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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 Two. “Things Totally Out of Nature”: Fairies and Fairy Tales in Eighteenth-Century Fiction 23


C H A P T E R T W O “Things Totally Out of Nature”: Fairies and Fairy Tales in Eighteenth-Century Fiction A fairy skipd upon my knee Singing & dancing merrily I said Thou thing of patches rings Pins Necklaces & such like things Disguiser of the Female Form Thou paltry gilded poisnous worm —William Blake FANTASY in British women’s fiction is limited before 1800, and texts refer- ring to fairy creatures do so sparingly.1 Furthermore, Nicola Bown argues that gender distinctions regarding artistic taste involved fairies, of all things—men ought to admire them and women dislike the creatures.2 The female sex found little reason, she concludes, to embrace a concept that re- produced restrictive and insulting stereotypes of femininity like excessive vanity. For ladies, fairies unilaterally symbolized “paltry gilded poisnous worm[s],” to use William Blake’s phrase. Is this why so little about folklore and fairies surfaces in the eighteenth century? Fanny Burney never uses the word “fairy” in Cecilia, Camilla, or Evelina, and Jane Austen makes no notable mentions of supernatural crea- tures, even in her mock-Gothic Northanger Abbey. Maria Edgeworth, whose Practical Education urges scientific training and avoidance of fairy tales, allows her narrator Thady Quirk in Castle Rackrent (1800) to allude to “fairy mounds” and to the Banshee, yet provides extensive explanations of the terms in the text’s Glossary. There Edgeworth painstakingly explains the folklore of her Irish subjects as uneducated, country superstitions. She also cites the authority of the rising antiquarian movement to offer a...

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