Tradition and Transformation: Fairy Tales in the Victorian Novel

Campbell, Jessica A. Tradition and Transformation: Fairy Tales in the Victorian Novel. 2015. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.
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The popularity of fairy tales in Victorian England frequently seeped into novels of all kinds. But scholarship on fairy tales in Victorian novels is doubly inadequate: first, today’s fairy-tale scholars tend to pigeonhole all Victorian texts as passé, reflections of a misguidedly conservative time that can only interest us now as a foil to later, more “progressive” adaptations; second, too many scholars of the Victorian novel handle fairy tales with offhand or knee-jerk responses. This dissertation argues that we ought to investigate the rich intertextual relationship between fairy tales and Victorian novels in a thoroughgoing way. I focus primarily on the incorporation into novels of two related fairy tales popular in the nineteenth century: “Beauty and the Beast” and “Bluebeard.” “Beauty and the Beast” is a story about doubles and opposites, about the relationship between the self and the feared other. From the perspective of the heroine, the story ends in the realization that the frightening, animalistic other is not actually very different from the self and can be incorporated into the self through marriage. The tale’s dark cousin, “Bluebeard,” is about discovering the beastly other inside the new husband and expelling him.

Chapter 1 demonstrates the affinity between Great Expectations (1860-1) and “Beauty and the Beast,” especially the original literary version by Madame de Villeneuve (1740). Villeneuve’s version features several particularly Dickensian elements: confused identities, intricate and surprising family relationships, dream visions, and doubles. Both tale and novel are centrally about learning to shed surface assumptions in favor of a method of perception flexible enough to reveal underlying connections. Chapter 2 first establishes that “Bluebeard” underlies Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). Even though Brontë, unlike Dickens, does not explicitly allude to fairy tales in this novel, the heroine’s marriage to a suspicious man, discovery of his villainy, and attempt to distance herself from him is exactly the process Bluebeard’s wife undergoes. Second, “Bluebeard” links Wildfell Hall to novels from which it otherwise seems quite different: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). As Doppelgänger tales, these novels house the monstrous villain and the human self in the same person, thus making literal the violation of the borders of self. Chapter 3 explores how “Beauty and the Beast” and “Bluebeard” patterns vie for dominance in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (both 1847). In Jane Eyre, they drive both the plot structure and the characterization of Rochester as a combined “Beast figure” and “Bluebeard figure.” But whereas Jane follows the trajectory of a fairy-tale protagonist, ultimately forging a new place in a new situation, no character enjoys such stability in Wuthering Heights. The novel portrays not typical “selfhood” but something like the “subjecthood” articulated in the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan. Whereas Jane Eyre and most fairy tales enact the fantasy of a person’s reaching a satisfactory place or role in the world, Wuthering Heights depicts an essentially Lacanian subjecthood marked by instability and alienation. Finally, Chapter 4 reveals the intersection of fey and fateful in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). Even though Hardy detested “happily ever after” endings, he frequently borrowed discrete elements from fairy and folk tales. His deployment of fate takes on a new dimension when we note that “fate” and “fairy” come from the same Latin word, fatum. Hardy sets Tess up like a fairy-tale heroine, but whereas every dark fairy-tale plot is confirmed, every happy one is truncated or cruelly distorted.

The novels I discuss are high-profile and various, demonstrating that incorporation of fairy-tale material was no fringe strategy. The frequency and variety with which authors deployed fairy tales requires us to keep them firmly in mind when we study Victorian fiction, lest we miss a crucial dimension of the novels’ production and reception.

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Completed/published
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