Let’s Have A Rousing Discussion About Truth, Dragons and Historically Authentic Sexism

For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.

– Virginia WoolfCranky Ladies logo

Tomorrow is the first day of Women’s History Month. Throughout March FableCroft Publishing are running a Pozible campaign for their new anthology, Cranky Ladies of History, and co-editor Tehani Wessely has organised a blog tour to explore the legacy of women who were unconventional, rebellious, or outright revolutionary. Which means we get to talk about HISTORY!

Most girls grow up surrounded by storybook princesses. The ones I liked best were Elizabeth, Victoria and Cleopatra, thanks to a series of fictional autobiographies in my local library’s children’s section. Having been consuming period dramas and documentaries from a very young age, my brain houses a disordered archive of historical detail, from the failed strategies of the Battle of Hastings to what wealthy Tudors used for toothpaste (sugar, if you really want to know. Don’t try this at home!)

History is, after all, one long, unpredictable story with countless fan fiction spin-offs, and I am easily hooked into a good story. All my life I’ve been fascinated by the past, but I have never had the slightest desire to actually go there. It is, as they say, a foreign country, and not a particularly pleasant one if you happen to be female. That we need a dedicated month tells you everything you need to know about the way women have been treated by humanity’s (mostly male) record-keepers.

There was some debate online in late 2012 about ‘historically authentic sexism’ in fantasy and science fiction, kicking off with this article on the Mary Sue and continuing with glorious sarcasm from Tansy Rayner Roberts and Foz Meadows. To summarise, if you find giant fire-breathing lizards more credible than women as active participants in a narrative, you may have problems. The best narratives, naturally, have both, but I digress.

History is a vast mosaic of human experience and for a very long time the pieces about women have been treated as insignificant. The very word woman, derived from Old English, is an amalgamation of wīf (wife) and man (person). According to the actual language, if you weren’t male, you were not really a person; you could only be married to one. Over the course of generations, women’s experiences and achievements have been belittled, forgotten and ignored, sometimes out of deliberate malice but more often from a pervasively misogynistic mindset. The wives of Henry VIII are still forced into the boxes they were given during their lifetimes, their contributions to the Tudor dynasty dismissed, while the nine days queen Jane Grey is held up as a martyr to the ambition of others instead of the intelligent and politically aware young woman she was. The dispute between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots becomes a beauty contest. Cleopatra is treated as a seductress, not a politician. Nuance, automatically granted to male contemporaries, is something women have had to win.

Which is incredibly frustrating, because there are SO MANY amazing women throughout history. If you want leaders, there’s the Iceni queen Boudicca, who struck fear into the heart of the Roman Empire. Cleopatra, the only Ptolemaic monarch who bothered to learn the Egyptian language. The African warrior Amina Sarauniya Zazzua, who led military campaigns while her mother governed then inherited power for a thirty four year reign. Not to forget Elizabeth, the ultimate politician and devastatingly brilliant academic, or Queen Victoria, who ruled over an empire so vast it was said the sun never set on her lands. Then there are the revolutionaries: Harriet Tubman, who escaped a savagely abusive plantation owner and went on to rescue more than three hundred slaves. Joan of Arc, the teenage girl who led a French army with force of conviction alone. Constance Markievicz, an Irish activist and the first woman to be elected to the British House of Commons. When asked to give fashion advice, her reply was “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank, and buy a revolver.”

In the sciences, there was Hypatia, inventor of the astrolabe and hydroscope; Maria Agnesi, so committed to mathematics she wrote solutions in her sleep; Marie Curie, who won a Nobel Prize for her investigation of radioactivity. In literature, well, take your pick. Aphra Behn was one of the first female playwrights in Restoration England and part-time spy for Charles II. The Brontë sisters created heroines fuelled by incontrovertible self-respect. Mary Shelley arguably invented the science fiction genre; Murasaki Shikibu arguably invented the novel.

I don’t require my favourite ladies of history to have been nice, or even on the paler side of moral grey. All it takes to get on my radar is to be interesting. Ching Shih, for instance, a former prostitute who became a pirate queen so unstoppable that the only way to end her marauding was to offer her a comfortable retirement – just knowing she existed makes me happy. But she wasn’t the only female pirate in history, not by a long shot. Every time someone says, ‘women never did that!’, I guarantee you there was a woman who did.

Writers of historical fiction incur an immediate responsibility, because the stories we hear are the realities we believe. Writing about real people from history is an even greater challenge. However detailed the account of their life, there are gaps where fiction can only conjecture – but it can also breathe life and soul into the names of people who died centuries ago. I’m glad those ‘autobiographies’ were waiting for me, and all the other stories from history I have read since. They are an important part of reclaiming women’s lives, so long belittled and dismissed. They remind us of the remarkable achievements of the past, and the limitless potential of the future.

And that being ‘cranky’ isn’t always such a bad thing.

Review No.144 – Blackout

Blackout – Mira Grant (Newsflesh No.3)

Orbit, 2012

The world is suffering through the beginnings of another apocalypse. Does it need to know that the most powerful organisation in America unleashed hell deliberately to bury the truth? Does it need to know that Shaun Mason, one of the last faces left that the public trusts, is in hiding with a mad scientist and the delusion of his dead sister? The end is coming, one way or another, and no one is getting out untouched. But death isn’t as reliable an ending as it used to be. And no one knows that better than Georgia Mason.

Deadline, book two of the Newsflesh trilogy, ended with one killer cliffhanger. Blackout takes that cliffhanger and raises it to epic proportions. I literally had no idea what would happen next, and read until it hurt. As the full depth of the conspiracy is revealed and the body count rises, the threads of three books come together in a fantastically intense finale.

Review No.143 – Cold Steel

Cold Steel – Kate Elliott (Spiritwalker No.3)

Orbit, 2013

The world is changing. The Wild Hunt has slaughtered the ruler of the Taino Kingdom and abducted a powerful cold mage to feed the spirit courts it serves. The exiled general Camjiata is returning to Europa to lead a revolution. At the centre of it all is Catherine Barahal, daughter of a renegade Amazon and the Master of the Wild Hunt. While the traditional balance of power breaks down into a chaos of discontent, defiance and outright rebellion, her priorities are simple: to save her husband and reunite with her cousin. All she has to do first is escape a murder trial, elude the wrath of a rogue fire mage and survive the storm of two worlds at war…

The third installment in the Spiritwalker trilogy brings Cat and Bee’s adventures to an explosive conclusion. The series has been an ambitiously original blend of steampunk, alternate history and epic fantasy, and this last book throws everything on the table. I had mixed feelings about Cat in this one – with Bee, she’s wonderful, but I felt her relationship with Andevai progressed to the detriment of her character. Of course, Bee makes everything wonderful just by being in the scene, so there’s that. This has been a solid, well-crafted and innovative series and all the threads come together for a strong ending.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.79 – The Red Pearls

This fairy tale comes from Chinese Fairytales, an anthology by Sun Xuegang and Cai Guoyun, and takes a delightfully unexpected approach to a familiar set-up. A young woodcutter called Liu Hai lives in a small cottage in the forest with his blind, elderly mother. One morning he goes out with his axe and spies a large dead tree that will be easy work to disassemble. In fact, it’s ridiculously easy. All he has to do is lift his axe and the tree falls to bits in front of him. Bewildered and a bit suspicious, he nevertheless makes use of his good fortune and ties the lot into a bundle.

His benefactor is not long in presenting herself. Liu Hai notices a girl on the path behind him as he returns home and when he reaches his cottage she tries to follow him inside. “Who are you?” he asks, baffled. “Why are you following me from the forest?” The girl introduces herself as Ninth Sister and asks for water. That’s only for starters, though; as soon as she’s finished drinking, she brushes blithely past her host to go chat with his mum. Pulling out a string of red pearls, she swings the jewels before the old lady’s eyes and her sight is magically restored.

That’s one hell of an icebreaker. Ninth Sister then goes on to explain that she is homeless, living in the forest, and has been watching Liu Hai for a while. “Forgive my boldness,” she tells his mother, “but I want to marry him and live here as your daughter-in-law.”

Liu Hai thinks this is a terrible idea. He can’t afford to look after another person, his time is taken up with the care of his mother, this girl is a bit odd…but she’s also beautiful and forthright and his mother thinks she’s fantastic, so it’s not that hard to win him over. They marry the same day. Life continues steadily for some time, until one day Ninth Sister goes to the market and a blind beggar comes calling on Liu Hai’s mother. Sympathising with the stranger’s plight, the kind-hearted old lady fetches out her daughter-in-law’s red pearls to replicate her own cure, but this beggar is not all he seems. As soon as the jewels are held before him, he snatches them and turns to run.

This is when Ninth Sister returns home. Realising what’s happened, she tries to stop the beggar too, but then he transforms into an enormous golden toad and leaps into a passing breeze. Clearly, this is not your run of the mill type burglary. Ninth Sister bursts into tears. “Now I can no longer live here with you and Liu Hai!” she cries, and runs away into the mountains.

When the news is related to her husband, he immediately sets out after her. She has made no effort to hide; before long he comes across a cave where she sits crying with her sisters. They are, as it turns out, all fox spirits. After millennia studying the Tao, Ninth Sister turned her life energy into the pearls and could stay in the human world, but now they are stolen she can’t come back. “Even if you were a fox, I would still love you,” Liu Hai declares. “I will find the golden toad and bring back your pearls!”

At this point, his walking stick starts to talk. It is apparently a god. Having listened first-hand to Liu Hai’s troubles, it offers to help him locate the toad, who is currently in his own cave gloating over the pearls. His plan is to swallow them and become immortal. When Liu Hai and the fox spirits appear outside, the toad throws handfuls of magic coins that become a minor avalanche of stones. The walking stick protects its owner/ worshipper and the sisters use their own magic to repel the boulders, but by the time they reach the cave the toad has already swallowed the pearls.

This is the sort of situation when it’s nice to have a god on your side. The walking stick turns into a boa constrictor and squeezes the toad so hard the pearls are forced out of his mouth. When Ninth Sister has safely reclaimed them, the walking stick releases its victim, and the toad limps unhappily away. The fox spirits don’t care; their sister’s life and happiness has been restored and she returns home with her husband. And his omniscient walking stick.

A supportive husband who doesn’t care his wife is supernatural, a clan of fox spirits and a walking stick with convenient godly powers – there is much to like. Best of all, Liu Hai doesn’t need to kidnap his magical lover to make her marry him. She could see what kind of a man he was for herself.

Review No.142 – Rose Under Fire

Rose Under Fire – Elizabeth Wein

Electric Monkey, 2013

During the summer of 1944, as the Allies fight their way across France, Rose Justice joins the war. A young American pilot delivering planes and taxiing passengers for the ATA, she has seen the impact of the past few years on Great Britain, but she has chosen to take the risks and chafes at not being allowed to do more. Then she is sent to France, and the same woman will never come back. Because in France, she is captured.

This book has been categorised as YA, along with Wein’s earlier novel Code Name Verity, and I really can’t understand why. YA is a fantastic and extremely flexible genre, and a teenage audience could certainly read Wein, just as they could read any other writer. But if these books are YA, what the hell does it take to be categorised as adult fiction?

Reading Code Name Verity was a shattering experience, but even that is insufficient preparation for Rose Under Fire. The only word is harrowing. And yet, this is Wein’s skill: she makes the unbearable real, makes it possible to read. She takes statistics and restores their humanity. This book does not have the devious twists and turns of Code Name Verity; it is the same war seen from an entirely different angle, and with a different kind of defiance, the kind that holds you together when an entire bureaucracy of the inhumane is doing its best to tear you apart. I could not bear reading stories like this very often, but they need to be told. They need to be remembered.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.78 – Three Heads of the Well

This week’s fairy tale is taken from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s collection The Magic Lands: folk tales of Britain and Ireland, and it certainly doesn’t mince words. Less than a year after the death of his first wife, a cash-strapped king goes looking for a wealthy new bride. The woman he chooses is a cranky, paranoid widow whose physical appearance is described in the most unflattering terms, and her reason for marrying a man who doesn’t love her is so that her daughter will inherit the crown. There is only one problem with that – the king already has an heir, his own daughter Eleanor.

Having a sad lack of witchcraft at her disposal, the stepmother launches a whisper campaign. The young princess is still grieving for her mother and her misery deepens at the unexpected distance growing between herself and her father. Taking the practical course, she goes to him and announces her intention to go on a journey. He’s all too amenable to the idea, but because he is an idiot he delegates the task of preparations to his wife. The bundle Eleanor receives contains no money and no clothing, and barely enough food to last a day.

She sets off anyway, walking all day through the beechwood beyond the palace, and only stops in the late afternoon when she comes to a glade. It is already occupied; an old man seated on a stone calls out a cheery greeting. Eleanor politely offers a share of her meagre supplies and they share a late lunch. As a reward for the kind gesture, the old man gives her directions to a thick thorn hedge just beyond the forest. That doesn’t sound like much of a reward, it’s true, but he throws in a rowan twig that will magically part the hedge. Further on, the old man continues, there will be a well and three heads floating in it. The princess should do whatever they say.

Well, Eleanor did go looking for an adventure. She follows the old man’s directions to the well and sure enough, there are three golden heads bobbing in the water. They ask her to wash and comb them, and Eleanor – who may have nothing else, but brought her comb! – does exactly that. When she’s done and all the heads are lined up on a bank of wildflowers, they discuss between themselves what to do for this lovely young lady. The first decides to give her enchanting beauty. The second gives her skin and breath a sweeter scent than a flower garden. The last head plots to match her up with ‘the best of all princes’. They then ask Eleanor to return them to the well, after which she continues calmly on her journey. She is now accompanied by an entourage of adoring birds. Basically, they’ve transformed her into a Disney princess.

The path she is following just happens to lead her through a beautiful park. Seeing a king and his huntsmen riding through the trees, Eleanor turns in a different direction; she’s had quite enough of kings for one day. Fairy tale royalty are not, however, reknown for their ability to take a hint, and the king is charmed by her amazing floral fragrance. He insists on inviting her inside. Once he has her there, he does everything he can think of to please and impress her, proving that perhaps he is the best of princes after all, only not actually a prince any more. Eleanor is won over by his skilful conversation and agrees to marry him. It is only after the wedding that she tells him who her father is; his reaction is to laugh and order his extravagantly fancy carriage for a family visit. That third head had excellent judgement.

When Eleanor arrives, her father is pacing the grounds, a tiny bit uneasy about sending his only child off into the unknown with so little ceremony. He is astounded to see her step from a royal carriage, bedecked in new jewellery with a handsome husband on her arm. The entire court goes into party mode, with feasting and music, but Eleanor’s stepmother is in no temper to join them. Drawing aside her daughter, she provides a bag of sweets and sherry and tells her to follow the same track as her stepsister. This naturally leads her to the same glade. The old man is still there, only this time the meeting doesn’t go so well; the girl won’t allow him a bite from her bag and he wishes her bad luck in her journey.

Untroubled, she continues on her way and comes to the thorn hedge. She thinks there is a gap, but as she’s squeezing through it closes around her and she emerges with torn skin and clothes. Her first thought when she sees the well is to wash away the blood and when three heads come bobbing unexpectedly to the surface, the girl reacts by whipping out her mother’s sherry and whacking each one with the bottle. “What shall we do for this girl,” the heads mutter darkly, “who has been so cruel to us?” They don’t take long to decide. The first head gives her sores, the second rancid breath, and the third predicts her marriage to a common cobbler.

There is no king awaiting her just down the track; she has to sleep on bare earth. The next morning she comes to a market town where everyone shrinks back in alarm from her livid sores – everyone apart from a kind-hearted cobbler. He offers to cure both afflictions if she will marry him, and given her options at the time, the girl accepts. In a strange turn of events, the cobbler only just mended a penniless old man’s shoes and took a bottle and box of ointments as payment. It takes a few weeks, but slowly the girl is restored to what she was. She marries the cobbler and returns home to introduce him to her mother.

That…does not go well. The queen commits suicide. Her husband inherits the wealth he married her for and has no remaining interest in his stepdaughter, so the girl returns home with her husband. While he mends shoes, she weaves cloth and dyes it all the brightest colours she can, and never returns to the palace.

There are endless variations on this particular fairy tale. A pair of sisters are subjected to the same magical test, with the first to be lavishly rewarded (note to magic-users: having diamonds drop from her mouth with every word is taking it way too far) and the second to be punished with equal severity (toads and snakes is WAY WAY too far). This one, though, is interesting. The stepsister has a story of her own – as the spoiled daughter of a wealthy, ambitious woman, brought into the household of a man who doesn’t give a damn about either of them, her brusqueness sounds like a self defence tactic to me. She takes on disembodied heads with a sherry bottle, and she only marries the cobbler after weeks experiencing his kindness. After the loss of her mother and inheritance, she makes a new life as a weaver, making cloth and dying it ‘all the colours of the rainbow’.

This is a girl who will make her own happily ever after.

Review No.141 – Here Be Dragons

Here Be Dragons (The Deep No.1) – Tom Taylor

Gestalt Publishing, 2011

The Nektons are a family of explorers. Their home is a state-of-the-art submarine, their version of normality teaching fish to play fetch. When stories of a sea monster emerge from Greenland, the Nektons are hot on its trail. This is the find of a lifetime! But can anyone really be ready for a creature that bites a blue whale in half?

I’d heard a little bit about Taylor’s graphic novel series before but it was this glowing review at No Award that made me borrow it from the library and I’m glad I did. Though it’s shelved in with the young fiction, Here Be Dragons is readable for any age – bright, funny and fast-paced, with a family of delightfully eccentric heroes – and James Brouwer’s art is full of personality. The series continues with The Vanishing Island.

Review No.140 – Ember Island

Ember Island – Kimberley Freeman

Hachette Australia, 2013

Nina Jones is a desperate woman. With the overdue deadlines for her fourth novel weighing heavily on her and a crippling case of writer’s block, she seizes on the first available excuse to disappear – overseeing the repairs at Starwater, the house she owns on Ember Island. It belonged to her great grandmother, a gifted author, and Nina hopes to find some remnants of her work still concealed there. She is not the only woman to have come here in search of refuge. Over a century ago, Tilly Kirkland fled the rubble of her home and reinvented herself as a governess on an isolated prison island. Even here, she cannot elude the grief and guilt of memory: the way she decides to do that will be the greatest risk of all.

Something I liked very much about Ember Island, and Freeman’s earlier novel Lighthouse Bay, is the respect she has for women marginalised in their own time. Their resourcefulness, intelligence and individuality are not always supported by other characters, but are always celebrated by the narrative. The element of romance was more dominant in this book than in Lighthouse Bay, which irritated me at times – romance is not a favourite genre of mine – but while I would have preferred more surprises and greater depth, this is an easy, enjoyable read with a strong sense of place.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.77 – A Deception of Doors

Many fairy tales, especially those that survived the Victorian era and became modern classics of the Western world, started life as morality stories. Some meanings are remain obvious – helping the elderly and the poor is common decency, stealing from witches or indeed anyone else is not a good idea, and small children should be discouraged from wandering off and talking to wolves without adult supervision. Others are so inexplicable that I can only assume the word ‘morality’ has been mistranslated as ‘arbitrary and extreme rules that should not be tried at home’. Forcing your daughter to sleep with a frog is terrible parenting! So is marrying her off against her will. Stealing a baby away and telling your wife it died to test her devotion is full on psychopathic.

I’ve never quite decided where ‘Bluebeard’ sits on this scale. Bluebeard certainly gets punished for his homicidal hobby, but even quite modern retellings tend to imply all the escalation is the girl’s fault – that if she’d simply accepted there was a hidden door in her house that reeked of blood, and not ever been tempted to go inside, she’d have been okay. Punishing women for perfectly natural curiosity is not an uncommon theme in folklore, something I’ve discussed in a previous post. This week I want to take a closer look at that from a slightly different angle, with  three versions of what is essentially the same story.

There’s a girl, and a key, and a killer. And a door that must never, ever be opened.

Version 1: The Feather Bird

Once upon a time a wizard with a Bluebeard complex went around in the guise of a beggar, tricking kind-hearted girls by coming to the door asking for bread and enspelling them into a sack. This Grimm brothers story begins when the wizard targets his next set of victims and kidnaps the eldest of three daughters. He drags her back to his castle, then pretends to be in love by giving her whatever she wants – except of course her FREEDOM.

This charade lasts for two days, at the end of which time the wizard arranges a journey. In true Bluebeard style, he gives the girl the household keys, instructing that there is this one key, yes, this one here that she is never permitted to use. He also gives her an egg that she must carry around wherever she goes. If anything happens to the egg, bad things are guaranteed to follow.

Bad things have already happened. The girl grabs her chance to find out a few wizardly secrets, unlocking the forbidden door, and inside the room she finds a large basin of fresh blood. In her shock she drops the egg and it rolls unerringly in the basin. Though she snatches it up instantly and scrubs it fiercely, she can’t remove the mark. Of course she can’t. It is the first thing the wizard notices on his return. “Have you, then, dared to enter that room against my will?” he accuses. “Then now you enter it against yours.” And, seizing her by the hair, he drags her inside and locks the door.

He kidnaps the second sister that same day, and events play out to an identical pattern.

Then he gets hold of the youngest girl and she doesn’t just ignore the instruction about the keys – she ignores the bit about the egg. Smart kid that she is, she puts it down before going to explore. When she opens the locked door, she sees her sisters sprawled on the floor around the basin, slowly starving to death. She goes back and forth through the room as she nurses them back to health, but because the egg remains unmarked the wizard assumes she’s never set foot inside and doesn’t think to check on his previous victims. Instead, he proposes marriage. The youngest sister coolly replies that if he really thinks she’s that wonderful, he will take a sack of gold as a dowry to her parents’ house. This he does, little knowing that the two girls he tried to murder are hidden under the gold.

The sack is naturally quite heavy. Several times along the journey he tries to stop and rest, but one of the sisters cries out an admonishment and he thinks it is his bride-to-be calling out from her window back at the castle. Possibly they are ventriloquists, or he’s just stupid; either way, he goes all the way the house, depositing the sack and starting back towards the castle. The youngest sister has been very busy while he was gone. After distributing wedding invitations to the wizard’s friends she whips up a feast and makes the mannequin of a bride from a turnip and veil. She props it at the topmost window, so from a distance it seems to be a girl looking down. Then she rolls in honey and feathers and transforms herself into a magnificent bird-woman. Though she meets with her guests on her way out, they mistake her for avian royalty and let her pass untroubled. Even the wizard himself does not recognise her. He reaches the castle and enters – which is when the small army of furious villagers alerted by the elder sisters descend, setting fire to the castle and burning it down with the wizard and all his friends inside.

He really should have left them alone.

Version 2: The Brides of the Bear

This story, taken from Hamlyn’s Russian Fairy Tales, has a similar theme. A family of three daughters live in a meadow that is bordered by forest; a bear and his cat live in a forest that is bordered by the meadow. One day the bear demands his pet go forth and find him a bride, correctly surmising his proposals will not go down well in person. The cat pays a visit to the neighbours, parading in front of the eldest daughter and leading her away into the woods. She is so eager to catch the pretty creature that she runs right up to the bear’s cottage before she realises what she’s doing.

A clarification: when the bear said ‘bride’, what he actually meant was ‘household slave’. He tells the girl she must stay and take care of the house, and in exchange he will supply her with wood. He also hands over a ring of keys, carefully pointing out which cupboard she is forbidden to ever, ever open. The next day, when the bear and the cat have left the house, what does the girl do with that information? Go on, guess.

Inside the cupboard there are five tubs. Curiously, the girl pokes at the nearest and her finger comes out golden. She quickly slams the cupboard shut and disguises the finger under a bandage, but the bear is not fooled; in a manic rage, he bites her to death and throws her body to the back of the forbidden cupboard. This is like a twisted version of ‘Goldilocks’. Please tell me this isn’t what happened when Baby Bear grew up.

The bear is still in want of a housekeeper, so he orders the cat to provide him with another bride and events duly repeat themselves. Girl chases cat, girl is imprisoned by bear, girl opens cupboard. Mauling her to death and throwing her after her sister, the bear demands yet another replacement, and the cat obliges by tricking the third sister from the safety of her home. What the bear doesn’t know, though, is that the cat is thoroughly sick of his murderous behaviour. The next day, when the bear leaves the cottage to fetch wood, the cat remains behind to watch over its latest mistress. Seeing her unlock the third cupboard, it races over to intercept her. “Don’t dip your finger into it, put a stick in it instead!”

The girl heeds this advice and proceeds to experiment with all five tubs. The first turns the stick gold, the second silver, the third lead. When she dips it in the fourth tub, it grows green, but the fifth shrivels the new buds and leaves the stick dead. Behind the fifth tub, the girl discovers the bodies of her sisters. The experimentation yields a result; the girl bathes her eldest sister in magical water, restoring her to life. Then they cook up a plan.

All the bear notices her cooking, when he comes back, is pancakes. Her fingers are unbandaged, so he assumes the cupboard has been left untouched. He is so pleased with this show of blind obedience that he consents to carry a portion of pancakes to the cottage in the meadow, in honour of the girl’s mother’s birthday. He doesn’t notice that one of his erstwhile corpses creeps inside the basket first and is concealed underneath a layer of panckes. Neither does he question how each time he stops to rest the voice of his wife sounds at his ear, urging him onwards. Assuming she just has excellent eyesight and a strident voice, he travels all the way to the meadow. Here he is set upon by a pack of local dogs and drops the basket in his haste to get away.

The next day the girl repeats her plan, frying up a batch of potato cakes – in honour of her father’s birthday, this time – and asking the bear to carry them home for her. Set upon once again by the dogs, he doesn’t notice the second of his ‘wives’ crawling out of the basket and legging it across the meadow.

On the third day, the girl has run out of relatives to cook for, so she invents a brother and whips up cakes to celebrate. She then climbs into a basket and piles cakes on top of herself. As an extra measure she has made a dummy of herself from a barrel and broom, swathing them in her cloak and scarf and propping them on the roof. This isn’t the brightest bear in the woods, you know? He proves it by carrying the suspiciously heavy basket to the edge of the meadow, as before, and mistaking the dummy in the cloak for the real girl upon his return home. He shouts at her to come down and when she doesn’t, starts hammering at the cottage. The shaking brings the barrel down on his head, and that is the end of him. The girls live peacefully together in the cottage in the meadow, and the cat gives up matchmaking for good.

Version 3: The Long Tale of the Widow and Her Three Daughters

This one comes from Scottish Fairy Tales, collected and adapted by Margaret Lyford-Pike. An impoverished widow and her three daughters eke out a living from the cabbages they grow and when their livelihood is threatened by the ravenous appetite of an enormous horse marauding in the neighbourhood, the eldest daughter goes out to stand guard. She tries to drive the horse away with the distaff from her spinning wheel, but this plan doesn’t work out so well. Her hand sticks to the distaff, the distaff sticks to the horse’s hand, and the girl is dragged away against her will.

They run for a long time. At last the horse comes to a green hill and demands entry. Inside lies a hidden mansion, where the horse transforms into a handsome prince. He brings water to wash the girl’s sore feet, offers a delicious dinner and a comfortable bed – in fact he gives her everything except an explanation. In the morning he offers one thing more: a ring of keys. In obedience to the Bluebeard Principle, he points out the one door she mustn’t open, then leaves to her to do exactly that.

Does it surprise ANYONE that the room is full of dead girls?

Panicked, she flees the room, retreating to the kitchen to collect her thoughts. That’s when she notices her foot is marked by a drop of blood, and all the washing in the world won’t make it go away. While she’s stubbornly soaking it, a little cat appears in the room, offering to lick the blood away in exchange for a dish of milk. The girl shouts at her to go away and hastens to prepare a meal in the hopes of distracting the prince. Of course that doesn’t work; he knew exactly what would happen and now demands to see the evidence. As soon as he sees the blood on her foot, he seizes his axe and chops off her head, then drags her body away to the locked room.

The next day he goes back to the widow’s garden to fetch the second daughter. She tries to shoo him away with her sewing, gets caught instead, and ends up in the hidden palace with a door she’s forbidden to ever open. By the end of the day, there’s another body behind it.

Which leaves only one girl left, deeply worried about her sisters but aware that if the horse eats any more of their cabbages her mother will starve. So she sets up outside as guard, like the others, and is dragged back to the house under the hill the same way. When the prince leaves in the morning she unlocks the forbidden door and finds a butchery inside, with her sisters’ bodies among the dead. While she’s frantically scrubbing away the blood in the kitchen, the cat approaches her too, and this girl is only too happy to accept her help.

Sure enough, one lick of the cat’s tongue wipes away the blood, and over a dish of milk she provides detailed instructions on what to do next. Top on my list would be finding a door and getting out, but the cat tells her to do the opposite: she must stay and act unsurprised by anything the prince does. He is apparently under the spell of an evil witch and is acting out her orders. The trick to survival is breaking the curse.

The girl spends the rest of the day on housecleaning and by the time the prince gets back there’s an excellent dinner waiting for him. Seeing no bloodstain on her feet, he assumes her to have abided by his restriction and the evening is unmarred by sudden death. The prince instead exerts himself as a conversationalist. The next day the girl and the cat continue their plotting with more milk and another round of cleaning, this time scrubbing up three chests from the cellar. After dinner that night, the girl suggests that the chests might make a nice gift for her mother, only the prince should deliver them in the dark. Her mother may freak out at the sudden appearance of murderous royalty.

On the third day, following the cat’s instructions, the girl drags her sisters’ bodies from the forbidden room. The cat washes them thoroughly with her tongue, restoring them to life. As they wouldn’t stay that way for long with the prince around, the girl moves onto stage two and hides them in two of the chests, covering them up with gold and silver from the prince’s treasury. When he returns that evening, the girl greets him with more fine food and an extra cup of wine, promising that by the time he’s finished with dinner the chests will be ready to take to her mother. That’s when she dashes downstairs and clambers into the last one. The prince transports them all to the widow’s house, then goes home, expecting his obedient little bride to be waiting.

When he finds out she’s not, he returns to the cottage in a rage, hammering on her door until the youngest sister pulls it open and neatly chops off his head. Ah, poetic justice! This, however, was all a part of the plan. The prince jumps up, alive and uncursed and in an excellent mood. The youngest girl agrees to marry his shiny new self and her sisters cope with their post traumatic stress in financial comfort. As for the other dead girls, presumably SOMETHING is done with them, now that Mr Serial Killer has left the building, but all that gets washed away in the tide of happy ever after.

This last story is – in the retelling I read at least – openly disapproving of the sisters’ curiosity, and interestingly is also the one that most closely resembles ‘Bluebeard’. The prince’s redemption is…look, I accept curses as a valid plot device, but regardless of who really chose to go on that killing spree, it was the prince who beheaded those girls and I really, really don’t feel comfortable about him getting rewarded at the end. Because these are not stories about obedience and duty. In my post Three Men Not To Marry, the girls I wrote about were tricked into believing the best of their homicidal husbands. They had money, choices, a chance at rescue. In these versions, the girls are poor. They are kidnapped, controlled, and there are no convenient brothers coming to save them.

If these are morality tales, they aren’t saying that curiosity is bad. They’re saying to trust your instincts. Find out the truth. And most importantly: if you’re going to break one rule, break them all, then run like hell.

Review No.139 – The Time Traveller’s Wife

The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

Harcourt, Inc., 2004

Clare met Henry for the first time when she was six years old. He told her then that he was a time traveller; a man who, through some accident of genetics, would be abruptly and involuntarily transported into other times and places. He told her he would come back, and he always did. It has been two years since Clare saw him, and when she meets him again she knows everything is about to begin – the life she always knew she was heading towards, promised in snatches of accidental prophecy. The only thing is, Henry has not yet met her. When the past and future are woven into such terrible knots, the most certain things in the world might be the hardest to keep.

The Time Traveller’s Wife is beautifully written, rich with incidental detail that layers depth into all its characters and most of all into its central lovers, Clare and Henry. The structure of the story is unusual; it requires careful reading to follow the convoluted time streams of an extraordinarily strange relationship. The idea of time travel as a genetic disorder, something akin to epilepsy, is bizarre and brilliant and very consistently crafted. This is Niffenegger’s first book – her more recent works include the dreamlike modern fairy tale Raven Girl and a second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, which is now waiting on my To Read list.