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Folklore in British Literature

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

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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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Afterword “Twas only when I was in the nursery that I envied the good girl who spoke rubies and pearls. Now, it seems to me only just better than not spitting toads and vipers.” —Lady Juliana in Susan Ferrier’s Marriage IN Charles Perrault’s fairy tale “Toads and Diamonds,” a disguised fairy re- wards the beautiful maiden with speech that turns to jewels and the wicked stepsister with a mouthful of vermin. As Susan Ferrier’s spirited heroine ob- serves about this story, a fine line divides the glories of folklore from its ter- rors. Whether from folktale, fairy tale, or myth, a supernatural creature, especially the female sort, charms one moment and demands blood the next. Folklore-naming and folklore-narrating play with signifiers appropriate espe- cially in the context(s) of woman, who first presides as the Angel in the House and then the hag like Bertha Mason or the Alcharisi, and of imperial- ism, for as Mopsa the Fairy in particular indicates, the colonial native, like an elf, cavorts like a child before enacting its mutiny. Folklore rubrics displace real anxieties onto purportedly unreal creatures, but even in the fantastic realm, instability and doubt persist. In fact, Shirley Keeldar’s short reply of “I don’t know” when Mrs. Pryor demands to know what interest lies in speaking of a non-existent mermaid summarizes the pre- dicament. Folklore-naming and -narrating defer the confrontation with gaps between the actual and ideal, whether in terms of class position, sex roles, gender, race, or nation. By “ideal...

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