Austen and… Fairy Tales?


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“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

C.S. Lewis, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature  Unknown-3


Recently I wrote a couple articles confessing my love of fairy tales. And, considering the abundance of fairy tales on prime time television, I conclude I’m not alone. But it got me to thinking about another love many of us share: Jane Austen.

We’ve known and loved her for years, but Colin Firth helped launch her to the stratosphere in 1996… And she’s still soaring. Now the fact that her works are brilliant portrayals of human nature, family life and the societal realties and constraints of her time, may have something to do with it – but I don’t think it explains it all…

I believe Austen’s stories resonate with us because they carry some of the same truths we find in fairy tales: choices need to be made, living requires courage, and good and evil exist in the world. And, for our modern audiences, some of the same story elements: reversals of fortune, “happily ever after” endings, consequences for wrong actions and “once upon a time” locales. After all, does any place take on a more romantic aura than the Regency period? Even if we know living there was a problematic business.

Austen would, I suspect, not like the correlation I’m drawing. And during her lifetime, it could not be made – at least as far as the story elements above. Her stories were not written as “Once Upon a Time’, but rather as accurate, and often satirical reflections, on her society – its hypocrisies, limitations and realities. It’s the two hundred year lapse that makes my musings possible.

And yet, even she might allow some latitude on my assertion. The Grimm brothers and Austen were writing at the same time, and reacting to the same world influences. Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, the year before the Grimm brothers released Nursery and Household Tales, and Pride and Prejudice was released the year after. While the Grimm brothers worked to codify and unite German traditions in a turbulent time, Austen’s stories laud domestic stability and,Unknown even tranquility, amidst a tumultuous canvas as well. Like the Grimms, her writing preserves a moment, while giving her readers a glimpse of what may be lost – as portrayed through lives and tensions of her sailors and soldiers.

It is this connection, this seeking for a “moment,” which, I believe, fuels our present fascination. And fairy tales and Jane Austen always deliver. In the books, we are drawn to brilliant depictions and characters, and in the modern adaptations for both, we are transported though elaborate sets, gorgeous costumes, carefully reigned passion and the continued assurance that all will end well. Snow White will defeat the Queen, Cinderella will leave her stepmother victoriously, Darcy will marry Elizabeth and Henry Crawford will never enjoy a truly happy day… Ever after.



13 Responses to Austen and… Fairy Tales?

  1. Thank you for this post. I love the HEAs of both Austen and Fairy Tales. Life places so many pressures on us and doesn’t always go well that I believe the HEAs in these stories are the boost we need to keep going.

  2. I always loved fairy tales as a child (although I must admit I preferred the Enid Blyton ones to the darker Grimm stories) I never thought of Pride and Prejudice in that light until now but yes you are right – especially with the happy ending – sigh!!! I really enjoy the books where Darcy and Elizabeth don’t have too many personal problems and face external ones together.

  3. Thank you all for stopping by and commenting… I had no wifi yesterday and kept saying, “Good comment… So true….” but, of course, no one heard me. 🙂 And, I agree, about some of those fairy tales — they can be a gory business. Thank goodness, Jane kept that away. But we do have P&P and Zombies to look forward to…

    Talk soon…

  4. I have always thought of Lizzy as Cinderella being saved from her silly younger sister and out-of-control mother. Loved this post!

  5. This is interesting to think about. Jenni James once told me that Persuasion reminds her of Cinderella, and it definitely has some parallels. I think Mansfield Park has a lot of elements of a fairy tale too, where the good guys triumph and the bad guys get their punishments. I suppose all Jane Austen’s books are like that to a certain extent. The good characters usually have a happy ending.

  6. I love the fairy tales that have been made into musicals though I’m not as fond of seeing JA in that format. I’m crazy for a happy ending and thankfully JA and most of our JAFF have satisfied me on that end. Thanks, Jen

  7. Katherine, thank you for this great post! I believe fairy tales help us to deal with the world as we know it. They give us hope in the midst of difficult circumstances. Fairy Tales are a wonderful escape from reality!

  8. There are those who believe that most plots have a basis in a fairy tale- that fairy tales are the seminal plots. We use them as descriptions of other works.— it is a Cinderella story, or she is a sleeping beauty, or beauty and the beast . One can find little Red Riding Hood , Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel in tales of suspense.
    The Grimm brothers were researching linguistics. The German tales often do have more gory parts than the French version of the stories.

  9. I was actually shocked to read some of the Grimm Fairy tales in which there are morbid endings for some of the bad guys, i.e., stepmother made to dance in red hot slippers until she dies! I do like fairy tales; my favorite is Beauty and the Beast. In fact I am watching the TV series which just came back for a new season on Thursday nights.

Your thoughts are precious!