For my first post of 2018 I’m recommending a novel by K.M.Briggs based on the British Fairy Tale known as “Kate Crackernuts”. The unusual thing about this story is that “ugly stepsister”, Kate, is the main heroine. In case you’re wondering, Kate’s nickname is due to her habit of hoarding nuts like a squirrel. The novel “Kate Crackernuts” was published in 1963 and reprinted in the Faber Finds Series in 2009. Katharine May Briggs (1898-1980) was an expert on the Folklore and Fairy Tales of the British Isles. The story of “Kate Crackernuts” probably originated in Scotland but was also known in the north of England. You can find a version of it in Dr Briggs’ wonderful scholarly book “A Dictionary of Fairies” (1976).
This novel is set in the mid 17th century and the story begins in a small castle in Galloway (south-west Scotland) which is the home of Andrew Lindsay, the Laird of Auchenskeoch. Andrew is a widower with one daughter, a beautiful fair-haired child called Katherine. At five years old Katherine first encounters dark-haired, green-eyed Kate, the only daughter of a haughty widow called Grizel Maxwell. The two girls seem opposites in every way but they become fast friends and see each other whenever they can. When Katherine is twelve, her beloved nurse leaves her to get married. Andrew feels that his daughter needs a minnie (mother) so he decides to marry Grizel Maxwell.
The two girls are delighted to become stepsisters but Grizel despises her meek stepdaughter. She resents the fact that Katherine has had a more luxurious upbringing than Kate and that everyone thinks the Laird’s daughter is prettier than her stepsister. Grizel is determined that the two girls shall be treated exactly alike but this only makes them happy because they love each other like real sisters. As time passes, Grizel’s obsessive hatred of Katherine increases. This frightens Kate who knows her mother’s dark secret – Grizel Maxwell is the Queen of the local witches. Grizel wants her daughter to become a witch too but Kate tries to resist the lure of the wild magic that is in her blood.
When Andrew leaves Auchenskeoch to fight for King Charles II in England, Grizel seizes her opportunity to harm her stepdaughter. She conspires with evil Henwife, Mallie Gross, to cast a cruel spell on Katherine. Can Kate help her stepsister without betraying her mother’s secret? Even when the two girls flee to England there is no escape from sorcery. Kate must defy the Seven Whistlers (the Wild Hunt) and risk entering a fairy hill in her battle to save two innocent souls from malign magic.
No 20th century scholar knew more about the Fairy Lore and Folktales of the British Isles than Katharine Briggs. She wrote a thesis on folklore in 17th century literature and published important books such as “The Anatomy of Puck”, “The Personnel of Fairyland” and her four volume “Dictionary of British Folktales and Legends”. If you can’t tell a boggart from a banshee or you want to find out about the King of the Black Art, the Gurt Vurm of Shervage Wood or the ghostly Drummer of Airlie, you need to consult Briggs’ work. She combined formidable scholarship with an easy to read style. Her reputation as a Folklorist remains high but few people remember that she also published two novels – “Hobberdy Dick”, the story of a hobgoblin who faithfully guards a manor house during the English Civil War, and “Kate Crackernuts”.
I suspect that these novels have failed to gain a wide readership because they were originally published as stories for children. When a scholar writes fiction about their academic subject there is always a danger that it may come out reading too much like a textbook. Briggs was determined to give her characters the mindsets of 17th century people and she was reluctant to simplify any aspect of their lives, even in the interests of good story-telling. Initially, “Kate Crackernuts” seems more like serious Historical Fiction than Fantasy. Children often enjoy reading about everyday life in the past (see my recent post on “A Traveller in Time”) but they’re less likely to be fascinated by a mass of detail about the history, religion and politics of 17th century Scotland. I love the use of Scots words in the dialogue (e.g. “The maid’s a silly fushionless tawpie” or “My poor wee whitterick!”) but young readers might find them baffling. So, I’m not sure that “Kate Crackernuts” works as a children’s story but it does now fit happily into a genre that hadn’t been invented in 1963 – the female-centred Young Adult novel.
“Kate Crackernuts” is a book in which the female characters are far more forceful than the males and the plot is driven by their actions. Free-spirited Kate, who loves to roam the countryside and hates being constrained by the conventions of lady-like behaviour, is a remarkably modern heroine. She has the courage and cleverness to protect her stepsister and rescue a young man who has been reduced to a helpless state by a curse. Pretty blonde Katherine gets most of the masculine attention in the story and it would have been easy to make her into an unlikable character. Briggs didn’t do that because “Kate Crackernuts” is primarily a story about female friendship. Katherine may not be feisty but she is utterly loyal to Kate and very much in charge when it comes to choosing a marriage partner.
The novel also features a difficult mother-daughter relationship. Kate and Grizel are shown as being very much alike but their wild streaks manifest in different ways. Grizel is a wicked stepmother you can admire as well as hate. She resents her poverty and despises the men around her, who are mainly much less intelligent than she is. Grizel claims to be indignant on her daughter’s behalf but seems mainly motivated by jealousy of the unbreakable bond between Kate and Katherine. Briggs makes memorable use of the wealth of 17th century material about belief in witchcraft. She weaves both humorous and horrible stories about witches into her narrative and makes you understand the attractions of witchcraft as well as its evils.
The spell placed on Katherine – which makes her believe that she is monstrously ugly – is truly chilling. Sadly it has a modern equivalent in the cruel bullying of young women which often takes places on social media. I wouldn’t be recommending “Kate Crackernuts” as my first book of the new year of it didn’t have a positive message about the power of female solidarity to defeat malice. This is a novel which deserves to win a new generation of readers. Until next time…