Fairytales have meanings. If you believe Betelheim, for instance, they are heavily laden metaphors for puberty & sexual awakening. If you look elsewhere you’ll find them described as consolatory fables by Calvino; offering hope of release from poverty and subjection.
From the late-60s at least, women writers have been revisiting fairytales and revisioning them. Anne Sexton in poetry, Josephine Saxton in SF and then most famously Angela Carter put new (or revisioned old spins on familiar stories.) Carter eroticised her versions, but others looked at other meanings.
Lisa Goldstein in ‘Ever After’ doesn’t take a specific tale and rewrite it. Rather she looks at the next step, the famous ‘happy ever after’. Her story begins at the wedding. The princess’ dress is too tight. She didn’t have money for a dress, it was chosen for her, even to being the wrong colour to match her eyes. She knows nobody. The ladies in waiting struggle with her accent. The Prince puts her to lessons: etiquette, manners and elocution to correct her “pretty little accent.” She joins the court ladies for needlework, which she is good at from sewing for her stepsisters, and gossip, which she knows nothing of. Everything happens to her.
Gradually she becomes isolated & lonely, until she receives a secret message from revolutionaries via a young harpist, Alison. Persuading Alison to give her harp lessons she makes a friend and learns new perspectives on the court and the king. Increasingly she is estranged from her prince, whilst his former love watches with the ladies of the court.
Goldstein throughout her work uses the telling of stories within stories to emphasise meaning and ‘Ever After’ is no exception. From the start, throughout her wedding day the princess is told her place:
“You’re very fortunate,” people told her, over and over again. “Very fortunate.” The princess had smiled and nodded, thinking, But what about him? Don’t they know how fortunate he is to have me?
On her first night with the Prince she notes:
Did he really think she knew nothing about what went on between a man and a woman? There had been nights, at home, when her stepsisters would talk of nothing else.
And in conversation with Alison she realises she is the subject of tales too.
“I know, my lady,” Alison said.
The princess stopped. Of course Alison knew. No doubt the whole country knew. No doubt Alison had even sung songs about the orphan who had married a prince.
Thus Goldstein makes explicit the storying involved. That the fairytale is not real but has real meaning.
As things worsen for the princess she turns to Alison who reveals that her boyfriend the revolutionary is planning something. Will Alison join him?
“…I think he doesn’t love the people so much as he loves himself. That if he does win a war he’ll set himself up as King and start all over again. And I’ve had all the dealings I want with kings.”
So Alison and the princess discuss disappointment, the absence of happy ever after. “You just keep going, that’s all. You do the best you can.” Alison says.
Meanwhile the ladies are gossiping, mocking ‘Cinder Girl’ (for this is after Cinderella in case we weren’t sure.) Their talk of Lady Flora, the prince’s ex-, is abruptly curtailed when the princess enters. Stories matter.
Goldstein has taken what AS Byatt calls the narrative grammar of fairytale and their matter of fact telling but deconstructed it. When the princess finally snaps and decides to escape it is not to join the revolution, what might seem a secondary instauration, but to recognise that the wrongness of the fantasy is in the premise. The justice of the ending is external to the story as told. The princess meets her godmother a final time, thanks her but says of happily ever after:
“I don’t want it,” the princess said. “Give it to someone else. Give it to Flora, she could probably use it.”
Marina Warner writes that “Fairytales evoke every kind of violence, injustice, and mischance, but in order to declare it need not continue.” (Once Upon a Time, introduction, 2014)
Lisa Goldstein has recognised that but challenges the Grimm-through-Disney assumption of the ending. From these familial tales to Tolkien’s Return of the King fantasy has rewarded its protagonists with instauration of a higher place. Goldstein steps outside, the princess regains happiness by rejecting the broken promise of happy ever after. In doing so Goldstein tells us that the stories we have always been told might not be for our best interests. And particularly for women, whether Alison or the Princess, agency is not given in these stories but in Goldstein’s version they sieze it joyously.
‘Ever After’ was first published in the December 1984 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine but reprinted in Goldstein’s 1994 collection Travellers in Magic (Tor Books) As Goldstein notes in a brief afterword there are echoes of Charles & Diana here.