REVIEW: “Home Bound” by Melanie Bell

Review of Melanie Bell, “Home Bound” Cossmass Infinities 9 (2022): 54-61 — Read or purchase online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Content note: Death.

As someone who gave up a life in the US for a life in Europe — and, ultimately, England — I found a lot to sympathise with Beth, the heroine, in this story, who inherits her great-grandmother’s house and makes the leap across the ocean. I additionally sympathised with the basic premise of the story, that one’s soul can and up becoming bound up with the house that they live in, although in Beth’s case, this is literal: Her great-grandmother cannot die until she passes the house on to someone who shares her blood.

It did feel, a bit, though, like it was a story written by someone who has read about England, but hasn’t lived here. The NHS is slowly being dismantled and destroyed (although: <sarcams>Maybe a thriving NHS is the fantasy element of the story</sarcasm>), she’s more likely to be drinking squash than juice, McDonald’s is unlikely to be the main source of cheap coffees…) On the flip side, it’s been long enough since the start of Covid-19 that it feels wrong when stories don’t acknowledge it, and right when they do, as this one does.

REVIEW: “Bridal Choice” by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

Review of Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, Eve Mason, trans., “The Enchanted Prince”, in A String of Pearls: A Collection of Five German Fairy Tales by Women (2020): 53-56 — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

In fairy land there is a handsome young accomplished and most definitely eligible fairy prince, his only flaw that he allows his wit to tend towards cruelty. His mother the fairy queen instructs him to travel to planet earth to find a bride suitable to match him, and of course all the women he meets are impressed by his many virtues and they all seek to flatter his own vice, until the latter almost overcomes the former. Of course, the cure is to be found in a gentle human girl who cares naught for his boasts, because of course no profligate fairy prince could ever be fixed except through the reproof of an innocent woman. The structure of the story was stereotypical and trope-y, but the details that fleshed out the structure were strange and sometimes unexpected.
This was an odd little story!

(Originally published in German in 1892.)

REVIEW: “The Enchanted Prince” by Caroline Stahl

Review of Caroline Stahl, Eve Mason, trans., “The Enchanted Prince”, in A String of Pearls: A Collection of Five German Fairy Tales by Women (2020): 43-51 — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The premise is straightforward: Miranda, Armgard, and Wulfhilde are warned by their mother not to go into the forest, for fear that they will be lured into the realm of the enchanted prince, fated to live there until a princess can come and rescue him (though this was a nice twist on the usual damsel in distress!). Of course, they end up in the forest…

But the execution was marvelous. This was a wonderful Frankenstein’s monster of a story, such a conglomeration of different bits. Parts of it reminded me so intensely of The Silver Chair that I wonder if C. S. Lewis had read Stahl’s story, or another variant of it. Other parts were reminiscent of Bluebeard’s wives. And they were all tied together with a lovely quality of language that Mason’s translation really highlighted.

REVIEW: “The Realm of Wishes” by Louise Brachmann

Review of Louise Brachmann, Eve Mason, trans., “The Realm of Wishes”, in A String of Pearls: A Collection of Five German Fairy Tales by Women (2020): 35-41 — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This was the most traditional of all the tales: Edwy, a destitute fisherman catches a fantastical fish — “golden and azure and crimson” (p. 35) — whom he intends to sell for a great price. But the fish speaks and promises to grant him endless wishes instead, if only he’ll throw her back. Edwy follows all the standard tropes, requesting ever bigger and grander wishes until he finally asks for something that cannot be granted, and all his wishes are reversed and he ends up back where he started, in his poor fisher hut. Unlike some versions of this story, though, there is no happy resolution, no moral; he is just as discontented then as he was to start with.

(Originally published in German in 1813.)

REVIEW: “The Nymph of the Rhine” by Charlotte von Ahlefeld

Review of Charlotte von Ahlefeld, Eve Mason, trans., “The Nymph of the Rhine”, in A String of Pearls: A Collection of Five German Fairy Tales by Women (2020): 25-34 — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This is the story from which the anthology title’s string of pearls comes from; Ambrose the poor fisherman is visited one night by the nymph of the Rhine, who spins him a story of woe and makes a bargain with him: If he helps arrange a meeting so she can forgive her past lover, she will make him rich enough to marry his sweetheart.

I found this story fascinating: Right up until the very end, I did not know which of two ways it would end, and either one of them would have fit into the fairy tale trope. I also found interesting the juxtaposition of the clearly-supernatural nymph within a clearly Christian context: Even the nymph herself seems to feel she is a creature of God, and not of the devil. The final distinctive aspect of the story was how the message of equality between partners as the recipe for marital happiness was put into the mouth of a man, and not a woman. It was a strangely feminist message, and it had all the more impact because it wasn’t a woman arguing for it.

(Originally published in German in 1812.)

REVIEW: “Princess Gräcula” by Friederike Helene Unger

Review of Friederike Helene Unger, Eve Mason, trans., “Princess Gräcula”, in A String of Pearls: A Collection of Five German Fairy Tales by Women (2020): 1-23 — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This story kicks off with everything you expect of a fairy tale — a childless royal couple who are finally blessed with a daughter, Gräcula; a fantastic christening visited by a loathsome witch; a child gifted with all the jewels, gold, beautiful dresses one could desire — and then morphs into a bizarre combination of traditional fairy tale trappings, Dante’s Inferno, and that bit in Pinocchio where he gets turned into an ass.

Unger’s story operates on many levels within the structure of a typical fairy tale; there is the story itself, populated with characters that do not fill the standard fairy-tale tropes (Gräcula’s mother, Sentimentale, is a prime example of this. Rather than being either absent or evil, she is a complex combination of characteristics, delighting in learning and education, reading Greek and enjoying philosophy, but also wanting nothing more than to be a mother.), and then there is the social criticism layered on top — of learning philosophy without first establishing a foundation of good sense and character; of penal institutions in which behavior generally “worsened rather than improved” (p. 20); of the aristocracy.

It’s a bit of a whirlwind. Also: I had no idea telegraphs were already in existence in 1804, so learning that was cool.

(Originally published in German in 1804.)

REVIEW: A String of Pearls: A Collection of Five German Fairy Tales by Women translated by Eve Mason

Review of Eve Mason, trans., A String of Pearls: A Collection of Five German Fairy Tales by Women (2020) — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

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.

REVIEW: “Margins” by Elizabeth Hinckley

Review of Elizabeth Hinckley, “Margins”, Luna Station Quarterly 44 (2020): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Adrian’s life has always been lived at the margins, “where all of the excitement, beauty, and magic were.” At the start, I was excited to read more about that life, especially the summers he spends with his father the circus-worker, but we got so much history at the beginning, and not enough story, that I lost interest. I kept reading, though, and was rewarded by a sharp, sudden crossing of a margin about half-way through (a transition point that I wish had come much earlier). What came after was still somewhat plodding at times, but was overall intriguing.

REVIEW: “Of Moonlight and Music” by Kayla Whittle

Review of Kayla Whittle, “Of Moonlight and Music”, Luna Station Quarterly 44 (2020): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Every full moon the circus comes to Elsie’s town, but none of the townspeople ever go; only strangers visit the circus. Until one month, when Elsie wakes up to a sign that marks her out as the first of her village to be called to the circus. “Everyone comes to the circus to find something they’ve been missing,” the Ringmaster tells her when she arrives, but Elsie visits all the stalls and sees all the performances and none of them are what she is looking for. Instead, her missing piece is something entirely different — something that made me really really happy when she finally found it. This was a quiet story overall, but rather deftly done.