My Christmas curiosity is a Fairy Tale novel by a remarkable 19th century Irish-woman, Frances Browne (1816-1879).`Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ was first published in 1856 and seems to have been in print ever since. It is sometimes known by the longer titles of `Granny’s Wonderful Chair and its Tales of Fairy Times’ or `Granny’s Wonderful Chair and the Tales it Told’. To add to the confusion,`Secret Garden’ author Frances Hodgson Burnett introduced a reprint called `Stories from the Lost Fairy Book’. I found a vintage copy on a charity bookstall but you can get `Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ as a very cheap ebook or even download it for free. Be wary though, some of the ebook versions leave out much of the delightful framing story about a little girl called Snowflower and her grandmother’s magical chair.
`In an old time, long ago, when the fairies were in the world’ orphan Snowflower lives with her stern grandmother, Dame Frostyface. The only good piece of furniture in their tiny cottage is a `great armchair with wheels on its feet, a black velvet cushion, and many curious carvings of flowers and fawns on its dark oaken back.’ When Dame Frostyface has to visit her cross aunt, she leaves Snowflower alone in the cottage but tells her that if she wants company, the armchair will tell her one story a day and if she needs to go anywhere, the armchair will take her. Snowflower enjoys the stories told to her by `a clear voice from under the velvet cushion’ but after a few weeks she runs out of food. So she asks the chair to take her the way her grandmother went.
During the journey, Snowflower stops at the palace of King Winwealth and Queen Wantall who are celebrating the birthday of their daughter Princess Greedalind with a seven day feast. The kingdom was a happy place when it was jointly governed by Winwealth and his brother Wisewit but one midsummer day the good prince disappeared in the forest. Now the King is depressed and everyone in the capital city seems greedy and discontented. The courtiers and the palace servants treat Snowflower with disdain but Winwealth thinks it might be amusing to see the moving chair and find out if it can really speak. On each of the seven evenings of the feast, the chair tells a story at Snowflower’s bidding. When Wantall and Greedalind try to steal the wonderful chair, its secret is finally revealed.
After reading this book, I wanted to find out more about the author. I was shocked to discover that Frances Browne was blinded by smallpox when she was only 18 months old. She was the seventh of twelve children in a Donegal family that had fallen on hard times. Apparently she used to bribe her siblings to read books to her by doing their share of the housework. Frances soon began composing poems and short stories, which she dictated to one of her sisters. As a young woman, Frances intrepidly moved to Edinburgh and later to London, where she supported herself by her writing. I would never have guessed that `Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ was written by a blind person. This book glows with light and colour and is full of excellent descriptive detail. The `Blind Poetess of Ulster’ seems to have lived in the beautiful world of her imagination.
The last paragraph of `Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ acknowledges the influence of Hans Christian Andersen (see my January 2013 post on `The Snow Queen’) but Frances Browne was one of the earliest British writers to make up new Fairy Tales. The seven stories told by the chair feature kings and princesses, fairies, merpeople and magical animals and birds but they aren’t retellings of traditional folk tales. The plots are original and full of striking incidents, such as a shepherd being forced to shear a pack of shaggy wolves by moonlight (`The Greedy Shepherd’) or two children having to rescue their fathers from a fairy spell which has condemned them to plant acorns all day and all night (`The Lords of the White and Grey Castles’). There is a great deal of humour in these gentle stories which often comes out in character-names – like King Stiff-step of Stumpinghame, who rules a kingdom where large feet are admired (`The Story of Fairyfoot’).
The seven tales are cleverly integrated into the framing story. Some of them turn out to be the stories of guests at the royal feast, while Queen Wantall and her dreadful daughter miss the moral of the tale every time and covet the treasures won by virtuous behaviour. Yes, some of the tales do have a moral but is that a bad thing if they encourage children to be content with what they have, polite to everyone they meet (even fish) and kind to old people (even grumpy ones)? Frances Browne was no Puritan. Her good characters make other people happy and are merry themselves, as in the story of a fiddler called Merrymind who brings joy back into the lives of Dame Dreary and her people. This book shows great sympathy for poor children who suffer hardship and humiliation, presumably because the author had experienced real poverty herself. There is also nostalgia for rural life in a pre-industrial age before `the hum of schools’ and `the din of factories’ frightened the fairies away.
I’ve chosen `Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ as my Christmas book because in three of the stories wonderful things happen at Christmas – a young girl returns home from fairyland in a chariot drawn by six white horses (`The Story of Childe Charity’); the seapeople sleep for the only time in the year, allowing two of their captives to plan an escape (`Sour and Civil’); and a magical cuckoo brings leaves from the two trees that grow at the end of the world (`The Christmas Cuckoo’). The leaves of the Golden Tree bring riches but the leaves of the Merry Tree give happiness. Which would you choose? I wish all my readers a joyful Christmas or Holiday season. Until next year…