Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Princess Problem

[9/13: small edits to add some links]

I'm just back from a long class on George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin. What, you say, you didn't grow up on this? Or maybe you did, but you forgot it, because it was long-winded and prosy and had an intrusive narrator. Or you saw it at Barnes & Noble (or somewhere else) but wouldn't buy it because it came packaged with a necklace (which should have been a ring, but whatever...)

But I love it, and I can't fully explain why. I know one reason is that the version I read (which is not always the version you can buy in stores, but sometimes it is)* has not only an intrusive narrator but an interrupting child as well, who figures out the story (sort of) ahead of time. As when the narrator reports that the princess of the title has come to a room where a woman sits spinning, and the child interrupts, "Oh, I know this story! It's Sleeping Beauty!" (not an exact quotation; my book's in the office). I loved that kid when I read the book; I was that kid, or I wanted to be.

But I also loved the princess. My father told me princess stories at bedtime, usually involving impossible quests to be performed by suitors who were, almost always, unsuitable. (We can talk about that another time, as well as my memory that my sister got bunny stories when her turn came around...) So I loved princesses in general, but this one in particular was worth loving, or so I thought. She got to save the miner boy who thought he was saving her, for example, and she also got to take a bath in a bottomless tub with a starry ceiling above her, and to wear a fire opal ring. It all sounded good to me.

I didn't keep the princess stuff away from Mariah. No-Nym has a guest post up right now at Dr. B's that is anti-princess, and I get why one should be anti-princess, but I wasn't, and it's too late now. (Though for what it's worth Mariah is pretty anti-princess as a teenager, so we didn't fail too miserably.) In P&G, the narrator insists that a "true" princess is humble, egalitarian, and a worker. (She's also polite and truthful.) So she's not the entirely negative role model that one might think a princess would be. (Most "princesses" in 19th-century novels are in fact not royal, and are indeed quite good role models. But, yet again, I digress.) But that still leaves open the question of why she has to be a princess at all--in many ways, the novel would work if she weren't, but not in every way.

More problematic for me as adult reader is the fact that, like Mary in The Secret Garden (which I'm teaching next week), the Princess Irene of P&G just gives up her story part-way through, and it becomes the boy-hero's story instead of hers. I didn't really notice that as a child, and there are still ways that she's important, but not as important as I'd like her to be. That actually doesn't happen to Sara of A Little Princess (another "charming classic"!), but it's not as uncommon as you might think. And it may just be the lot of princesses.

My non-princess is waiting for me so I'll have to leave that hanging. What do you think about princesses?

*The Puffin edition I linked above is based on the first book publication, which cut out the interruptions. I hear that the "Charming Classics" edition, however, includes them--they are from the first publication, which was a serialization in Macmillan's.

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