Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Little Change of Address

I felt like I needed a little change of pace, so I've moved! This blog will remain up, but new posts will be found at:

Doc In Boots

I'm still setting up, but please do find me there!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Want to play a game?

Above is a sneak peek of one of my recent discoveries. Can you guess what it is? I can't share it yet, but hopefully will soon!

I've been collecting illustrations of French tales as part of my research for the book I'm writing. I've already shared some details about illustrations found in advertising here on the blog. Recently, and here's a clue regarding the above peek, I've been discovering 19th century board games based on the tales. In fact, I located a rather incredible game that features a host of tales. It's called Toovergodinnenspel. Do click the link - it looks... fantastic! I have no idea what the title means as it's in Dutch and the only Dutch I know is "welterusten." (It means "good night" and I only know this because when my Dutch friend wished me good night, I thought she said "belt the rooster.") The description of the game includes a list of all the tales included on the board. The tales are French and written in French. This is my particular favourite feature of the board.

Incidentally, the Marina Warner keynote at the Melbourne Writers' Festival earlier this week was wonderful. Belinda did a great little post on it, but I'll just add that it lived up to all expectations. I was lucky enough to see her give another keynote on the Arabian Nights at a conference a few years ago and I've since read her book, Stranger Magic, so it was kind of a delight to just sit back and relate to everything she was talking about. She told one of her favourite tales, the tale of Doctor Douban, which happens to be one of mine, too. She also showed illustrations of flying beds and I've become rather interested in representations of flight in fairy tales (seriously, check out Murat's "Le Sauvage," which features a chariot made from the skull of a giant the fairy had killed. The skull was painted glossy black and drawn through the air behind a couple of mastiffs with bat wings). But I might save that for a future post!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

What the money is for

We're in the final days of an election. Without getting political - well, maybe a little! - yesterday and today there's been much discussion of ARC funding and comments about what sort of research is funded, with the Liberal party claiming that there has been waste on "ridiculous" research grants. There's a piece on it here in the Conversation.

Aside from issues about who decides which research projects should be funded, as I talked to a few people, it occurred to me that a big problem generally is that people outside the university system don't actually understand where the money goes. There have been many misleading generalities about "millions of dollars," without specifying that the grants referred to are between $150-$600,000. That still sounds like a lot. Is it?

In many cases, that money will be divided among a team of academics at different universities. Sometimes it will fund someone who doesn't have a permanent position, enabling them to have an income while they do their work and contribute to the university during the period of the grant. It will also cover the project for three years or so (so for a $150,000 grant, that's only $50,000 a year). The budget, which will have been examined closely by the ARC itself, will cover such things as travel, costs involved in running conferences or workshops, research assistance, a PhD student or two, and occasionally some teaching relief.

While academics can often access travel funding, it seldom covers all travel expenses. In fact, usually it won't even cover air fare. Yes, academics often personally foot the bill to attend conferences overseas or to do research work that can't be done in their home city. ARC funding can be very helpful in providing the financial wherewithal to undertake a particularly large project where smaller grants just won't do the trick.

There are often limited funds available to run conferences and workshops or to purchase the equipment necessary, so for a big project, it takes pressure off School budgets if there's an ARC grant ready to go. It means, basically, that smaller projects can receive funding too, projects like the fairy tale salons we run at Monash.

Likewise, postdocs and HDR students benefit from doing research assistance work - they can develop their CVs, obtain valuable income, and have an opportunity to work beside experts. Academia is in many ways an apprenticeship, but one run on scholarships and research assistant positions. Not to mention, having research assistance or teaching relief takes pressure off academics trying to juggle teaching with their research. Believe me, it's difficult to maintain research output while maintaining a quality teaching programme and research really does feed into one's teaching, too. We don't just disappear to do our research because we don't value teaching. The new material I develop in my research goes straight into my teaching. That's why we're not all still teaching just the Grimms as the originators of fairy tale. ;-)

I'm really just sketching this out quickly, but hopefully people can begin to see that those millions of dollars are really about helping to support research within the academic system. No one is getting rich and no one is squirreled away in an ivory tower researching something terribly obscure for the sake of it. Trust me, we don't get a chance to do research just for the sake of it - we have to prove the value of our work every day and the ARC comes with strict expectations of viable outcomes.

I think in part this also comes back to how we think about the university system and research. Not all research has immediate relevance or a social/cash benefit. Not all research is about curing dementia or finding new ways to grow crops. Those things should be funded. Does that mean other research shouldn't? I'm always torn between the desire to justify such research and the desire to point out that most advancements in thinking and action are based on research that didn't have immediate relevance, but that helped to develop learning and knowledge. The Arts, in particular, can only do so much in providing practical solutions to problems - but the Arts can help us to think about those problems and thinking is the first step to a solution. If we can understand how attitudes are formed, what issues are evolving, what history teaches us... we can start supporting practical progress. Otherwise, who is really determining what is important and what isn't? What has value and what hasn't?

As a final note, ARC grant applications involve months of really stressful work just to put together and a very small percentage of applications are successful. What is ridiculous is not the research projects, but how little funding there really is available for research. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Why Study Fairy Tale?

A friend on Facebook recently linked a New Yorker article, "Why Teach and Study English?" I did like Adam Gopnik's observation, "The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough." But I had to stop myself reading the comments section. I don't think anyone is ever happy with the justification for English Lit. Sometimes reading these kinds of articles puts me in an uneasy mood for the rest of the day.

After all, we can really only speak of our own experience. Why did I study English Lit.? Why do I teach it now?

Simple. I want to find out more. There are so many books and stories out there and so much to understand about how we engage with those books, why those books have been written, who the authors were, who the publishers and binders, editors and readers were, how our relationship to literature changes and why.... well, you get the idea. I'm curious. It was, appropriately enough, "Beauty and the Beast" that ultimately hooked me into the profession.

Suddenly, all the stories of Beauty and all the beasts spread out before me and I had to know more about them.

In class, students talk about loving books and that's important too. It's always fun to teach Jasper Fforde, whose Thursday Next novels are a book addict's ultimate fantasy series. But I've heard from students who went on into publishing and teaching etc who tell me about how they've utilised what they learned about children's literature, fantasy and fairy tale and sometimes ask for more. And that's the difference. It's not just about loving books and wanting to read books - it's about wanting to know more. It's about having more questions than 'who was your favourite character?'

Why teach and study English Lit.? Because we're curious. We don't want to just READ all the books and discuss them, we want to know more about them - about where they came from, who wrote them, why they were written, how they survived the centuries, what influenced them, what they've influenced... again, you get the idea. The impact of all this curiosity can be as simple as encouraging people to read new picture books to children or as wide-reaching as challenging the cultural influence of the Grimms (okay, the latter is a personal, pet project!). After all, in the university, we're teaching the editors, the journalists, the authors, the librarians, the teachers etc of the future. We're helping to tickle their curiosity so they'll seek out new ideas, challenge old preconceptions or simply tell a friend that there's this weird old Italian story about a woman who thinks skinning herself will make her young and isn't it odd how that still resonates into today's culture of botox and chemical face peels?

One of the most entertaining aspects of my current research is realising how so many of our contemporary obsessions were obsessed about long ago in story. I still meet people who think fashion is something that has only recently evolved. So I tell them about the time the Devil married Silvia and she harassed him for new clothes every year as her old ones went out of fashion. It's a sixteenth century tale.

I'm currently researching fashion magazines and I'm learning so much about how they changed the relationships between women and the way women went about their lives. They were filled with such promise of liberating their readers... I keep wondering what happened?

Speaking of that research, it's back to the book pile with me. So much more to learn!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Fairy Tale Salon

The Monash Fairy Tale Salon now has its own blog! You can find it here. Belinda has done a terrific job putting it all together - we won't mention that photo from a past event where I appear to be wearing a mob cap! It was all very academic, I assure you.

I'm currently a little buried in a big research project and a few smaller projects. The one bright spot has been a chance to peruse 19th century women's fashion and literary magazines.

"A modern Cinderella - a princess bewitched, and as charming a piece of humanity as ever was born in palace or hall, and doomed by those cruel goddesses, the Parcae, to poverty and rags."

"Really, my fastidious son, have you found at last your ideal of beauty in a miserable fisherman's dwelling like this?"

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Wingardium Leviosa

Over the last month, I've felt as though there's been a little Harry Potter magic again in the air.

Initially, I thought it might simply be that after writing some articles involving HP, teaching The Prisoner of Azkhaban, and supervising on HP related topics, I'd become less personally invested. It's something all academics worry about. If you research and teach a book, will you stop loving it? Actually, the truth is, you do. For a while. Then you adjust. So I think I adjusted and I'm starting to love HP again as I did before.

Although, I do think there is something in the air.

I actually was online when news broke about the true identity of Robert Galbraith, so I almost immediately ordered a copy of The Cuckoo's Calling. As a result, I snapped up a copy before they all briefly disappeared (until reprinted) or received a sticker announcing Rowling's authorship. I was quite happy about that. I'm still only a third of the way through, but I do have a pesky amount of research to do, so I can't be as indulgent in my reading as I'd like.

As a knitter, I was also thrilled to discover the release of The Unofficial Harry Potter Knits. There's a lot of knitting in HP and there's a wealth of patterns already out and about, but I love the designs in this magazine, especially the O.W.L. mittens. I'm trying to decide on colours. I'm half inclined to go yellow and black, because I relate to Hufflepuff (I suppose as an academic I should relate to Ravenclaw, but I like Hufflepuffs).

A colleague and friend recently stopped by for a mini-quilting bee. It's actually rather amazing how many English Lit. academics quilt. Since discovering Luna Lovegood fabric, I'm musing on creating a HP quilt. My favourite characters are Luna, Sirius and Neville, so really I just need them to create Sirius and Neville fabric next. Although this Marauder's Map fabric might do for Sirius!

I sense that HP is becoming a big part of my life again.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Fairy Tales in Advertising

Fairy tales are regularly employed in advertising. In fact, if you think about it, fairy tales work in very similar ways to advertising, although they seek to sell ideals and aspiration, rather than the products and services that we might associate with such desires.

Indeed, there is so much fairy tale in advertising, it could generate books upon books of study.

While it's not really my area of research, over the last couple of weeks, I became intrigued by 19th century trade cards that utilise fairy tale. The illustrations are beautiful and recently I obtained such a card promoting "Donkeyskin."

I had completely forgotten that Donkeyskin hitches her carriage to a large sheep in order to visit her godmother. It's such a wonderful and strange image. Underlying the tale itself is a story of consumerism. In order to frustrate her father's incestuous desires, Donkeyskin is advised to ask for gowns, each more incredible and expensive than the last, until finally she requests the skin of the donkey that supplies the wealth of the kingdom and runs away with it. Her godmother ensures that she retains her rich wardrobe for the princess will require it to make her new start in life.

In this case, "Donkeyskin" is being utilised to promote a sale.

I'm rather relieved that it appears no donkeys had been harmed for this sale. You can even find out a little about the store on Wikipedia (here).

I'm keeping my eyes open for additional interesting cards.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Don't Be Afraid of the Stacks

Today I popped into the library to pick up a couple of books. I came out with six. Spending time among the stacks is never a bad thing. Among the books that caught my eye, The Culture Sewing: Gender Consumption and Home Dressmaking, which just happens to have a chapter that is beyond perfect for an argument I'm making in my current research project. The thing is, I hadn't come across it in my research to date. My keyword searches hadn't located it. It hadn't stood out in any articles or their bibliographies. However, there it was on the shelf near Thinking Through the Skin, which I'd had on my book list. My point is, sometimes research is simply about spending time in the library, roaming the shelves and seeing what pops.

On a light note, it was a bit wet, so I borrowed a conference bag from the small pile in my office, left over from Tights and Tiaras. I somehow don't think I'll be returning it.

On the bright side, he didn't eat my homework.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Writing Stories

We may not all be the next J.K. Rowling, but it's always fun to publish a story. I wrote a little tale about a rescue dog and an elf in his fifties who likes good coffee. The issue is now available.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Literature wormholes and serendipity

This morning I snatched a little parcel of time to do some reading. I was reading this book.

I've recently become a bit of a fan of Lucy Worsley. I love the domestic details of history and she blogs about dresses and coats too (she also gives rather wonderful interviews about being 'childless,' which is an interesting quirk in feminist and social discourse at the moment, I think).

I was reading about Tudor beds and how they were sprung and how, as a result, people were sort of sitting up in bed. She reflected that the portraits of people sitting up in bed may have had less to do with the symbolism of their status and rather more to do with the give in the ropes. Just a minute, I thought, I remember that. A few years ago, I read an article about that. I can't find the original article (here's where she does write about it, though), but I remember it, because I was mulling over the subject matter of the book I'm working on and when I read about her discovery, it clicked my own ideas into place. There really was worth in thinking about how the practical day to day lives of people throughout history shape fairy tales.

Of course, I'd totally forgotten who had made this observation and I was travelling, so I didn't keep a copy of the article, but I've just now, by chance, rediscovered the author who helped me realise I was on to something.

It's serendipity sometimes. Just the other day, I was reading a post on The Thesis Whisperer about wormhole literature. The idea is that you can read and read and read and think you know everything about your particular field of scholarship. And then you find the one paper or article that opens up an entire universe of literature that you knew nothing about, but is exactly what you need. The fantastic Stargate analogies in the post aside, this is how it is. You can read and read and read, but it just takes one article, book, paper or even quote and you find 'your' universe: the universe of scholars who are thinking what you're thinking, who will provide support to your arguments, consolation when others disagree with you. It's a scary idea. What if you miss that one article, book, paper or quote? It's not inconceivable and the terrifying thing is - it does happen. Sometimes we never know. Sometimes the article/book/paper/quote does eventually find us, leaving us red-faced and a little excited all the same. However, scholarship is often about serendipity.

It's informed much of my career. I look back and I realise...

When I was nine or ten, I read These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer. I've mentioned it before. It was the book that made me realise people can write stories about sinister dukes, girls with secret pasts, carriage chases and so forth. It's probably why I find so much 'serious literature' seriously disappointing.

In retrospect, it also echoes the French fairy tales of d'Aulnoy and her peers. There are detailed descriptions of the court and the lively salon culture, fashion is important and adventures include cross-dressing and being switched at birth.

When I was doing my Honours, I wrote a small essay about "Beauty and the Beast" after discovering Marina Warner quite by accident.

I thought if academics could really write books like that, I'd like to be an academic. And so I am. And so I'm working on my book. I wonder what I would be doing if I hadn't happened across From the Beast to the Blonde?

There's nothing we can really do to avoiding missing the significant (to us) article/book/paper/quote. We can't read all the things. We can't always be alert to what is important. But I do think we can listen for that little bell when we do read something and think 'Hmmmm?' Bottom line, it isn't always the reading we systematically do that is important. Serendipity has a big role to play.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

An Afternoon in Fairy Land

We have a poster! This is a free event we've put together and anyone is welcome (although if you can rsvp, that will help us out). There'll be great performances and papers... at least, I hope great papers, since I'm contributing one! I'll be talking about what Mother Goose wore.

1pm, Monday 6th of May 2013
ISB Meeting Room 2
Sir Louis Matheson Library (Building 67)
Monash University Clayton Campus

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Doctor Who, fairy tales, children's literature and strong female characters

Yes, I couldn't think of a pithier title.

I'm a Doctor Who fan. The third doctor was my first favourite. He wore velvet with panache, had a yellow vintage car, and fought ferocious plastic dinosaurs. I also recently discovered he had a shower scene that I had somehow missed. But I digress.

I'm also a Steven Moffat fan - ever since I watched the goings-on of Spike and Lynda (Press Gang).

It's been interesting watching the fan commentary on his seasons of Doctor Who. Steven Moffat is at his best, I think, when he's writing fairy tales and when he's writing for kids. He often combines the two. I sometimes smile at the outrage of fans who complain the plots are complicated and don't make logical sense. Diana Wynne Jones once remarked that children can follow much more complicated plots than adults (see Reflections), because they pay attention to the clues. Likewise, fairy tale logic isn't the same as usual narrative logic. It's fairy tale. Weird stuff happens. There are great leaps in logic. The logic is often in emotion and not always the emotional journey of the characters, but of the audience. Fairy tales are all about playing to an audience. Although, it should be noted that it would be very rare indeed for every member of an audience to love the same fairy tale.

I loved last week's episode, The Rings of Akhaten. I'm not a little obsessed with Clara's red satchel. Also, it was a wonderful fairy tale/children's story. Why? Because it was all about storytelling and the power and importance of storytelling. That's one of the secrets of fairy tale and children's stories. They're as much about the storytelling as about the story itself. In The Rings of Akhaten, all sorts of stories were being told. Clara told stories about being scared and lost, about her parents meeting, about the loss she felt when her mother died. Merry sang stories and learned stories. Worlds relied upon her knowledge of stories and her ability to tell them. The Old God could only be convinced to sleep by being told stories - a nicely weird twist on the idea of bedtime stories.

Stories are important in Moffat's Doctor Who, even more so than in Russell T. Davies', although the Ood sang the story of the Doctor Donna forevermore.

The Doctor immediately loves Amelia Pond, "like a name in a fairy tale." Small wonder that Amelia Williams, after writing about travel, becomes the author of children's books. Her book, Summer Falls, appears in The Bells of St John, when Clara says Chapter "Eleven is the best. You’ll cry your eyes out." (You can also buy Summer Falls - I have it downloading now.)(Also, remember when the Doctor told Martha before the release of the final Harry Potter "Wait till you read book 7. Oh, I cried"?)

River Song has been writing books too, not to mention a diary filled with delicious spoilers.

And now Clara is carrying around her book, 101 Places to See, in her red satchel.

Moffat's heroines are very literary (see Lynda, editor of the school paper in Press Gang).

I have recently been a little intrigued, though, by some commentary complaining that all Moffat's heroines are 'strong.'

That's a bad thing?

Can you have too many strong women?

Why would we worry about too many strong women?

Moffat's stories do feature a number of plucky young girls. Doctor Who is, after all, at core a children's show and having child protagonists is logical. It's actually nice to see so many girls in main roles in the various episodes. And you'd have to be quite plucky to go on those adventures.

Moffat's stories also feature a number of young feisty women. Again, you'd have to be quite feisty to keep up with the Doctor and tell him off when he needs to be. It's sort of a requirement of being a companion - unless you're just going to scream a lot and whine and, really, why would he want you about if that were the case?

Yet, I can't help but wonder at how we mark out strong, feisty or plucky female characters in the way we don't mark out strong male characters.* Strong male characters are a default. We don't often wonder about the number of them or whether writers have the ability to write diverse strong male characters.

Because... not all feisty, strong, plucky women are the same. Perhaps once one gets over the shock of another strong female character, it can be seen that Amy, River, Clara and the others are all quite different and do have other qualities that make them interesting. (Yes, that was a little snarky.)

Recently I've been musing about how female fairy tale characters are rewritten as 'feisty' and how this seems to be a response to a perception that the default for female characters is 'passive.' Perhaps once we rewrite the default for female characters, we can start to better enjoy the spectrum of strong female characters?

*Although, there is a good line in strong mothers and strong elderly ladies if the Duchess of Grantham is anyone to go by.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

CFP for our next salon

We're holding another fairy tale salon on May 6. Our first salon took place last year and was a great success. This year's salon is held in tandem with the Rare Books' exhibition "In Fairy Land."

We're looking for academic papers and storytelling and performances, so if you'd be interested in participating, please let us know!


The Rare Books Collection at Monash University is currently holding an exhibition entitled In Fairy
Land: An Exhibition of Fairy Tale Books. In honour of this exhibition the literary group, Fairy Tale
Salon, at Monash University will be hosting an enchanted daytime event.

The day is open to readings, performances and discussions about all things fairy tale. This event is open to anyone who has an interest in fairy tales and will take place in the Sir Louis Matheson Library at Monash University Clayton on the 6th of May 2013.

We are looking for interested participants who would like to present original work and/or papers on the fairy tale genre. Areas of interest are:

Scholarly analysis of fairy tale (incl. literary studies, translation studies, film & TV, drama
studies, gender studies)
Live performance of fairy tale (incl. new & established fairy tales)
Fairy tale readings (incl. new & established fairy tales)

Please send a 100-200 word summary or abstract to by the 12th of April 2013.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


Lately, I've been 'winging' lectures and papers. This isn't to say that I don't plan - it's just that I've gone 'off page.' However, now and then, I still do write up a speech, especially when I'm asked for a copy.

So in this case, I can share with you the speech I gave at the opening of the 'In Fairy Land' exhibition.


We’ve all gotten used to the fairy tale about fairy tales: that the oral tales are the true, original form, passed down from mother to daughter, village hag to drunken oaf, depending on your take on the tradition.

But,  I do love being among the books that contain the murmurings of fairy tales, tales that have long since tripped off the nib of a pen, repeated through inky print runs, bound in volumes to be discovered by new generations.

Today, as you walk through the collection, you’ll see the paper crumbs of fairy tale journeys: the yellowed paper and woodcuts of cheap chapbooks, the glossy, colourful illustrations of fairy tale heroes famous and, to many, forgotten, the gilded volumes with scuffed edges that might have been read at bakers’ dozens of bedtimes beforetimes.

There will be strange tales of genies and lascivious women, attributed to a young bride narrating for her life. There will be early incarnations of heroes we think we know well – a Cinderella who murders a devilish stepmother, a female puss in boots who hasn’t received her boots yet, but is easily as crafty, a Rapunzel who very much enjoys the attentions of a tower-climbing prince. Early literary tales were not read alongside cocoa and teddy bears and were frequently strange, outlandish, bawdy and plain rude. Basile, in particular, was fond of a good joke about flatulence.

There will be later tales from a glamorous French past, where witty women met in salons and composed outrageous stories of perfectly beautiful, perfectly cunning heroines and their over-the-top wardrobes of silks, laces, diamonds, pearls and more. These were tales in which fairies ruled over kings and queens as much as over milkmaids and peasant boys.

There will be more familiar tales, too, from the Brothers Grimm, long before they began to fight crime – as they do in the TV show Grimm – or wrote the first drafts for Hollywood films like Snow White and the Huntsman and hit TV series like Once Upon A Time. There will be Andersen for those of a more melancholy demeanour, among others that will tickle a nostalgia for childhood.

There will be the most extraordinary treasures of illustration, with lavish scenes of princesses stepping from their pumpkin carriages and little girls facing down unscrupulous wolves. Indeed, Australia’s own treasure trove of fairy tale is as much about its watercolour fairies and anthropomorphised koalas in spats as about anything else.

There are also tales of many cultures, collected to improve and educate young minds and to preserve what were often viewed as dying or imperilled traditions, including those tales of the tribe of the Noongahburrahs in NSW.

The work of collections, like the Rare Books Collection here, is invaluable, particularly as it is certainly true that people are forgetting that not all Cinderellas wore glass slippers and not all Beauties made friends with chipped tea cups. Certainly, some of you will be blaming Disney at this point, but Disney simply perpetuated a process of attrition so that a television series like Once Upon a Time, which is ostensibly about a bunch of fairy tale characters living in Storybrook, Maine, will co-opt a Frankenstein or Pongo while neglecting true fairy tale heroes like the kindly ogre who takes in a lively seamstress sadly pestered by a royal stalker or the French princess who dresses up as a cavalier and defeats a dragon.

However, collections like this shouldn’t simply be a preservation of the past. I don’t want to see these tales confined to the Rare Books reading rooms, though I’m incredibly grateful they’re safe here! The tales you see today, kept whole through ink, paper, thread and leather, should continue to be read, to be told, to influence. My hope is that exhibitions such as this will encourage people to learn more about Cinderellas and Jacks and Snow Whites, about talking birds and wise fish, and all sorts of marvels, some sublime and some downright bizarre. My hope is that you will discover tales you never knew and read them and tell them and retell them and pass them on. My hope is that you’ll take the time to become acquainted with the times and places that reshaped tales, providing them with oddities and idiosyncrasies that may have lasted for just one telling but remain to be discovered in the pages of a book.

I think, too, that exhibitions like this allow us all to see the place that fairy tale holds in literature. Fairy tales aren’t simple. They aren’t simply for kids – and in many cases, you’d probably rather the kids weren’t reading them. While they did pass along morals and advice, more often than not, they also cheated the status quo, cheekily overturning the limitations imposed by society upon its subjects. I’ve always loved reminding students that the princess didn’t always obediently, passively kiss the frog when he puckered up– she used to slam him up against the wall, fed up with his impositions and determined not to share her bed with a slimy amphibian. It’s only then he turned into a prince, proving that getting mad can win a girl her prince charming.

It matters that we understand who told fairy tales, how they came to be written and illustrated, how they were adapted by their authors. While we have lost the multitude of voices who shared and invented the heroes, the villains, the transformations, magical spells and enchanted objects, left with only random impressions of the words recorded, edited, re-arranged, we do have a vast catalogue of printed words and marvellous illustration. Some are well read, some are scribbled over, some were treasured, some were studied, but the tales in print are just as inventive, diverse and creative as those tales from their cousin, the oral tradition.

While we may never hear the first time a red capped girl or bluebearded husband tripped from the tongue, we do have an absolutely amazing literary tradition to be preserved and passed on so that it, too, may grow.

I’d like to thank Stephen Herrin, especially, for his incredible work on the exhibition, as well as Richard Overell and everyone involved in the exhibition and the continuation of the Rare Books Collection as it grows. I’d like to thank them for celebrating with me the fairy tales that, with their promises of magic, have made life just a little bit better and more wonderful.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Fairies in Academia

Kip the Enchanted Cat from The Golden Book of Fairy Tales

The other week, colleagues and I shared a piece in The Thesis Whisperer about a "circle of niceness." Most of my colleagues being, like myself, level B or aspiring to level B, it had particular relevance.

The question was posed: "As we talked we started to wonder: do you get further in academia if you are a jerk?" The piece ends: "It’s hard to do, but wherever possible we should work on creating circles of niceness. We can do this by being attentive to our own actions. Next time you have to talk in public about someone else’s work really listen to yourself. Are you picking up a prevailing culture of assholery?"

Of course, it is tricky. It can be difficult to be honestly critical or in disagreement with a piece of work while still being 'nice'. Nice itself is a fraught concept. It can come across as false, which made me start to think...

The fairy tales of the female authors during Louis XIV's reign were frequently criticised as being artificial. The authors weren't regarded as highly as their male counterparts, even another fairy tale author like Perrault, who, in fact, wrote more simplistic tales. Yet, these female authors appear to have created a circle of niceness in spite of - or because of - this.

Murat addresses her contemporaries with praise: "You are all beautiful, young, with a good figure, fashionably and richly clothed and housed, and you live exclusively in royal courts or in enchanted palaces."* The forewords of many collections include elaborate compliments for fellow authors and female members of Louis XIV's court. The latter may be flattery, in light of the necessity of patronage, but in some cases it can be speculated that genuine relationships or respect had sprung up between the authors and royal women. Then you have cases where Lhèritier, for instance, dedicates a tale to Murat, declaring her charming and proposing that the moral may please her (a little ironic in light of the scandals that would colour her reputation).

The tales are linked, of course, to the salons, which themselves fostered a co-operative culture among women and, even, men.

Were these "circles of niceness"?

In the tales themselves, while there are remarkably unhelpful and often jerky fairies, princes, queens and so forth, there are also fairies who help without agenda. These fairies frequently occupy high positions and are praised for their beauty and intelligence. They are in a position to help and help they do. 

Murat even calls one "Obligeantine," which unsurprisingly means obliging and kind. Obligeantine appears in "The Savage" and is especially wonderful as she rides around in a black painted giant's skull. She takes the heroine under her wing, protects her from harm and helps to clear her path to social position and love. She really doesn't ask for anything in return and makes no outrageous demands. She's in a position to be nice, so she is nice.

While often patriarchal structures set women against women, these tales reveal the value of being obliging, kind... nice. It isn't about being artificial or less clever or even weaker: it's simply about being in a position to help and, so, helping. Maybe it's time there were more fairies in universities?

*Bottigheimer, Fairy Tales Framed: Early Forewords, Afterwords, and Critical Words (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012), 203 


Thursday, March 7, 2013

There's air-conditioning at the "In Fairy Land" exhibition

It's been hot in Melbourne. We've started off the semester, but I have to admit that my first suggestion at a supervision meeting was that we trek to the campus centre for 'coffee freezes'. Part one of successful supervision? Ensure everyone is capable of being cool and collected.

This week, I was so pleased to open the "In Fairy Land" exhibition at the Rare Books Collection. Stephen Herrin has put together an amazing selection of fairy tale books culled from the collection. This is one of my favourites from an edition of d'Aulnoy. Who doesn't love a carriage been drawn through the air by flying dogs? I'm looking forward to spending some more time with the new acquisitions, too, like the Richard Doyle book and a glorious edition of The Pleasant Nights. You can take a virtual tour if you're not in Melbourne, here. There's also a pdf available of the catalogue. I think my speech will also be up soon. However, if you get a chance, do stop by to have a look. It's considerably cooler there, too!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Looking for the yellow brick road

Have you seen the trailers for Oz: The Great and Powerful? Some trailers look incredible, others look a little... worrisome. Nonetheless, I'm pleased to see people will travel by bubble. I feel that's important. Or maybe I just wish I could travel by bubble. That's probably it.

A couple of colleagues and I have lately been talking about all things Oz. Michelle Smith writes an excellent post on the topic here that I encourage you to read. We've been joking that ever since we started talking, Oz has been following us. The other day, Amazon recommended that I read Oz Reimagined. I'm not sure I've gotten passed the description of Jane Yolen's story, "What if Toto was dead and stuffed?" As I live with a small, black terrier, that description puts me out of sorts. We did discuss, however, the comments and the remarks about this collection being 'dark fantasy' and 'dystopian,' as one of the issues with Oz we've identified is the tendency now to go dystopic.

One of the reasons I became interested in the field of children's literature is that back in the 90s (clearly dating myself here), I read a lot of criticism and media about the dystopic trend in children's and young adult fiction. Since I'm sitting here in 2013 remarking upon it still, this is obviously a trend with staying power. However, I'm not the biggest fan, as anyone knows who has seen the kinds of books I set in my courses. I rarely engage with dystopian works.

My interest was really piqued, however, because so many of the authors and academics who applauded the rise of dystopian literature maintained that it was more 'real' and much better than Pollyanna, an example trotted out again and again.

Just let me stop them right there. Pollyanna is a book about an orphan who goes through multiple trials, deals with all sorts of emotionally broken people, is forced to face the prospect of a life without the ability to walk, and yet manages to somehow get through it all. The 'glad game' might seem twee, but I found the novels and film adaptations empowering as a kid. Not only did she overcome her own setbacks, but she kept reaching out to other people in need. Yet, she wasn't perfect. She didn't like her freckles, for a start, although I coveted them. She made mistakes, she sometimes put her foot in it and she often struggled to find the good. She still tried, though, and I felt that was important.

The problem I have with a lot of dystopian writing is that everything is bad, the heroes are very serious, and unhappiness seems to be a badge of honour. I find it disturbing that stories about horrific lives are regarded as more 'real'. Not everything is awful! And I rather like what Meg Cabot once wrote about 'trauma porn'. I agree with her. And I don't think we give enough credit to 'happy books.' Notice that we don't even have a very good term for them? They aren't utopian, some are romances, some are coming-of-age stories, but they're positive. They often tackle some dark topics, the heroes aren't always sunshine and rainbows, but they're positive.

I think that's why I love the musical version of Wicked. Two women become friends and although they take difficult routes, they both work to make a positive contribution in their own ways, respecting the other's choices. That's pretty powerful stuff to my mind. Plus, Glinda, for all her shoe-obsession and girliness, is allowed to be intelligent, too. One of the things I actually like about the Oz books is that witches can be good. They can wear pretty dresses and travel by bubble. A pair of cute shoes can be magical. And there is a yellow brick road that you can sing and dance down (okay, I'm taking about the film too!). There's a sense of hope in Oz that I think should always be retained.

Indeed, I was thinking this last evening as I walked my small, black terrier. A storm was brewing, but there was a great big colourful rainbow in the sky. It was kind of amazing.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Fun with Graphs

Today, I discovered Google Ngram Viewer. I don't know all the ins and outs of the formulas (my mathematical abilities declined with the absence of chocolate frogs*). Basically, it scans all the google books for the frequency of a word over a period from 1800 and produces a graph.

This was too good to resist.

 Do you know the word 'princess' is on the decline? I wouldn't have guessed that.

 This, sadly, didn't surprise me. Although, I hadn't expected Perrault to be quite so dominate across the board. Particularly against the Grimms.

I thought it might be interesting to look at the different elements of a tale. Cinderella wins by a landslide and Prince Charming isn't quite as ubiquitous as you'd think.

Cinderella is definitely in the lead over Donkeyskin.

Cinderella also has the lead over Finette, though there is a little bump there towards the end of the 19th century. I'm really hoping that is the fairy tale Finette.

I also looked at Little Red Riding Hood. She's leading the wolf by a mile.

This is a very imprecise bit of fun, but intriguing.

* I fulfill the stereotype. My interest in maths declined after I reach high school, apart from a high point in grade eight when our teacher rewarded us with chocolate frogs when we got good grades. We have jokingly suggested that this is evidence girls would do better at math if more chocolate were involved.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Brilliant Cook Books

Over the Christmas holidays, I became a little obsessed with jelly. It was, in part, because I came upon a stash of Victorian copper moulds (one with a squirrel on top that is my absolute favourite); in part because we found a book about jelly recipes, some of which involve wonderful things like Irish Baileys and champagne.

As a result, I was scouring shops for vintage jelly booklets. I threatened friends with a special jelly supper.

I don't think I'd caused as much controversy since the antlers on my scottish terrier incident. But aren't those just amazing images?

One friend, however, understood, and shared her love for Be Bold With Bananas. I had to look this up.

Yes, this was such a popular book, there was a revised edition!

My thoughts? Be bold, be bold, but not too bold with bananas! (Yes, that is a dreadful pun on the fairy tale of Lady Mary and Mr Fox and the whole reason I wrote this post.)