A String of Pearls is a collection of 19th-century German fairy tales written by women, translated into English by Eve Mason, beautifully illustrated by Susan Sansome. Mason’s informative introduction provides the wider context they exist in, including an important emphasis on the fact that the first two centuries of the genre were, in fact, dominated by women, even if by now we typically associate fairy tales with men such as the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Anderson. More of this historical context is also provided in Joanna Neilly’s foreword.
Why have women been dropped out of the history of the fairy tale? Mason outlines how the two dominant traditions in contemporary fairy tale studies leave no room for the alternative, subversive function of fairy tales as written by women, as vehicles which “allowed them to explore alternative realities and subtly criticise patriarchal values and conventions” (p. iv). The stories that Mason has chosen to translate for this collection all illustrate this, putting the women central, where other stories sharing the same archetype might put the emphasis on the male characters. Her introduction includes a synopsis of each tale along with biographical information about the authors.
The stories are not wholly unproblematic, as Mason points out herself: They include racists and misogynistic comments and tropes prevalent in that period. But I approve of her choice to leave these comments in rather than erase them, which would be problematic in itself; when we seek to restore women authors to their rightful place in the history of literature, we cannot turn them all into paragons of virtue. We must instead grapple with the fact that they — just as the men of their time — wrote flawed stories, and may have been flawed themselves. This does not make their work any less important.
The entire collection is a delight: From the historical and contextual information provided in the introduction (all of which was unfamiliar to me) to the stories themselves, told with verve and intrigue and feeling both strange and familiar. My only complaint is that there are but five stories; I hope that Mason continues her collecting and translating work in the future!
As is usual, we will review each story separately, and link the reviews back to this post as they are published.