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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 Four. Governesses, Émigrés, and Fairies: Implications of Folklore in the Novels of Charlotte Brontë 63


C H A P T E R F O U R Governesses, Émigrés, and Fairies: Implications of Folklore in the Novels of Charlotte Brontë TURNING from The Wild Irish Girl to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Villette, and Shirley, we move from one part of Great Britain to another and jump ahead several decades. Contextualizing the place of fairy tales and folklore in the 1840s poses challenges, in part because attitudes toward fantasy literature varied. Thomas Crofton Croker’s multi-volume collection of Irish folklore and legends, illustrations for which appear in the Introduction, found great success in 1825–1828,1 and interest grew in preserving oral traditions of Scotland and Ireland. Carole Silver’s 1999 book on the Victorian obsession with fairies emphasizes that Celtic tradition, as well as political and national concerns, influenced the English. Haunted also by the fear that industrialism eroded ancient traditions, citizens took up fairy tales and more particularly folktales as symbols of both childhood innocence and English culture.2 As for imported literature, “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty,” among others, circulated in chapbook format.3 1823 and 1826 marked the release of the Grimm tales, and Thomas Carlyle published translations of fairy stories by Tieck and Hoffmann in his 1827 German Romances.4 Starting a good twenty years before the publication of Brontë’s novels, therefore, both local folklore and fairy stories from foreign sources proliferated in England. Addi- tionally, her books appeared on the market just on the cusp of renewed inter- est in fairy tales, thanks to...

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