Fairy tales are ours to interpret as we please, and women are among the leading reinventers. Neil Philip looks at retellings which add audaciously to a growing genre
The movement to re-claim fairy tales for an adult audience has been largely led by women: storytellers such as Angela Carter and A S Byatt, and poets such as Anne Sexton, Louise Gluck and Liz Lochhead.
Writers such as Carter and Sexton have hot-wired traditional tales, homing in on the sexual and psychological darkness beneath the narrative. Incest, child abuse, sibling rivalry: fairy tales have it all. Cinderella's father wants to sleep with her; Beauty is both attracted and repelled by the Beast's lurking sexual threat.
Emma Donoghue's often brilliant story-sequence, Kissing the Witch, reinvents the fairy tale in a way which is not just feminist but specifically lesbian. She exposes hitherto unseen tensions and challenges within the female relationships of such familiar tales as Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Rapunzel, and Rumpelstiltskin.
Sometimes her insights seem to detract from the essential force of the source story. For instance, if Cinderella falls in love with her fairy godmother, the important sense in which the fairy godmother actually is the deceased mother is fatally undermined. But, just as often, Emma Donoghue turns the tables so neatly you wonder no one has thought of it before. The Beast turns out to be neither an ogre nor an enchanted prince, but a woman: "And as the years flowed by, some villagers told travellers of a beast and a beauty who lived in this castle and could be seen walking on the battlements, and others told of two beauties, and others of two beasts."
Donoghue borrows some of her technique from the great master of the literary fairy tale, Hans Christian Andersen, and she also re-works two of his stories, The Snow Queen and The Little Mermaid. These are two tales charged with unacknowledged erotic power, and her stories offer a fascinating new perspective on them. Rather than new creations to rival Andersen's, they are elegant and challenging variations on a theme.
Some readers may feel there is a disparity between the perceived universality of well-known fairy tales, and the private resonance of Emma Donoghue's versions. For instance, the theme of a lesbian awakening between a younger woman and a mother figure clearly has greater importance for the writer than for many readers. But one of the things that Donoghue deftly shows is that the great fairy tales really are so "universal" that they contain all the possible stories of the world.
Because her underlying theme is the search for selfhood, she is particularly good on childhood and growing up. In one story, for instance, an unhappy child tells us: "Every story I ever heard of changelings, babies swapped at birth or abandoned in bulrushes, I repeated to myself at night to glean their secret message. But I had no idea how I had drifted into the path of these indifferent giants called father and mother, and I did not dare to ask." Ironically for such an adult re-working of fairy tale themes, the mature characters are much less exactly drawn than this.
There is a tension in the writing itself between poetry and storytelling - between, as it were, the models of Anne Sexton and Angela Carter. Donoghue's use of fairy-tale images is often breathtaking, as in "The Tale of the Shoe" when an unhappy girl says, "Every word that came out of my mouth limped away like a toad." But, in the same story, directness of address can turn to banality: "And then, because I asked, she took me to the ball. Isn't that what girls are meant to ask for?" It may be that the author's voice speaking aloud could reconcile these two verbal registers, but on the page the prose can veer alarmingly within a single paragraph from poetic utterance to conversational drawl.
The result is often a slackening of tension, where for instance the lean intentness of Angela Carter's prose would have tightened.
But the comparison with Carter's The Bloody Chamber, though inevitable, is perhaps unfair. For Kissing the Witch is not a derivative book, and its faults may be necessary to its virtues: most particularly its sense of the world as something that is woven by each individual, and in which a simple change of perspective can turn warp into weft.
Neil Philip is editor of The New Oxford Book of Children's Verse