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Folklore in British Literature

Naming and Narrating in Women’s Fiction, 1750-1880


Sarah R. Wakefield

Folklore provides a metaphor for insecurity in British women’s writing published between 1750 and 1880. When characters feel uneasy about separations between races, classes, or sexes, they speak of mermaids and «Cinderella» to make threatening women unreal and thus harmless. Because supernatural creatures change constantly, a name or story from folklore merely reinforces fears about empire, labor, and desire. To illustrate these fascinating rhetorical strategies, this book explores works by Sarah Fielding, Ann Radcliffe, Sydney Owenson, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Anne Thackeray, and Jean Ingelow, pushing our understanding of allusions to folktales, fairy tales, and myths beyond «happily ever after.»


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Chapter One. Folklore as a Critical Tool 1


C H A P T E R O N E Folklore as a Critical Tool EARLY in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853), a curious scene occurs. The hunchback Mr. Benson appears like some magical gnome and, throughout the rest of the novel, acts as a fairy godfather to the heroine. When Ruth and Benson discuss the beauties of the Welsh countryside, the kind parson ex- plains that the locals believe the fox-glove to be a favorite flower of fairies: “Its Welsh name is Maneg Ellyllyn—the good people’s glove; and hence, I imagine, our folk’s-glove or fox-glove.” “It’s a very pretty fancy,” said Ruth, much interested, and wishing that he would go on, without expecting her to reply.”1 His observation associating the plant, a cardiac stimulant and poison, with fairies rings true for Celtic folklore in the nineteenth century. As late as 1895, healers advised Irish parents to put juice from the fox-glove in the ears and mouth of a child suspected to be a changeling.2 When Ruth’s seducer, Mr. Bellingham, hears of the forest encounter, he seeks out the stranger. Curiously enough, his reaction to Mr. Benson refers to fairies as well: “Ruth,” said he, when he returned, “I’ve seen your little hunchback. He looks like Riquet-with-the-Tuft. He’s not a gentleman, though. If it had not been for his de- formity, I should not have made him out from your description; you called him a gentleman.” (70) This allusion to the malformed prince of Charles Perrault’s eponymous fairy tale...

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