“For Whom the Shoe Fits: Cinderella in the Hands of Victorian Illustrators and Writers” by Bonnie Cullen, in The Lion and the Unicorn (Jan. 2003), Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, Journals Division, 2715 N. Charles St., Baltimore, Md. 21218–4363.
As if Cinderella didn’t have enough hardships in her storied life, it now appears that she’s also been a combatant in a centuries-long culture war. The Cinderella we know from the 1950 Disney movie and kindred print versions of the tale is not at all the girl she once was, writes Cullen, an art historian studying at the University of London.
Over the centuries, more than 300 Cinderella-type stories—with “an abused child, rescue through some reincarnation of the dead mother [such as a fairy godmother], recognition, and marriage”—appeared in Europe and Asia, Cullen notes. The earliest known version is from ninth-century China.
The Cinderella story that won out and became the basis for the now standard account in English was a French story about “Cendrillon,” which first appeared in English translation in 1729. Charles Perrault’s witty tale, which included “barbs at female sexuality and matriarchal figures,” was intended mainly for sophisticated adults, Cullen says, but by the late 18th century, “it had been watered down.” The trials and triumphs of Perrault’s long-suffering Cendrillon, a noble exemplar of grace in adversity, came to be enjoyed by both children and adults.
Yet Cinderella was still not ready for prime time. First she had to beat out two rivals, the Grimm brothers’ rustic heroine “Aschenputtel” and “Finette Cendron,” the more spirited Cinderella of a feminist French author, the Countess d’Aulnoy. Feisty Finette “engineers daring escapes” for her sisters and herself after they are abandoned by their parents, notes Cullen, and later “refuses to marry the prince” until her parents’ lost kingdom is restored. But she was apparently no match for the bland Cendrillon.
Generous, charming, and good-humored in even the most difficult circumstances, Cendrillon was “the ideal bride, from the gentleman’s perspective,” Cullen maintains. And as 19th-century (male) illustrators and writers made her into a “vehicle for Victorian notions of femininity,” Cinderella became even more of an ideal. No longer did she make joking suggestions to her fairy godmother, and she averted her eyes when she took the prince’s hand. As a midcentury edition explicitly said, Cinderella “made a most excellent wife.” Instead of nobility, her youthful beauty became her chief asset, and her stepsisters—never ugly in Perrault’s original treatment—turned into repellent hags. Cinderella was finally ready for Disney.