I caught the circleroute yesterday, to go into uni, to pick up a new set of academic transcripts. Just opposite the uni, a grey Nissan Pulsar passed my 98, zooming along Stirling Highway to Mounts Bay Road. Across the top half of the Pulsar’s back windshield was one of those stickers made all of glitter, and it gleamed at me staring through the bus window. The sun flashed along the sticker, highlighting the silver-purple-silver words: “I’m No Princess.”
This heartened me.
Not that I would have heaped any disdain on the glimpsed figure of the driver if the sticker had instead proclaimed that she (or the vehicle itself? Who is the sticker describing?) was indeed “Princess”, as I seem to remember seeing in a pink-silvery-pink sticker on a car once before. And not just because anyone whose ability to point and propel a car as a matter of everyday, unnoticed skill, rather than a matter of concentration divided between the traffic, speedometer, car’s movement, crunching gears, painfully tense legs and cramping feet and aching clenched hands and the sweating and quick breathing of just-under-control anxiousness is a heroine to me. (My last driving lesson did not improve my confidence).
It doesn’t make sense to me to be disgusted by anyone in my generation, or aroundthereabouts, being the possessor of a proclaimation of princesshood. It’s almost a matter of subjectivity, the princess is the heroine, the protagonist, the main character, the person who things happen to, or, depending on the slant of the story, the person who does the things. If the no princess sticker makes my inner old lady (Get off my lawn! What’s the young wimmen of today coming to, I ask you?) feel a little relieved, it’s due I think to narrative conditioning. The Pulsar driver’s declaration feels right and true, and necessary even, rather than simply bizzare, because one of the most memorable parts of every princess story I was ever exposed to is the part about being no princess.
Have you been exposed to any of the rash of movies out recently where the heroic field of action has been the imagined wedding? The competition, or rather, the cautionary tale, is played out between the bride who disqualifies herself, by wanting to be one, and the woman who proves her worth by ritually denying her desire for the role, the ritual, or the money and status that accrue. It’s as effective a trap of double-think as any other created for women; true lovers and real partners are those who prove absolutely that they are not concerned with – cannot even benefit from – the financial and social advantages of true love and partnership.
Princesses too are a cautionary tale, but perhaps not the one that you think. The figure of the princess teaches us that it is safer, and pleasanter by far, to be bourgeois.
My thinking is influenced more than a little by the volume by which I measure all princesses, Sally Patrick Johnson’s A Book of Princesses. Here is a picture of the cover of my 1965 Puffin edition. I made it huge so you can see the lovely detail on the dresses:
This is one of the very first books I ever remember reading. I paid no attention to the names of the writers of the stories, and they wouldn’t have meant anything to me anyway. I had no significance to attach to the names of Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, or Charles Dickens, and I was so little when I read this book that I didn’t even recognise the name Edith Nesbit.
My favourite story in the collection without a doubt is Mary De Morgan’s A Toy Princess, in which the real princess is exchanged for a mechanical automaton with a stock set of phrases.
This story is wonderfully executed, but even without the way that De Morgan characterises the king’s court as repressive and foolishly fearful of any hint of real emotions, the image of a soulless princess robot would have been just right.
All the other stories of princesses contain within them an apologetic parenthesis, an explanation of how this princess, with whom we are concerned, is, unlike her cool and aristocratic and fabricated sisters, warm and real and courageous and unconventional enough to earn our interest.
The curse of a too-long nose, exponential hair, or a literal lack of gravity -or even a serious case of rudeness – is exactly what is needed to escape and inhabit princesshood at the same time, which the irascible fairies, of course, well know.
These are stories in which the princesses must negotiate a place for personality within their princesshood. And this is why I say that these stories are stories of the middle class, because even though they are brief and often allegorical with nebulous settings and stock characters, they are nonetheless stories of individuality, a very important middle-class value.
These princesses also tend to find it difficult to secure their own comfort as well as happiness. Success is helped along by a bourgeois hero, who is not so much the quick-witted trickster of folktales as a rational engineer or an entrepreneur . It’s better to marry the retired soldier, the son of a potter, the rational and mathematically-minded prince who can solve a logic puzzle, or the son of the fisherman in whose family you have lived happily for years.
That most of the writers of princess-stories were are the bourgeois could have something to do with their tendency to favour low suits, of course (In Charles Dickens’ The Magic Fishbone, the King is a bourgeois clerk waiting for “quarter day” to come around). Or maybe I have it wrong, and it’s the buyers of princess stories I’m thinking of.
The collection deals with nineteenth-century ideas of womanhood,
as the list of authors I just quoted suggests. It opens with The “Princess on the Pea”, by Hans Christian Anderson, which is a story that fails by the thinnest margin to satirize the pretensions of and for women’s genteel fragility. I say it fails because while I remember being a little taken aback by the princess’s rough night and extreme propensity to bruising, it couldn’t help but feel entirely appropriate to my six-or-seven year old self to know that a real princess would be bruised black an blue by the presence of a pea. And I still can’t help but feel convinced that there is a trueness to her, although perhaps that’s more to do with the fact that the princess enters the story as a lone and persecuted figure, drenched by a rainstorm. This princess, although she wins I suppose in the end, is a little disappointing in that she is confirmed as a princess by conforming to a standard, instead of proving her right to walk at the centre of the story by the quirk that seems to shake her out of it.
I’ve often heard people bemoan the wrong kind of fairy tale, the twee fairytale, the one where the heroine is meek, and polite, and obedient to the wrong people (obedience to the right people – to the Baba Yaga or the animals in the wood – is a kind of intelligence in itself, as a recent writer’s workshop with Juliet Marillier revealed to me at Swancon last week). But these fairytales with their insipid princesses and their cardboard princess are a very necessary part of our training in reading and understanding stories, as, without them, we wouldn’t be able to listen to a story and feel the righteous thrill of transgression. Or correction, or satire, depending on the teller.
While it is technically a far greater expression of democratic freedom to never mention or think about princesses at all, I can’t help but find pleasure, along with the driver of the car who passed me today, in the narrative act of declaring oneself “no princess”.