“For Whom the Shoe Fits: Cinderella in the Hands
of Victorian Illustrators and Writers” by Bonnie Cullen, in
class="text31">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
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