This week I’m recommending the work of an almost forgotten writer of literary Fairy Tales – Mary de Morgan (1850- 1907). During her lifetime she was overshadowed by more famous relatives such as her father, the eminent mathematician Augustus de Morgan, and her brother the great ceramicist William de Morgan and his artist wife, Evelyn. Yet Mary’s distinctive voice survives in her three collections of Fairy Tales. Some of the stories were first told to the children of her artistic friends including the daughters of William and Jane Morris and a nephew of Georgie Burne-Jones – the young Rudyard Kipling. That alone gives them a place in literary history. I’ll describe each of the three collections in turn.
“On a Pincushion and Other Fairy Tales” was published in 1877 with thirty rather gloomy illustrations by Mary’s brother, William. There are seven stories in the collection, most of them with a romance element. The first three are purportedly told by a jet brooch, a shawl-pin and an ordinary pin who are sharing a pin cushion. One story, “The Hair Tree”, is almost novella length. “On a Pincushion…”contains some of Mary’s best work, including her most famous story “A Toy Princess”. Unfortunately this collection doesn’t seem to be available as an ebook. You can get paperbacks photocopied from the original book but be aware that these can be a of variable quality and some omit the illustrations. “A Toy Princess” has been reprinted in a number of anthologies, such as “A Book of Princesses” (1963, edited by Sally Patrick Johnson) and “The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales” (1993, edited by Alison Lurie).
A second collection, “The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde and Other Stories”, was published in 1880. This consists of seven stories with illustrations by Walter Crane, one of the leading figures in the Arts and Crafts movement. The title story features a splendidly wicked princess. “The Heart of Princess Joan” is a striking tale about a long-suffering lover but overall there is less romance than in the first collection. Mary’s final book, “The Wind Fairies and Other Tales”, dates to 1900. There are nine stories charmingly illustrated by Olive Cockerell. Some are melancholy in tone and they don’t all have “happy ever after” endings. “The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde” and “The Wind Fairies” are both available as cheap ebooks or as overpriced paperback reprints. If you possibly can, seek out a Victorian copy of these beautiful books instead.
Many great collections of traditional tales were put together during the 19th century, which then inspired contemporary writers to create original Fairy Tales. I’ve already recommended the work of some of these writers, such as Hans Christian Andersen (see my post of January 2013), Oscar Wilde (November 2013), George MacDonald (January 2013) and Edith Nesbit (March 2016). Mary de Morgan’s Fairy Tales don’t have the wonderful poetic language of Wilde, the zany inventiveness of Nesbit, or the visionary quality of MacDonald. They are closest in style and mood to Andersen’s tales but owe less to traditional prototypes. What these three collections do provide is variety, originality and unpredictability.
Mary’s plots are her own and her stories can be long or short, funny or sad. Some are moral fables with limited supernatural elements, such as “The Story of a Cat” (“The Windfairies”) in which the life of a callous old miser is changed for ever by a strangely beautiful cat. Others are magic and monster-filled quests, rich in disturbing symbolism. In “The Hair Tree” for example, a young man has to get past killer-flowers with the eyes or lips of seductive women as he seeks hair-seeds to cure a selfish Queen of baldness. Some of the stories use biting humour to attack vices such as vanity and greed; others are told with emotional intensity as if the author was suffering along with her characters. Suffering is the word Many of Mary de Morgan’s characters are cruelly punished for what seem quite trivial faults or endure long separations from the people they love. The endings of her stories don’t all follow a set pattern. Some finish with a wedding and others with a funeral.
I’ve long wanted to know more about this author, so I recently bought a book by Marilyn Pemberton called “Out of the Shadows: The Life and Works of Mary De Morgan”. I learned a lot about the talented de Morgan family from this biography but sadly Mary herself remains in the shadows. Dr Pemberton has found out frustratingly little about many periods in Mary’s life. Mary features in other people’s stories as a “spare woman” who can always be relied on to help out family and friends – she nursed William Morris during his last illness. What is clear is that Mary knew a lot about suffering and grief. By the time her first collection of Fairy Tales was published, she had already lost her beloved father and three of her siblings.
When Mary wasn’t painting tiles for her brother, she earned a little money by writing articles and as a typist. She also did voluntary social work in poor areas of London and campaigned for the rights of workers, women, and animals. These interests are reflected in her fiction and help to explain why few of the wealthy and powerful characters in her Fairy Tales are flatteringly portrayed. Some of the issues underlying the stories seem quite topical again. For example, in “Siegfried and Handa” (“On a Pincushion”) an honest shoemaker is put out of work when his fellow villagers start buying cheap shoes from a visiting gnome but these shoes turn out to have a terrible cost in human lives.
Recent interest in Mary de Morgan has focused on her as a Feminist rather than as a storyteller. Her stories do make it obvious that she was frustrated by the codes of behaviour imposed on women of her era and the limited opportunities available to them. In “The Hair Tree”, Trevina a woman who has “transgressed” by refusing to marry for wealth and position is turned into a tigress and can only recover her real shape by being beaten by a man until she bleeds. In “A Toy Princess” a lively real princess called Ursula is replaced by a doll which can only say four things – “If you please,” “No, thank you,” “Certainly,” and “Just so.” Everybody at court is delighted with this polite Toy Princess who has none of the messy emotions of a real woman. Both Trevina and Ursula are given happy endings of a sort in the form of marriages to kindly men but the later stories seem more pessimistic. Mary may have sympathized with Fiorimonde’s plot to dispose of the royal suitors who plan to rule in her name but she doesn’t allow this independent princess to win. In a story called “The Wise Princess” (“The Necklace of Princess Fiormonde”), the princess’s intelligence and learning bring her no happiness and she only finds fulfillment in self-sacrifice.
In the later years of her life, Mary often seems to have been lonely and depressed but she went on writing and never stopped trying to help people. Failing health led her to move to Egypt for the dry climate (TB was the family curse) where she threw herself into the work of running a progressive “reformatory” for girls. She died in Cairo, a long way from family and friends. The title story in “The Windfairies” helps to sum up why I admire Mary de Morgan. In it, a miller’s daughter called Lucilla is able to see the windfairies who dance in the air and begs to be taught to dance like them. They agree but on condition that Lucilla never tells anyone who taught her to dance. If she does, she will never dance again and harm will befall those she loves. Lucilla becomes a wonderful dancer and is invited to display her skills at a royal court. A jealous Queen demands to know who Lucilla’s teacher was, so that she can be taught too. Lucilla keeps her promise to the windfairies and refuses to reveal the secret, even when she is offered a fortune and threatened with a series of horrible deaths. Like Lucilla, Mary stayed true to her early visions and loyal to the people she loved. She wrote about things she cared about in her own fashion, whether it was popular or not. The price for making the Toy Princess is “four cat’s footfalls, two fish’s screams, and two swan’s songs.” How could you not love an author who invented a detail like that? Until three weeks time..