Monday, 28 January 2008

Short Story Monday - Melisande by E. Nesbit


When Princess Melisande was born, her mother, the Queen, wished to have a christening party, but the King put his foot down, and said he would not have it.

"I've seen too much trouble come of christening parties," said he. "However carefully you keep your visiting book, some fairy or other is sure to get left out, and you know what that leads to. Why, even in my own family the most shocking things have occurred. The Fairy Malevola was not asked to my great-grandmother's christening – and you know all about the spindle and the hundred years' sleep."

This is a lovely subversive fairytale, written by Edith Nesbit, author of Five Children and It, and several other magical children's stories set in Victorian London. She is probably most famous for The Railway Children, but all her stories are full of wonderfully pragmatic characters and in this one, subtitled "Long and Short Division", the royal parents are no exception.

When the King and Queen return from their daughter's christening they are greeted by some seven hundred irate fairies, insisting that a party has been held without them – that there has been a christening is self-evident and, since this must therefore constitute a chistening party, they will give their presents now. At the forefront, of course, is Malevola, who announces that, as her present, the princess will be bald. Just as the next fairy is about to make her gift, the King intervenes: have they forgotten that fairies who break traditions are snuffed out? Do they realise the risk they are running? "Only one bad fairy is ever forgotten at a christening party and the good ones are always invited; so either this is not a christening party or else you were all invited except one, and, by her own showing, that was Malevola. It nearly always is."

Having bested the fairies, this splendid king goes on to show more common sense over his now-bald infant. He has an unused wish from his fairy godmother, and asks her permission to hand it on to Melisande, but not until she grows up – after all, she might grow hair anyway, or she might prefer something else. All may yet be well.

Unfortunately the princess, happy to please her mother, manages to wish for hair that never stops growing. Nesbit goes on to weave in subversive references to other fairy stories including, of course, Rapunzel - though in this story poor Melisande is forced out of her window by her ever-growing hair. The usual recourse of finding a "competent" hero is futile until the arrival of Prince Florizel but, rather than effecting a miraculous cure in the manner of fairytale princes, he manages to make matters worse.

I love the unexpected twists and turns and complications in this story - I wondered if poor Melisande would ever be able to marry her prince and live happily ever after, though you could tell from their conversations that they were ideally suited. It's a perfect introduction to fairy tales, in that the conventions are all observed: the appropriate players - King and Queen, princess, fairies, princes - line up on stage, the narrator explains and interprets for the reader, adversity is faced with the proper incomprehension by the host of suitors before the hero arrives to overcome it with courage and ingenuity, the princess is amenable to falling in love with the right prince. Yet the path of this tale never runs entirely smoothly from one element to the next, keeping the reader entranced until the end.

Cross-posted at the Short-Story Challenge.

7 comments:

  1. Sounds wonderful. I'm glad Nesbit and others are keeping fairy tales alive.

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  2. Now this is a short story I do actually know and love. Thank you for reminding me. Nesbit is one of the truly great writers.

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  3. John, I think retellings of fairy tales has been one of the really fertile areas for writers, demonstrating their timelessness.

    TT, I was having a lovely session raking round in the bookshelves in our upstairs room which, because of refurbishment (some time ago!) are still rather disorganised. I found several things I wanted to re-read and the book with this story was one of them. Unfortunately, I also found an old Penguin to re-read, which had book blurbs at the back, and I had ordered three more from Abebooks before my conscience got the better of me.

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  4. I hope the refurbishment was one that brought about extra space, it sounds as though you need it.

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  5. I love this story to bits. I remember my mother reading it to me when I was small, and I had long hair so I identified with Melisande. I was sad when her hair quit growing and she grew very, very tall instead. Poor thing.

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  6. Growing very tall was such a wonderful twist, wasn't it? It always makes me smile:)

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  7. thanks for the link!
    I am so happy I found this story, and I wish I had known it when I was little. Edith Nesbit has such a nice mixture of common sense and magic.

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