Even after her head was struck off she behaved so beautifully

Hi, folks!

This is post 3 of Deal me In. For more about this project & my previous posts on it, go here: Reading Plans | Weeks 1 | 2 | 3 (you are here)

Designed by E. Le Tellier, dated late 19th century

I am using the playing card shuffler, and today I got: ♣Ten♣. For my deck of ♣Clubs♣, I assigned the short-story collection Victorian Fairy Tales: The Revolt of the Fairies and Elves, edited by Jack D. Zipes (1984). Today’s short-story is

Week 3 – Ten

  • “A Toy Princess”, by Mary de Morgan (1877)
  • Also published in On a Pincushion and Other Fairy Tales(1877), and in a number of anthologies, such as A Book of Princesses, edited by Sally Patrick Johnson (1963) and The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales, edited by Alison Lurie (1993).
  • My rating: ★★★★★

When the story opens, we are thrown in an undetermined time and space, “more than a thousand years ago”, “on the other side of the world”, in a country where people hardly ever show any emotion or even talk to each other. No one laughs, and it is considered rude to talk about one’s likes and dislikes – let alone about love! Conversation comes down to saying a fixed number of obligatory stock phrases – “Just so,” “Yes indeed,” “Thank you,” and “If you please.”

One day, the King of the country decides to marry a Princess from a neighbouring land. Little did he know that she came from a place where people laughed, and talked, and showed what they felt, and were noisy. The Queen did not adapt well to her new Kingdom, where everyone was so distant and formal. She became increasingly ill, by trying to hide her emotions and to behave in accordance to what was expected of her.

Her end was drawing nearer, and she decided to call her fairy godmother, named Taboret. They held a private conversation (we never get to know what went on between the two), and soon afterwards a little Princess, Ursula, is born, and the Queen dies.

Alas, little Ursula takes after her mother, and the court ladies struggle to tame her into what they believe is a proper behaviour for a Princess. “She was not allowed to play with any other children, lest she might learn bad manners; and she was not taught any games or given any toys. So, she passed most of her time, when she was not at her lessons, looking out of the window at the birds flying against the clear blue sky; and sometimes she would give a sad little sigh when her ladies were not listening”.

Original illustrations by William de Morgan

One day, her mother’s loyal fairy, Taboret, decides to check on the child, and is appalled at what she sees. Little Ursula was getting sadder and thinner by the day. So, Taboret concocts a plan to save the poor girl, and goes to the largest shop in Fairyland to order a doll. “It was a queer sort of shop. It was neither a grocer’s, nor a draper’s, nor a hatter’s. Yet it contained sugar, and dresses, and hats. But the sugar was magic sugar, which transformed any liquid into which it was put; the dresses each had some special charm, and the hats were wishing-caps. It was, in fact, a shop where every sort of spell or charm was sold.

She orders a Princess identical to the real Ursula. The only difference is that the doll is only able to say ‘If you please,’ ‘No, thank you,’ ‘Certainly,’ and ‘Just so’ (which helps to make the doll a lot cheaper). Taboret lures the real Ursula to follow her, and replaces her with the doll.

The fairy takes Ursula to the seashore, where the girl is adopted by a poor fisherman and his wife. Ursula then grows healthy and happy, roaming freely with the couple’s children. Meanwhile, the court ladies and the King were amazed by the sudden change in the ‘Princess’ behaviour. “Ursula at the court was thought to be the most beautiful there, and every one admired her manners, though she never said anything but “If you please,” “No, thank you,” “Certainly,” and “Just so.””

Time goes by. When the King, now old, is about to abdicate the Kingdom in favour of what he does not know is only a doll, Taboret intervenes and tells him the truth. The King is appalled and the courtiers refuse to believe her. Of course, Taboret knows they are a bunch of idiots, so she requests them to bring the ‘Princess’ to the room. “Taboret without any ceremony advanced towards her, and struck her lightly on the head with her wand. In a moment the head rolled on the floor, leaving the body standing motionless as before, and showing that it was but an empty shell. “Just so,” said the head, as it rolled towards the King, and he and the courtiers nearly swooned with fear.

Her Royal Highness (the doll) is carefully placed in a cupboard, and Taboret brings in the real Princess. Once Ursula enters the room, she runs to her father to kiss him. Needless to say, everyone in court is immediately shocked by such an unladylike display of affection. Taboret gives them a week to decide whether they want to keep the real Princess.

But the court is inconsolable for the loss of their beloved doll. ““This is indeed a change after our sweet Princess,” said one lady to another. “Yes, indeed,” was the answer, “when one remembers how even after her head was struck off she behaved so beautifully, and only said, ‘Just so.’”

Ursula was disliked by all, and cries to be taken back to the fishing village. Good old Taboret promptly goes to the King to complain: “I find the Princess Ursula in tears? And I am sure you are making her unhappy. When you had that bit of wood-and-leather Princess, you could behave well enough to it, but now that you have a real flesh-and-blood woman, you none of you care for her.”

The council is summoned to decide whether they want the doll back; they look at the real Princess, then look at the headless Toy Princess with her head placed on the table beside her; and – lo and behold – they unanimously vote for the doll. Here we have to agree with them – it is much easier to live with a doll than with a real woman.

Taboret cannot help but laugh at them. ““You are a pack of sillies and idiots,” she said, “but you shall have what you want”; and she picked up the head, and with a wave of her wand stuck it on to the body, and it moved round slowly and said, “Certainly,” just in its old voice.”

The King rejoices, and promptly abdicates in favour of his sweet, dear – doll. Everyone is happy in the end: the Kingdom is more than pleased to be presided by a brainless toy (albeit a sweet, well-mannered one); and the real Ursula is taken back to the fisherman’s family and lives happily ever after. Finis.

What is not to love about this fairy tale, really? It can be appreciated, on different levels, both by children and adults. I love the small details peppered here  and there, such as the price Taboret pays for the doll – “four cats’ footfalls, two fish’s screams, and two swans’ songs.” The whole scene is a pleasure to read: “Now I’ll pay you, and then will be off”; with which she raised her wand in the air and waved it three times, and there arose a series of strange sounds. The first was a low tramping, the second shrill and piercing screams, the third voices of wonderful beauty, singing a very sorrowful song. The wizard caught all the sounds and pocketed them at once, and Taboret, without ceremony, picked up the child, took her head downwards under her arm, and flew away.

I also love the odd sense of humour in this story, such as in the scene where everyone praises the doll’s composure at her own beheading (a lesson in good manners which would certainly come in handy among the royalty one day, particularly in France…); or the scene where the courtiers are made to vote between a real human being and a headless toy.

De Morgan delightfully plays with the trope of the double to satirize the Victorian woman ideal – a topic that was also explored by other New Woman writers, such as George Egerton. The ‘Toy Princess’ never laughs, says exactly what is expected of her, and does not even complain when her head is cut off – the perfect Victorian woman, surely. In a society that places such stifling expectations on women, a princess with a mind of her own is no small inconvenience.

Yours truly,

J.


Théodore Chassériau. “The Two Sisters”.1843.

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