted someone else appears in the shop. There’s no cloth to rip apart this time – instead, the hag inflicts her rage on the vegetable baskets and trays of bread, drowning the cellar in spilled wine. In the morning, when the shopwoman’s husband comes down and finds the disastrous mess, he is so enraged that Unfortunate is lucky to get away. She runs as far and as fast she she can, then collapses by the side of the road.
Here she meets with a remarkable coincidence, in the form of a passing washerwoman. Her name is Dame Francesca, and Unfortunate knows that because she was once nurse to seven princesses in Spain. Unlike her former charges, Dame Francesca’s life has turned out a quiet success – she is now laundress to the prince of this kingdom and much in favour with him. When Unfortunate explains her predicament, Dame Francesca insists on taking her home.
Not unexpectedly, everything goes wrong. If she tries to wash dishes, they break; if she tries to mend clothes, they tear. Dame Francesca, though, is forewarned and forearmed. “Your Destiny is against us, but we’ll beat her yet!” she declares. “Now my Destiny is a very different kind of person!” She means that quite literally. One day she bakes two sweet cakes and sends Unfortunate to the sea shore, instructing her to call upon ‘the Destiny of Dame Francesca’. This Unfortunate does, and her call is answered by a beautiful woman rising from the water. Handing over one of the cakes, the princess asks very politely for directions to her own Destiny, and is given them with a beneficent smile.
The end result of those directions is not really a prepossessing spot. The hag lives in a thorn thicket beside a well and is so foul-tempered she not only won’t accept the second cake, she screams and spits at Unfortunate until the princess goes away. Dame Francesca, however, is undeterred. The prince has just given her a hefty tip – this is a man who appreciates the talent of a good laundress – and she blows the lot on a highly targeted shopping spree. The beautiful gown she buys is not for her; nor is the soap, the hairbrush and comb, or the bottle of scent. She bundles them up with another cake and hands them over to Unfortunate instead, with the instruction she’s to get that hag cleaned up at all costs.
It’s easier said than done, but then, Unfortunate is used to hard tasks by now. She ambushes her Destiny by the well and pulls off her rags, scrubbing her down determinedly with the soap while the hag kicks and screams and calls her names. Slowly, though, a transformation begins to take place. The soap sloughs off years as well as grime, revealing a lovely woman underneath, and a bit further down, a reasonable temperament. By the time she’s dressed in the gown and munching into the cake, she is capable of laughter. It’s no power inherent in the toiletries or baking either, this is all tough love.
The Destiny’s looks are a reflection of her transformed mood. She renames the princess Fortunata and gives her a square of gold braid as a christening present. The significance of the gift is at first lost on its recipient, but then Dame Francesca arrives at the palace to collect the washing and finds the prince in a terrible state. Dressing in his most regal uniform to review his troops, he has discovered a tiny piece of gold braid missing from his sleeve, and is now convinced he will be the laughing-stock of the kingdom.
“I think they may not notice it, your highness,” Dame Francesca points out. “Not notice it!” exclaims the prince. “Not notice it! What do I care whether they notice it or not? I notice it! How can I expect my troops to keep themselves in perfect trim, when I, their commander, appear before them in this slovenly condition?” Cue sartorial despair.
Dame Francesca, however, has a remedy. She runs home and returns with the braid. Instead of accusing her of theft, which wouldn’t have been surprising in the circumstances, the grateful prince offers her the braid’s weight in gold as a reward for her assistance. He expects to lay down a few coins and be done, but the scales won’t move. Even when a whole bag of gold is placed on the other side, the scale holding the braid stays fixed. Baffled, the prince asks his laundress for an explanation, and she produces Fortunata.
No sooner has the princess delivered her tale of woe than the prince is busy fixing things. An attention to detail is fantastic in situations like this. He repays the weavers and the shop keepers, then MARCHES OFF TO WAR to restore the king of Spain to his rightful throne. Chivalry is certainly not dead, but all Fortunata’s enemies soon are. With her father freed, her mother and sisters restored to their home, and all her enemies vanquished, Fortunata marries her extremely capable prince and hires Dame Francesca as nurse to her children. After all, they know the secret to living happily ever after.
This story feels like a myth turned sideways. Like the petty, unreliable gods of Greek mythology, the Destinies are moody and require appeasement, and if they aren’t sufficiently acknowledged they will descend to wreak havoc any way they can. It takes a careful measurement of psychological understanding and brute force to win the day, but it can be done – this fairy tale openly declares Destiny is not all powerful. Add that to the chivalrous glory of Fortunata’s prince and the fact his chief advisor seems to be his laundress, and I’m in love.