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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 Six. Domesticating the Fairy Realm: Anne Thackeray and Jean Ingelow 119


C H A P T E R S I X Domesticating the Fairy Realm: Anne Thackeray and Jean Ingelow FOLKLORE-NAMING and folklore-narrating, through their use of folktale, fairy tale, and myth, comment on several cultural and social characteristics in British women’s fiction. The discussion now turns from the novel, which dominates this study, to consider folklore-narrating when it moves from pe- riphery—a tool to educate young ladies, a topic for embedded poetry, or a reference in flirtation—to encompass an entire text. Once the supernatural takes over to such a degree, does the text lose its power of social commen- tary, or does the critique take a different form? Do fairyland contexts merely cloak distasteful realities in more attractive guises? In the eighteenth century, leading educators and moralists shunned fan- tastic literature altogether as damaging to the young mind, and authors like Sarah Fielding made fancy more palatable by moralizing it. The Victorians continued such a project, seeking to create fairy tales both delightful and in- structive. Although people still viewed folklore with some suspicion, they considered it less harmful in 1850 than in 1750. Accordingly, folklore- narrations fill more of the story in works by British women writers, and the fantastic moves closer to home. Chapter Two discussed how Fielding and Ann Radcliffe cordon off such material in relation to their domestic-yet-exotic heroines. Fielding rigidly separates the fairy tales from the pupils’ somber self-examinations, and Rad- cliffe’s novel demarcates Emily St. Aubert’s fleeting folklore-narrations from the rest of...

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