Friday 19 November 2010

Fairytale Reflections (10) Cassandra Golds

Cassandra Golds is another writer whose acquaintance I am fortunate enough to have made because of this blog – although I was already aware of her fiction through Adele Geras, whose Fairytale reflection on Hansel and Gretel was the second in this series, and who is also a big fan.

Meeting Cassandra via email and the internet has been great fun. We seem to have much in common, not least because we are both big fans of that wonderful, currently-neglected-and-out-of-print Scots author Nicholas Stuart Gray, whose wildly imaginative yet down-to-earth fantasies we both grew up on and love. In fact, Cassandra has started a Facebook page in his honour.

Cassandra says, “I was born in Sydney and grew up reading Hans Christian Andersen, C.S. Lewis and Nicholas Stuart Gray over and over again.” She always knew she wanted to write for young people and had her first book accepted for publication when she was nineteen. Her three novels, Clair-de-Lune, The Museum of Mary Child and The Three Loves of Persimmon (just out in Australia) are all deeply influenced by the worlds of fairytale and 19th century literature.

Cassandra’s writing is beautiful, delicate and strong; and her books are not like anyone else’s at all. Clair de Lune is about a young girl who has never spoken a word since the death of her mother, a great ballerina. Then she meets Bonaventure, a dancer-mouse, who takes her to a mysterious monastery hidden away in the building where she lives... And The Three Loves of Persimmon is also about a friendship between a girl and a mouse living in a vast railway station. Does that sound sweet, cute? Maybe it does, but believe me these are not twinkly books. Cassandra’s writing takes the reader into surreal places where dark emotions and the hidden places of the human soul can be explored.

The Museum of Mary Child just blew me away. It begins with a prisoner, a young man chained in a dark cell, who is visited in his sleep by birds – a society of birds, in fact: The Caged Birds of the City. It moves on to the city madhouse, where a young woman has just been turned out into the streets. And it concerns a young girl called Heloise who lives with her cold, unloving godmother, the guardian of the strange museum next door, the Museum of Mary Child, where ‘visitors enter smiling and depart with fear in their eyes’. Heloise’s godmother even censors the Bible wherever there is any passage concerning love. So when one day Heloise finds a beautiful doll buried under a loose floorboard in her room, she knows she must keep the discovery secret. She names the doll Maria, and one day, sewing in her room, muses aloud,

“I wonder what you would say to me, Maria dear, if you could talk?”

She glanced casually at Maria’s serene little face. Then a strange thing happened. There was a shift in the air, a shimmer, and something changed. Was it Maria’s face, or was it the world itself? For the briefest moment, Maria’s features became fluid with expression, and Heloise heard a voice, as clear as a bell, and yet inside her head, answering promply:
“I would say, I love you.”
Heloise froze.
“Oh, Maria, dearest,” she whispered with all her heart. “I love you too.”

… For this – this – was love. This closeness, this affection, this protectiveness, this respect, this joy between Maria and herself was not charity but love. And this fear of losing her, and the sadness and loneliness that would come if ever she did – that too was love. Love was allowing someone to matter to you. Not for their usefulness to you, or even for your usefulness to them, but for no reason, except that they were they and you were you. Love was everything, all that mattered. And yet, in a strange kind of way, her godmother had been right. For love was a kind of folly, a losing game. The Greatest of all Wastes of Time.

But then, that depended on what you thought time was for.

The Museum of Mary Child was recently short-listed for the Young Adult section of the Australian Prime Minister's Literary Awards. Cassandra says it was inspired by the worst nightmare she ever had…

And her Fairytale Reflection is -


Once upon a time, when I was a very little girl, my father bought me and my younger sister a record.

It was one of the Tale Spinners for Children series — a collection of records so fondly remembered by some adults that there is a (very handy) website devoted to them. Tale Spinners for Children was a series of fully dramatised British adaptations of classic fairytales and stories — everything from “The Sleeping Beauty” to The Count of Monte Christo. They were lavishly produced in the manner of BBC radio drama, with appropriate classical music and British actors who were rarely credited on the sleeves, although they included such luminaries as Maggie Smith and Donald Pleasance — and who had voices to die for. They made some fifty of them altogether, throughout the sixties, and incidentally the brilliant producers and adaptors were not credited either. We as a family had several of them, but one of these had the dread hand of fate on it. It was the Tale Spinners adaptation of “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen. They used Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor as incidental music, and used it so masterfully, you would swear the work was written for the story. From the moment I first heard it — a moment some time before I could read — I was in love, with both the story and the concerto.

The first time I listened to it I remember sitting on the lounge in front of the big record player in my childhood home with  an aching throat and tears streaming down my face. The Tale Spinners version — which, although dramatised, stuck closely to the Andersen original — was about unrequited love, self-sacrifice and the hope of ultimate transcendence. In other words, it was not the Disney version. And yet, at the age of five or so, none of it seemed foreign to me. Not only did I think this was the most beautiful story I had ever heard — immediately I conceived a passionate allegiance to it. From this point on, for me, “The Little Mermaid” was what a good story should be — sad, noble, uplifting, passionate, desperate, extreme and big, opera-big. And it had to make you cry. It was the first time I was ever moved to tears by a work of art, and I have never fully lost the conviction that that is art’s first duty: the gift of tears.

And the dread hand of fate? Well, from the moment I first heard that record, I was destined to be a children’s author. It changed the course of my life. Or set me on it.

“The Little Mermaid” is unusual in this series in that it is, not a traditional or folk tale, but an original story, by an author who is a legend in himself. What’s more, we know a good deal about the biography of the author, and like many of his stories, this one has strong autobiographical overtones. We are often told that folktales were not originally told specifically to children — that they were meant for an audience of all ages.  Original fairytales, on the other hand, such as Andersen’s and Oscar Wilde’s, are probably more truly children’s literature in the modern sense. And yet ever since I was an adult myself it has struck me that “The Little Mermaid” is a very adult story. Or at least, that it is an adult story told in the form of a children’s fairytale. Because it takes as its subject, not (for example) every child’s two greatest fears, as Adele Geras says so perceptively of “Hansel and Gretel”, but unrequited love, terrible self-sacrifice, and eventual transcendence, I have spent a good deal of time wondering what it was that I saw in it at that age. Why did I identify with it so strongly?

There are a number of possible answers to that question. One thing I believe with all my heart is that there is nothing trivial about childhood emotion. Children may be small, but their emotions are big, as big if not bigger than the emotions of adults. You will never be more passionate than you are at five. Things will never matter to you more, and you will never be capable of more suffering. It is also perfectly possible that you have already had your heart broken. I am the eldest of two sisters; my younger sister was born when I was eighteen months old. It is a family anecdote that, when my beloved grandfather came to see my baby sister for the first time, he walked past me and went first to her in her bassinet, the new baby. I’ve been told that I ignored him  completely for the duration of the visit which followed that betrayal and indeed that our relationship never recovered. I hope you are not shocked — in fact I think this is a fairly ordinary family story; one adult or another   must have made that kind of crucial false step every time a new baby has been born into this world. But I think, in common with many children, that must have been my first experience of losing a beloved to another, and that that was one of the things I was recognising in “The Little Mermaid”. You learn all the basics of romantic love before you hit kindergarten; I’m quite certain of that.

But romantic love is not the only subject of “The Little Mermaid”. It is also, crucially, about the longing for another state of existence; and about dignity and even triumph in humiliation in suffering. In a way, the Little Mermaid’s falling in love is just the trigger for a drama about personal identity; she doesn’t just love the prince, she wants to be him, that is, human, with an immortal soul, which in Andersen’s tale is the exclusive preserve of human beings. And — according to the Sea Witch — she can only truly become a human being, with a human being’s immortal privileges, if she wins the love of the prince. The Sea Witch can give her legs — at a dreadful price. Only the prince can give her a soul.

Many people seem to think that this story of Andersen’s is deeply anti-feminist. I think that is a profound misreading. I’m not arguing that he was a feminist in our terms or that he was anything other than a man of his time. But it astonishes me that such people haven’t noticed that he has identified himself completely with his female hero — she’s not the Other (as women continue to be for so many male authors), she is himself.  Furthermore, she is doing something completely atypical of traditional fairy tale heroines (or at least those belonging to the canon of the best known) — she is the lover, not the beloved, the active, not the passive one. Indeed, it is she who saves the prince from drowning in a feat that would take almost impossible strength and stamina, even for a mermaid. She’s only a fifteen-year-old girl with a fishtail, after all, and yet she holds the insensible prince above the waves during the entirety of a terrible storm at sea, which has wrecked his ship, and which rages all night. Then, as the story develops, she pursues him — but, lacking the voice she has given in payment to the Sea Witch for the magic that will split her fishtail into legs (and less obviously but just as importantly, being a foundling with no family or earthly breeding) — she is unable to win his love. (And incidentally, what an unforgettable character the Sea Witch is — laughing in scorn at romantic love, and cutting, with the Little Mermaid, one of the most chilling devil’s bargains in literature. And the Little Mermaid’s grandmother — what a marvelous creation! — with all her wise counsel against reaching too high, and being discontent with what she believes to be the pretty good wicket of mermaid-hood.) It is also crucial to note, not only that the Little Mermaid makes her own independent choices, creates her own destiny, throughout the story, but also that in the overwhelmingly powerful denouement, which is to some extent a twist, the Little Mermaid beats the Sea Witch and even the strictures of the story itself, at their own game. Two possible endings have been laid out for her by others; instead — by staying utterly true to her self, her principles and her conception of genuine love — she invents her own.

When I was twelve, because of the Robert Redford film, which I adored, I read The Great Gatsby for the first time. It had the same effect on me as “The Little Mermaid”, and when I was in my twenties and more capable of analysis it dawned on me that it is exactly the same story. Gatsby is the Little Mermaid. He, a poor boy, falls in love with a rich girl, Daisy. He cannot win her in the state of existence into which he was born — that is, poverty — and so he devotes his life, spectacularly, to transforming himself into a rich boy. He gets the mansion and the money, just like the Little Mermaid gets the legs. But he cannot win Daisy from the husband she has chosen from her own kind, just as the Little Mermaid cannot win the prince from his intended. For both of them, tragedy, and a strange kind of transcendence, results.

Unrequited love makes you question your entire existence. It is as if your whole self is worthless, because that self is worthless, or not worth enough, to the beloved. If you experience unrequited love profoundly, it will have a profound effect on your personality. You will be inclined to define yourself by it, as if it is the single most important aspect of your personality. And it will force you to find a means of transcendence — a sense of worth, even of personal destiny, that makes the indifference of the beloved bearable and even creatively and spiritually lucrative.

Here is something I will never know, but will wonder about all my life. When I first heard “The Little Mermaid”, was I already, at five or six, that kind of personality who would spend much of her life loving unrequitedly? Or could it be true — though, as a children’s author, I hope with all my heart that it is not — that the story affected me so deeply that it turned me into such a person?

I’m sure you already know why I hope that’s not true. It’s because I don’t want to have that much power. I don’t want any story to have that much power.

P.S. You can hear what I heard as a five-year-old at this site, if you can play an mp3 file. Scroll down until you see The Little Mermaid and download to your heart’s content!

Picture credits: The Little Mermaid swimming by Edmund Dulac
                                 The Little Mermaid saving the prince by Jiri Trnka


  1. Thank you, Cassandra, for this brilliant examination of a story that also speaks very powerfully to me, and has done for many years. When I first became ill with juvenile arthritis at 12, I identified very strongly with the Little Mermaid and used to pretend to myself that the pain was a price worth bearing for the sake of being able to participate in the world alongside others. Your words "another state of existence" say it all. And I love your alignment with Gatsby. I'd never thought of that! An inspiring piece, thank you again!

  2. My goodness, THE Cassandra Gold! I loved her ballet book Clair de Lune and tore a strip off her publisher for not making more of a fuss of it. I had no idea she had two more books out, and will try to get hold of them at once.
    I also love the post.

  3. What a brilliant analysis Cassandra! You know I too have an obsession with this story too and am working on a novel based on it so this was a fascinating take on it.
    I think this tale, like all powerful myths, does indeed have that power to define us or create our reality, most likely at such a formative age.
    Thank you for sharing this intimate and powerful reflection.

  4. Lovely post Cassandra. I love the idea of combining stories with music. Your Little Mermaid reflection reminds me of a musical story I came across recently, based on the Scottish legend of the water horse: "Mister Stourworm and the Kelpie's Gift". Truly magical.

  5. Thank you for this, Cassandra and Kath! I almost chose The Little Mermaid myself, because it meant such a lot to me as a child and, as an adult, I was so incensed by what Disney did to it.

    The description of what it would feel like for the mermaid to walk on her new legs made a huge impact on me and I agree that story has everything.

    Another unrequited love story that spoke to me was Oscar Wilde's The Nightingale and the Rose.

    And this is strange because I don't actually believe in unrequited love!

  6. This is an outstanding post. I'm going to chew on your analysis, Cassandra, for some time, and I can't wait to read your books.

    I think I read The Little Mermaid for the first time when I was around 10 or 11 and found it too disturbing to think about. The splitting of her tail into legs (giving her the potential for vulnerable human female sexuality) made me cringe. I wonder if younger children reading it get something quite different than a girl on the verge of puberty does.

    Your Gatsby parallel is wonderful. Thank you for such a thoughtful post.

  7. Your writig is very evocative and inviting, Cassandra. I've always believed my writing’s first duty is the gift of laughter. In the past, I've been scared to go for tears in my writing for fear of blundering into the dreaded 'purple writing' territory. But I love stories that can do it all: make me laugh, cry, cringe with tension, fume with anger, recoil with horror and gawp in stunned admiration at a perfect sentence.

  8. You learn all the basics of romantic love before you hit kindergarten; I’m quite certain of that...Cassandra, that is so true! This is a marvellous post altogether and I just adore the Gatsby insight! OF COURSE.....

    As for Museum of Mary Child, if any publisher is reading this blog, do yourself a favour and get it published here! It's completely brilliant and NOT LIKE ANYTHING ELSE!

    And I quite agree with Amanda that not enough fuss was made of Clair de lune.

  9. Terrific post, Cassandra. The Little Mermaid was also a favourite of mine as a child, although from an animated version (Reader's Digest (?!) narrated by Richard Chamberlain). It would be aired on television every so often, and I would be allowed to watch and each time afterword, would be a complete, tear-sodden wreck. I've since read the original, and feel the same way each time.

    Her lack of voice, I found so insufferably unfair. The constant pain of her new legs was one thing, but the giving up of her voice was quite another. It seems to resonate somewhat with the voiceless maiden in "The Wild Swans" chosen by Sue Purkiss here a couple of weeks ago.

  10. That's a really interesting comparison, Lynn! Must think on that further...

  11. Do agree about The Wild Swans, Lynn! But here the pain and the voicelessness seem very much entwined to create a particularly cruel form of disempowerment?

  12. Yes, Linda, you're right. The two are very much entwined here - and that is a torturous combination. Your word "disempowerment" is perfect for her situation.

  13. Brilliant, Cassandra (as I would expect!) I can also still remember the shock and grief of it the first time my mother read me the story, but hadn't ever reflected on it as a writer. Now I can see why that 5 year old still loved the story, and why it held so much more power than the Little Matchgirl, which simply devastated me so that I never wanted to hear it again.