“Do you love me because I am beautiful, or am I beautiful because you love me?” – Cinderella
From the author of the rich world of witches, animal rights and politics in Wicked comes another re-working of a famous fairy tale – ‘Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister’. Though initially the novel sounds like a comic version of a famous fairy tale and something more gossipy like ‘chick-lit’, the story is surprisingly sober; one of the complexities of art, the burdens of beauty, ugliness, and wealth among many things, and the heartbreak of betrayal and disillusion.
Set in the backdrop of Holland during the tulip mania in the 1600s, where Dutch businessmen speculated on tulip bulbs and invested in their profits in buying more tulips, we are introduced to the Fisher family: mother Margarethe and her two daughters, “lumpy ox” Ruth and unfortunate, ugly Iris. Struggling to put food in their mouths, they arrive at the cautious, reserved Dutch town and are given shelter by an artist they call Master, who introduces them, particularly the sharp-eyed Iris, to the world of Art, beauty and seeing colour. It is not long though, before they come into connection with the beautiful, ethereal, and rich Clara, a lonely and sheltered girl. It’s easy to guess the rest of the story, but the story is told with realistic attention to the characters, no one is blameless and each character has their own part to play, though the journey to the ‘happily ever after’ scene is not as straightforward as it appears, and nor is it so ‘happy’.
There are twin themes which are always spiralling through the novel, when there is attention on one facet; it is inevitable that the opposite is highlighted too. There is a continuous emphasis on Clara’s beauty and Iris’ ugliness, mirroring each other throughout the novel. But with each comes the character’s own insecurities and burdens, with Clara feeling trapped by her beauty and how she is viewed by men, and Iris feeling trapped by her ordinariness because of the lack of opportunities it gives. Clara is constantly dogged by her belief that she is a ‘changeling’, an Other being who does not belong to the real world, and this serves to prevent her from really engaging with he outside world and with other people in society – much like effects of her beauty.
And yet, beauty and ugliness manifests itself in various forms – while traditionally the ugly characters are the ‘bad’ ones in fairy tales, it is much more ambiguous in this tale. Beauty is not given its place of pride, constantly undermined by others jealousy, scorn and disapproval – which is no accident seeing as beauty itself has been repealed by the Calvinistic society. Beauty and goodness is turned on its head – as Margarethe declares, “charity is real beauty”, while physical manifestations cannot always be trusted.
Similarly, the weaving of the role of Art and reality throughout the novel show, much like religion and its various interpretations, showing its role in how people are perceived and how the girls are manipulated. Art is revered and yet similarly restricted, it captures and immortalises both beauty and ugliness, but it also traps the subject on the canvas, manipulating them to be viewed and admired by others. It is not accident that alongside this is the depiction of religious figures, and the rejection of Catholic values as Calvinism and austerity is practiced in the town.
As well as these themes, the idea of commodity is also carried through – of art, of beauty, of women, of Clara herself, of status, of value of tulips and even of identity. They are reflected in everything, the painters capture them, the men desire them, and even the women struggle to have their own share – yet with tragic consequences. The story of Cinderella becomes, then, a voice for more than one character, the desperation, sacrifices and greed of the Stepmother, the marginalisation of the two sisters, and the objectification of Clara, on the edge of womanhood and yet unable to step outside her own home because of how she is viewed by various groups. And there is, of course the men who affect their lives, the painters and the rich businessmen, obsessively lusting after tulips while the women struggle to keep their places in the household.
At its heart, it could be said that this is a feminist novel, albeit a discouraging one – the focal characters are all women, and it is they who are continually struggling to make their identity amongst the male-dominated society. And yet, there is also a positive message too, women are objectified, painted, compared and employed, yet they still managed to take control and use this to their advantage. Margarethe makes ‘deals’ to save her daughters, Clara uses her beauty to change her life, and even plain Iris uses her brain and her artistic mind to lift herself out from obscurity. While we all know how this fairy tale goes, the path to the pretty ball gown and pumpkin coach is a difficult one, and by the end of it, we can’t help questioning who it is that ultimately lives happily ever after. I’ll let you read the book and decide that one.
Gregory Maguire, Confessions of an ugly stepsister (Headline Review, St Ives: 2008) pp.398 £7.99