Really Very Wicked

December 29, 2012

“Once there lived a King, whose wife was dead, but who had a most beautiful daughter—so beautiful that every one thought she must be good as well, instead of which the Princess was really very wicked, and practised witchcraft and black magic, which she had learned from an old witch who lived in a hut on the side of a lonely mountain.”

 

So begins “The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde,” a fairy tale by Mary De Morgan, a writer from the Victorian era who “is conspicuously absent from most critical surveys of children’s literature” (Fowler, 2005).

 

I first discovered this tale when I was in Grade 12.  I was looking for fairy tales for an Independent Study Unit, and I stumbled upon this particular tale in a musty collection of fairy tales from around the world at the local public library.

 

It was a period when my reading was opening up in unexpected ways.  For the Dystopian unit we’d finished just before starting our ISUs, I read The Handmaid’s Tale, and it wasn’t just scary visions of the future I was being exposed to: for the first time that I can remember, I was reading not just a female novelist, but a Canadian female novelist.  This was a revelation, a shift I can see now from YA fiction (though I’ve no idea if Christopher Pike and the Sweet Valley High series were classified that way back then) to contemporary fiction and Canadian literature.

 

I was not entirely unprepared when I read the very first sentence of “The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde,” and yet my first response was still: But this isn’t how it’s supposed to be.  A wicked princess?  A beautiful orphaned princess whose main goal was not to marry and live happily every after?  A young woman so determined to avoid her fate that she used witchcraft to turn every potential suitor into a bead that she wore with great glee round her neck?  Impossible!  That, I thought to myself, is not the stuff of fairy tales, of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and Snow White; this was something else altogether.

And whatever it was, it enchanted me.

 

I can’t find a copy of the essay I eventually wrote, which is probably a good thing considering the way I cringe at things I wrote months ago, let alone a sure-to-be overly earnest treatise on the anti-heroine in “The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde.”  For what other term could I have used, I thought back then, being as she was, the opposite of everything I’d been taught a heroine should be.

 

A heroine, according to Oxford Dictionaries, is “a woman admired for her courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities,” and also “the chief female character in a book, play, or film, who is typically identified with good qualities, and with whom the reader is expected to sympathize.”  No, Fiorimonde doesn’t fit much of that definition – perhaps just that she is “the chief female character” in the story.

 

There are two other female characters in the story.  First there is the old witch, described as “wicked and hideous,” though she seems to fill the role of wise crone, offering support and advice to Fiorimonde (though the plan they connected is indeed “wicked and hideous”) and cautioning the princess not once but twice, first warning her never to touch the chain herself (for then she would be turned into a bead too) and second to not fall for a trap that one of the suitor’s servants (Gervaise) has set for her.  Gervaise has disguised himself and turned up at the castle himself as a pretend suitor, telling Fiorimonde he has seen a woman more beautiful than her as part of a ploy to release his master and the other princes who have been turned into beads.  The witch says:

“Beware, Princess, beware,” cried the witch in a warning voice, as she listened. “Why should you heed tales of other women fairer than you? Have I not made you the most beautiful woman in the world, and can any others do more than I? Give no ear to what this stranger says or you shall rue it.”

 

The witch cautions Fiorimonde twice, and both times in a manner that reveals a sense of female community lacking elsewhere in the story, particularly between Fiorimonde and the third female character, her maid, Yolande.

 

Yolande perhaps comes closest to the traditional definition of a female heroine.  She is modest, honest and self-sacrificing, turning herself into a bead to prove to Gervaise that the necklace is bewitched.  She ends the story married to Gervaise, his promised reward for freeing his master and the other princes – the traditional ending for heroines in fairy tales.

 

And yet there is something rather bland about Yolande.  When she is turned into a bead on Fiorimonde’s chain, the princess is slightly bemused but not particularly bothered about who has become the twelfth bead on her chain.  The witch tells her it is not a suitor “but from some young maid, that that bead is made. But why should you mind? It looks well with the others.”

 

Fiorimonde replies:

 

“Some young maid,” said the Princess. “Then, it must be Cicely or Marybel, or Yolande, who would have robbed me of my necklace as I slept. But what care I? The silly wench is punished now, and so may all others be, who would do the same.”

 

It doesn’t bother Fiorimonde that one of her young maids has disappeared, it didn’t bother anyone else at the castle, so forgettable is the serving girl that the whole day after she was turned into a bead “passed away and no one missed Yolande”.  I’m not sure I felt much differently as a reader.

 

It is Fiorimonde that attracts, that captivates, that perplexes the reader.  When Yolande takes Gervaise into Fiorimonde’s cabin when she is sleeping to show him the necklace, he is completely captivated by her:

 

“Her face was calm and sweet as a baby’s; her hair fell in ruddy waves on the pillow; her rosy lips smiled, and little dimples showed in her cheeks; her white soft hands were folded amidst the scented lace and linen of which the bed was made. Gervaise almost forgot to look at the glittering beads hung round her throat, in wondering at her loveliness.”

 

Fiorimonde has a similar effect on the reader.  She is the only character that is fully alive, flesh and blood and full of her messy human desires, while the others are stock, thin, flimsy cardboard cut-outs.  She is perhaps all the more engaging because she completely subverts our expectations of a fairy tale heroine and yet still entrances us, pulls us towards her, tricks us, just like her suitors, to put our fingers round her lovely gold chain, simply because she can.

 

Certainly someone could try and revise Fiorimonde’s tale, tell it from her perspective, make her a more traditional and sympathetic heroine.  In that version she would be a beautiful young woman, with all of Yolande’s modesty, who does what she does to avoid being forced into a loveless marriage by her domineering father.  The suitors would be a leering, lecherous lot, who deserved much worse than to be turned into beads she wore round her neck.  In this re-telling, though, the beads would weigh Fiorimonde down, to such an extent that the ending – where she is turned into a bead round her own chain – would be a relief, not a punishment.

 

It would be possible to tell that story.  And yet it would rob Fiorimonde of something. 

 

She takes too much joy in what she does for that type of redemptive re-telling:

“Aha, my proud lover! are you there?” she cried with glee; “my necklace bids fair to beat all others in the world,” and she caressed the bead with the tips of her soft, white fingers.”

 

In “In the Search for Alias Grace: On Writing Canadian Historical Fiction,” Margaret Atwood writes:

 

“As for novelists, it’s best if they confine themselves to the Ancient Mariner stories, that is the stories that seize hold of them and torment them until they’ve grabbed a batch of unsuspecting Wedding Guests with their skinny hands, and held them with their glittering eyes or else their glittering prose, and told them a tale they cannot choose but hear.”

 

“The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde” has become one of those stories for me.  There’s something there that I want to do in my own writing, a complexity and contradiction of character, a subverting of expectations that should repel but ends up attracting, that makes us love a character whose really very wicked even when we’ve been told we’re not supposed to.

 

Special thanks to Our Feminist {Play} School for getting me back to blogging by inviting me to be part of the Women in Literature Feminist Odyssey Blog Carnival.

 

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret.  “In Search of Alias Grace: On Writing Canadian Historical Fiction.” American Historical Review. (Dec. 1998): 1503-1516. Web. 22 Dec. 2012.

de Morgan, Mary.  The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde and Other Stories.  Project Gutenberg. 25 Feb. 2012. Web. 22 Dec. 2012.

Fowler, James. “Mary de Morgan’s Centrality in Victorian Fairy-Tale Literature.”  Children’s Literature 33 (2005): 224-236. Web.  22 Dec. 2012.

“Heroine.”  Oxford Dictionaries. 2012.  Web.  22 Dec. 2012.

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