Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Romantic Fiction: A Grown Up Fairy Tale

I have a three year old daughter who is currently going through an obsession with Disney's Princesses. As a consequence much of my leisure time is spent absorbing Disney Princess films from the edges of my consciousness, from Snow White through to the Little Mermaid. It was when watching Ariel's Beginnings that Cora had that Bambi moment:

"What happened to Ariel's mummy?"

I contemplated momentarily how to address the whole can of worms that is maternal mortality and then opted for the truth. "Umm... she died."

Cora considered this for a moment and frowned, one eye on me, one eye on the movie. "Why? Why did she die?"

"She got squashed by a pirate ship," I said with a sigh, wishing I had chosen a more cowardly route and wondering if perhaps it is wrong to introduce the concept of parental death into the sheltered world of toddler-dom.

"Why? Why did she get squashed?" Cora's voice grew squeakier.

I settled her onto my knee. "She didn't move quickly enough."

"WHY?" Then with a worried expression she said: "Mummy, you won't get squashed will you?"

Cora is too young to realise that my continued existence stands in the way of her ultimate goal: to be a Disney Princess. Because Disney Princesses, generally speaking don't have mummies - or if they do, they are separated from them for the larger part of their lives (Sleeping Beauty). Disney princesses have daddies (Ariel, Jasmine, Belle) or wicked stepmothers (Cinderella, Snow White). The Princess and the Frog broke with convention by killing off daddy but retaining mummy, but it is far from the norm and Tangled represents a return to form: Rapunzel is removed from both her folks and looked after by a wicked surrogate who wants a piece of her magical hair.

There's nothing new about this razor sharp observation. The internet is replete with posts and blogs with titles such as What does Disney have against moms? 

Why does Disney hate all parents? And (my personal favourite) Disney says: "Destroy all the parents!"

Still it's an interesting question and one which is explored in some depth in a thesis by Ashli Ann Sharp entitled "Once Upon a Time in a Single Parent Family". As part of her thesis Sharp explores the history of fairy tales and the role Disney has as the modern gatekeeper of fairy tales. She quotes Jack Zipes (Happily Ever Afteras saying that no studio or filmmaker "can really challenge Disney Studios' corporate power over the means of distribution and the market for fairy-tale films."

I didn't study Disney when I was at University, I studied Ancient Greek Drama. I was fascinated by how myths and legends were conveyed and what that told us about the culture and society of the time. I wrote about the Medea and examined what Euripides might be telling us about attitudes to women and religion. That fascination applies just as equally to modern culture as to ancient. When Disney's Hercules came out, far from turning her nose up at its mass market appeal, my tutor loved it. "That's exactly what myths are about," she said. "They should be reinvented for every generation."

Ashli Ann Sharp makes the same point about fairy tales; change and growth are inherent in the genre. Fairy tales reflect the culture and concerns of the society we live in – in the 1980s and 1990s as divorce rates and single parent families increase in the USA, along with concerns about fatherlessness, Disney made a string of films depicting problematic father-daughter relationships (from the overbearing father with rebellious daughter, to the ineffectual father with the capable daughter) or films about sons trying to reconnect with absent fathers (Hercules). The ending is always the same; the broken family is reunited by the hero or heroine finding true love, thus reinforcing the desirability of the nuclear family.

The whole thing got me thinking about where romantic fiction fits into all of this.

To my mind romantic fiction is an evolution from the fairy tale and it too, reflects the values and concerns of the society in which we live. Fairy tales are of interest to all ages; as Sharp remarks, they help children to come to terms with the uncertainties in life and they allow adults to expose the hunger for power and hypocrisy which characterise some elements of society, often providing a moral compass for overcoming such challenges (virtue, love). They are perhaps of particular resonance with adolescents who, according to Sharp are experiencing "behavioral division with authority and the hormonal changes of puberty". Sharp goes on to say: "the first step in many fairy tales is for the protagonist to separate from his or her anxious parents who are uneasy with their child's sexual awakening. Often, a darkness lurks to impede—or compel—the developments of the protagonist from dependence to independence. Along the way, a life-long love is found and ultimately secured." So we see the wicked Queen in Snow White sending her step-daughter away as she becomes a challenge to her own beauty, and Sleeping Beauty's curse centring on her 16th birthday.

It is my belief that the themes which extend throughout fairy tales are also prevalent in romantic fiction. A brief and rather unscientific analysis of Georgette Heyer's Regency and Georgian heroines tells me that the vast majority are orphans. As far as I can work out, she has approximately seventeen orphaned heroines; four who have a father who is somewhat involved in their life (though in all cases the heroine is separated from him throughout the main action); three who have a mother still alive (only one of which is actually present) and three who have both parents still living (but separated from the heroine during the course of the action). The only novel which comes close to having a functional, two parent family unit is Arabella - in which the eponymous heroine is immediately packed off to London to experience her adventures and in fact claims she is an orphan.

In her thesis, Ashli Ann Sharp spends some time reflecting on the single parent unit in fairy tales and on the absence of mothers in particular, suggesting that originally the absence of birth mothers in fairy tales was a reflection of the genuinely high rate of maternal mortality in the middle ages and the modern Disney film, a reflection of a public desire for more active fathers. In romantic fiction, I think the key lies in role of the fairy tale in describing the maturation process.

Sharp quotes Max Lüthi's Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales:

"The development takes place in several stages, and each transition involves danger, privation, and fear. But the dangers are overcome, and the development leads to the light…Thus, the old is cast off and the new, which at first appeared so terrifying to us, becomes familiar, develops new capabilities and powers within us, and makes life meaningful." (112-13)

Lüthi here is using Rapunzel as a case study for maturation process. He could be just as easily describing the progress of the main protagonist in a romantic novel, who is removed from the constraints and possible infantalisation imposed by the family unit to face adventures which enable them to progress, develop and ultimately to find love as a mature adult. Many of Heyer's heroines are mature women in their late twenties but are still often trapped in some way by their family situation. In Venetia we see the eponymous heroine trapped in the small world of her sibling relationships and local friendships; through her relationship with the hero she discovers her true self, faces the secret at the heart of her family and is rewarded with love. The hero simultaneously finds his own redemption.

One of the key differences, perhaps, between fairy tales and the romantic fiction is that it usually concerns the journey of two individuals not one. Although I have focused here on heroines, most of Georgette Heyer's heroes are equally parentless or responsible for an ineffectual or needy mother. They too must fight their demons and progress to find the ultimate resolution in the arms of their love. Princes do not arrival dues ex machine to wake their princesses with a kiss; they are wholly involved in the fabric of the story. Modern fairy tales (post 1980 in this context) reflect this dynamic – so we move from Snow White where the two appearances of the prince herald in turn Snow White's emerging maturity and then her awakening, to Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, the Little Mermaid and Princess and the Frog where hero and heroine are not only both involved with the story, but also fight side by side and aide each other. To break the Beast's curse both Belle and the Beast must fall in love; neither is passive in the story. There are two points here: the modern fairy tale has drawn closer to the romantic novel in its emphasis in the central relationship rather than on just one character and there is greater equality within the relationships.

My conclusion is that the romance is the close cousin of the fairy tale. One of the reasons romance is so enduringly popular as a genre is because it draws upon the same deep symbolic meanings that are inherent in fairy tales. This has perhaps become more explicit in recent years with the explosion in sub-genres which fuse the fairy tale / fantasy world (or world of faerie) with romance, even going so far as being explicit reworkings of fairy tales (see Eloisa James' series on this).

Lüthi, Max. Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.
Sharp, Ashli Ann. Once Upon a Time in a Single-Parent Family: Father and Daughter Relationships in Disney's the Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Thesis, Brigham Young University, 2006
Zipes, Jack. Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry. New York: Routledge, 1997.

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