Cinderella Liberator: A Fairy Tale Revolution

Authored by Rebecca Solnit
Illustrated by Arthur Rackham
Published by Vintage

Cinderella Liberator comes from a new series dubbed ‘A Fairy Tale Revolution’ – so far four well-known fairy stories have been retold by female writers ‘to remix and revive our favourite stories’. Cinderella is transformed in this version by Rebecca Solnit (and so too are the original silhouette drawings by Arthur Rackham). The combined impact of the story and the illustrations is fresh and invigorating.

Firstly, the story. Solnit takes a close look at the original story and focuses on the theme of liberation (hence the title): not only is Cinderella unshackled from the cruelty inflicted on her by her stepmother – as in the traditional version – but so too are the prince himself (who is set free from the stultification of wealth and royal prerogative) and even the two step-sisters.

There are so many layers to Solnit’s vision that at first glance the reader may not notice all the subtle concepts of transformation/liberation. The step-sisters’ traditional ‘ugliness’ is here more a metaphor for what happens when we choose not to care. Cinderella and the prince shun the moneyed life for finding riches in the form of doing what you love – in the end, the prince is now a farmer, Cinderella a cake-shop owner, both having placed craft, skill and personal fulfilment far above any kind of ‘easy life’.

The prince and Cinderella do not marry; they become friends, and it is this, the boldest of the revisions, that I celebrate most warmly. There is something deeply powerful about the choice that Solnit has made here and something very important. Explaining her decision, she writes in an afterword: ‘We are also in an age in which marriage is not how women determine their economic future or their identity’. Both girls and boys are shown in Solnit’s version that friendship is one of the most powerful forms of Love. C.S. Lewis talks about friendship (philia) as one of The Four Loves – “To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves […] The modern world, in comparison, ignores it” – and it’s heartening to see this relationship between two adults presented in a children’s book.

Finally, the illustrations. The story is accompanied throughout by Arthur Rackham’s original silhouettes, but the traditional look of these is quite transformed – they have a kind of psychedelic Lotte Reiniger quality on the cover, but cool to a calmer blue throughout. They don’t feel traditional any more, but rather – like the story – designed to pull the reader up short and take notice. At times they even mildly clash with the tale being told – the footmen of Rackham’s original are not the female versions alluded to in the text, for example – and they challenge the alert reader to question why these obvious differences are part of Solnit’s refashioning of the story.

Overall, Cinderella Liberator is an intelligent, multi-layered and highly rewarding production, warmly recommended to mature readers in the junior classes prepared for some in-depth thinking and discussion.

Other titles in this series include, Duckling, Hansel and Greta and Blueblood.

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