Charles Perrault’s Cinderella is possibly the most unashamedly girly story I have ever read. Not that this is a bad thing. Reading it you feel as if you have stepped into a giant baroque walk-in wardrobe. He describes the toilette in such detail, down to the corset laces and beauty spots. It is the ancestor of Sex and the City, The Devil Wears Prada, Ugly Betty and all those fashion parade stories we love.
Cinderella’s transformation reminds me very much of the Fairy Queen Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Cinderella’s entourage of beasts disguised as humans gives her an almost superhuman quality.
But beneath all this artifice, Cinderella is a very loving and generous character. Perrault tells a beautiful moral tale, where Cinderella’s forgiving and sweet nature is part of her ‘beauty’.
In contrast, the Brothers Grimm version of the tale has a decidedly vindictive twist, where the step sisters have their eyes pecked out by birds as punishment. In both versions of the story Cinderella has some control over, or connection with the wild animals. Perhaps this is to emphasise her gentle nature, or a hint at some faery power.
There is a lot of debate in the modern era about materialism or consumerism. Many people are understandably critical of our fixation with fashion, cars, gadgets, jewellery, cosmetics and all the physical trappings of our culture. In a first world country in the modern age, few of us experience real poverty. We are free to choose a lavish or a Spartan lifestyle according to our philosophical leanings. But at the time these folk-tales were first told, and even at the time of Perrault’s or the Brothers Grimm writing, poverty was a very real issue. There was no welfare state, charity was the whim of the rich, and there was no Mr Tesco to sell affordable goods to the poor. The aristocratic lifestyle, symbolised by the gowns and lavish parties was about security and comfort as well as just owning lots of ‘stuff’. If you want to fully understand the story of Cinderella, try being really really broke for a little while.
Some people would criticise the moral in Cinderella. The implication that if you are really kind, you will be rewarded with great riches and status is a little suspect. It’s certainly not a Machiavellian story. (That would have involved Cinderella poisoning her stepsisters, and encouraging her father to go to court, where they would lure the prince using Cinderella’s beauty and wit, then rule the country via a puppet monarchy.)
I got the impression that it may have originally been constructed as a satisfying story for good-natured put-upon young girls. Or perhaps Cinderella’s status at the end of the story is almost irrelevant; maybe the moral is that we should be good to others no matter what life throws at us, and the authors just thrown in the royal marriage finale as a satisfying twist.