As a part of the Fairy Tale Festival hosted by World Weaver Press, I would like to introduce you to Elizabeth Dearnley, author of the short and stunning retelling of Hansel and Gretel, The Sugar House. The Sugar House can be found, along with a plethora of other beautifully retold fairy tales, in the new Scotland-based magazine, Far Off Places. I found Elizabeth particularly intiguing, and felt, throughout our email conversations, that I could easily have been sitting down to a cup of tea, completely enthralled in Elizabeth’s tales of her own life, and the stories in her head. How could you not be charmed by a woman who wanted to grow up to be Sir Lancelot, works in the field of medieval research, and lives in London on a boat? Interested? Read on to find out more about Elizabeth and her work:
Elizabeth, when did you start writing? What are your favorite genres or favorite topics to write about?
The first thing I concretely remember writing is a play called ‘The Magic Castle’, which I began sitting in my friend’s garden aged 6 using blue-lined paper and a pencil – it was going to be about a family who won a week’s holiday in a mysterious castle, but I only got as far as the journey there, so I never decided in what way it was going to be magic! At primary school we had a fairly freeform curriculum, where you could do your work in any order so long as you got it all done by the end of the week, and I’d basically spend Monday to Friday morning writing stories, and then frantically do my mental arithmetic and everything else on Friday afternoons… I remember writing one about a frost witch who turned people into frost soup and then ate them!
Now, I keep a lot of notebooks, although I’m very bad at finishing things. One idea I’ve kept coming back to over the last few years is translation: how do you translate a word or a concept from one language into another? How do you translate words into a visual image, or into music? How do you know whether one person’s set of thoughts is the same as yours, and what language do you use to translate what’s in your head into theirs? My mother, my sister and I are all synaesthetic, associating colours with numbers and letters, and we all see different colours for different things (and have had lengthy arguments about this in family car journeys!) – this really fascinates me; how can we all see it differently?
Another topic I’d love to write more about is the cycle of the year and the turning of the seasons, and the way we use markers like festivals, and naming the seasons, to make sense of time and our relationship with the natural world. One of my favourite pieces of writing is the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which talks a lot about that (the Simon Armitage translation is amazing!) – perhaps some sort of reworking of that story will be a future project…
Is The Sugar House your first publication? Have you written any other fairy tale retellings?
I’ve written a few stories for student magazines, but this is my first proper fiction publication. However, I’ve published various other types of writing – I research and teach medieval literature for a living, and I’m actually just putting together the final bits and pieces of a book on medieval translators, which should be coming out some time in 2014. I also worked as a freelance journalist in Shanghai for a year before going to graduate school, where I was mainly a visual arts critic, but I wrote about all kinds of things, from street performers to fantasy architecture.
I have written a few other fairy tale retellings – I’ve done a version of Rapunzel where the hair takes on a life of its own, and have been playing about with a version of Little Red Riding Hood set in 1940s New York… I’m in the process of putting together a collection of these, but it’s coming along quite slowly!
Lately my personal interest in fairy tales has also begun to overlap with my professional work, which I’m very happy about! This year I started teaching an undergraduate course on the history of fairy tales, and my academic research project is on medieval fairy tales, essentially – I’m looking at a group of twelfth-century stories known as Breton lais, which are short, rhymed stories about love, chivalry and the supernatural, supposedly based on traditional Breton tales. The first surviving ones were written by a woman called Marie de France – we don’t really know anything about her other than her name, but obviously a woman writing at that time is quite unusual, and I’d really love to write some fiction about her and her stories at some point!
I would love for you to write about her as well, that sounds really interesting! Do the Breton Lais you are studying have any similarities to the fairy tale romances we are most familiar with today, such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, ect?
The stories as a whole aren’t ones modern readers would recognise, but there are certainly some similar motifs – the theme of the nobly-born child separated from her parents at birth and eventually reunited with them, for instance, is the main plot of Lay le Freine, which tells the story of twin sisters, Freine (Ash tree) and Codre (Hazel tree), one of whom is sent secretly as a baby to be brought up by an abbess, and is eventually reunited with her mother after she recognises some costly brocade that her daughter was originally hidden with. There are several mysterious fairy woman who meet knights in woods and promise them their love, and magical knights that turn into birds – all the sorts of characters you might find in later fairy tales. There’s also a wonderful group of werewolf tales, where a knight known as Bisclavret is able to shape-shift into a wolf and back, until his wife hides the clothes he needs to turn back into a human and he is threatened with being fixed permanently in wolf form. The final tale in Marie de France’s collection, Eliduc, has a slight similarity to Snow White, in that a beautiful girl lies unconscious in a chapel, is mourned over by the hero, and is eventually revived – however, in this story, she is brought back to life by a magical red flower found by a weasel!
However, there are some more definite medieval forerunners of fairy tales that are familiar to us today. For instance, there’s an eleventh-century Latin version of Little Red Riding Hood, ‘De puella a lupellis seruata’ (‘About a girl saved from wolf cubs’), written as part of an educational poem by a cathedral school teacher called Egbert of Liège, in which a little girl’s red cloak, given to her at her baptism, protects her from being eaten by wolves. You can also find two recognisable versions of Sleeping Beauty, in which Beauty gives birth to a child whilst asleep! – a Catalan one called ‘Frayre de Joy e Sor de Plaser’ (‘Brother of Joy and Sister of Pleasure’), and a French one called ‘Histoire de Troylus et de la belle Zellandine’ (‘The Story of Troylus and the Beautiful Zellandine’), which is an episode in a huge, sprawling fourteenth-century romance called Perceforest.
What led you to your research and work with Medieval manuscripts?
I’ve always loved Arthurian legends – they’re some of the earliest things I can remember reading – and I grew up wanting to be either Sir Lancelot or Robin Hood, so I suppose the interest was always there! However, I really decided to study the Middle Ages after I took an undergraduate course in Old Icelandic literature, which I found absolutely fascinating – and after that took courses in Old French, Old English and Middle English, until before I knew it I was essentially taking a degree in medieval languages…
I also really love working with medieval manuscripts – the ornate illuminated ones are unbelievably beautiful, and even the plainer ones have fascinating stories to tell. The whole concept of the book is quite different in a world where texts circulated in manuscripts rather than in print – there wasn’t the same idea of having one fixed version of a text. If you didn’t like a certain part of a story, you could miss that bit out when you commissioned your copy, or, alternatively, you could embellish or add episodes if you wanted!
Let’s hear a little more about your retelling of Hansel and Gretel. I’ve heard a few tales about the magnificence of English gardens, so I have to ask, how did living in England affect your telling of The Sugar House? And do you garden?
When I was a student living in London, I used to spend a lot of time walking around the ItalianGardens in Regent’s Park, which are very formally laid out, with stone fountains and long walkways, and there’s also a circular rose garden at one end of the park – so this might have been one of the original influences. Another set of gardens which has influenced me, I’d say, are all the college gardens in Cambridge, where I was a graduate student – you walk around the town and see all these high, sandstone walls, which don’t give any hint of what’s inside – and then you go through the gates of the colleges, and there are these exquisite, jewel-like gardens hidden inside – really magical!
However, the gardens which have influenced me probably come as much from literature as from real life. There are a lot of gardens in medieval literature, and a lot of roses – in particular, one of the most popular works of the Middle Ages was a long French poem called The Romance of the Rose, which is an allegory about a man who dreams that he’s in a beautiful, perfectly square garden, with a rose bush in the middle, containing a perfect rosebud – this rosebud represents his love, and he spends the rest of the poem trying to get to it. In medieval literature, the garden was a sort of half-way house between the civilised world and the unknown, untameable wilderness outside, a versatile stage set which could represent both nature tamed and nature tangled, and quickly change from one to the other without warning, so you never knew just what might happen to you in a garden…
Roses, too, aren’t always benign – they can represent love, but also the excesses of love, and love gone too far – they’re fleshy, heavily scented, voluptuous, and can be overpowering. One other fictional rose which probably did have an influence on me was the one in Angela Carter’s ‘The Lady in the House of Love’, which is a brilliant crimson rose taken from a vampire woman by a soldier heading to the front in the First World War – she describes its petals as opulent and beautiful but also baleful and overpowering, and that ambivalence was something I was trying to capture in the witch’s garden.
Thinking about English landscapes more generally, one thing which has always stuck with me about the difference between English fairy tales, and those of other places like continental Europe and the US, is our lack of real, scary forests you can get lost in – they’re simply not big enough, so the idea of Hansel and Gretel, for instance, is always only a story here – it doesn’t have the same real-life resonance as it might do for those living near truly big forests. I remember reading that by the time of the Domesday Book in the eleventh century, woodland in Britain had already been cleared to the extent that you couldn’t go more than two miles in any direction without popping out the other side!
I do garden – although it’s been quite limited space-wise recently, as I live on a canal boatl! Last year my boyfriend and I attempted to grow vegetables on the roof, but they were sabotaged by a duck, who decided to build a nest right in the middle of our courgette patch – however, we recently put our names down for an allotment, so hopefully we’ll be able to grow our courgettes duck-free in the future.
Wait a minute, you live on a boat?!
I’m actually about to move to a new, bigger boat in a few weeks. Here is a picture of me and my boat (called Peggotty)
Elizabeth and Peggotty
Ok, that is just too cool for words! But back to The Sugar House. I love the idea of a villain who does serious harm in her intent to protect the innocent. Very twisted, perfect for a fairy tale. What was your inspiration for the old woman’s madness?
I wanted to tell the story of Hansel and Gretel from a different perspective, and I wanted us to find out the villain’s point of view… I was wondering why the witch killed the children in the first place – was it something innately witchy about her, or did she have an explanation for her behaviour? I think it did also stem from the original images of the roses, and the idea of love turning into an excess of love, from something sweetly scented into something browning and rotting. I was thinking along the same lines with the sugar house itself – it tastes sweet and delicious, but too much of it can be cloying and sickening.
I was also thinking about the witch as a distorted mirror image of the stepmother in Hansel and Gretel – both are ‘bad mother’ figures, and deadly to the children, but in very different ways. Both rationalise their behaviour towards the children as being the only possible course of action, given the circumstances – and I wanted to explore that.
Well you certainly did a beautiful job with the retelling! I may never look at sweet, little old women with particularly stunning rose gardens the same way after this tale! Thank you so much for the interview, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Dearnley grew up in Bradford and currently lives in London, where she can generally be found studying thirteenth-century manuscripts in the British Library and writing a book about medieval translators. She likes Agatha Christie, crunchy autumn leaves, and raspberry pancakes with maple syrup. Her superpower is knitting in cinemas.
If you’d like to read The Sugar House for yourself, click here to read your own copy of Issue 1 of Far Off Places.