CINDERELLA retelling number 1
JJA Harwood’s The Shadow in the Glass
If you missed the introduction to this year’s Fairytale Fantasy series of posts, find it HERE.
Harwood’s The Shadow in the Glass (HarperCollins, 2021) is billed as a “gothic” retelling of the Cinderella literary fairy tale by Charles Perrault (1697). The first European literary version of the story was, as in the case of Rapunzel, by Giambattista Basile (1634), and it was “collected” by the Brothers Grimm and titled Aschenputtel in 1812. Unlike the Rapunzel story, though, Cinderella’s origins are more grounded in folklore, so its inclusion by the Grimm Brothers makes more sense.
Harwood’s version, set in Victorian England, is grim indeed. Amazon.com actually subtitles it “the Extraordinary Fairytale Debut of 2021,” a tactic only traditional publishers can get away with (in its defense, the book’s title page carries no such marketing language), and its ad copy on Amazon quotes a reviewer calling the novel “deliciously dark.”
Hmm. Sorry, “delicious” is not a word I’d use. It’s a very gloomy setting, and all the characters are morally gray. Do I mind that? In this case, I do, and I’m trying to figure out why. Who’s a more morally gray figure than Walter White, for example, and Breaking Bad is one of my favorite fictional experiences of all time. Who writes grimmer–and better–than Joe Abercrombie, where even the characters we love most are grim and morally gray? No one. Abercrombie is one of my favorite fantasy writers ever.
Hardly anyone in Harwood’s novel is a sympathetic character, especially the heroine, Ella (Eleanore), the orphaned Cinderella figure who is menaced and mistreated by her guardian. She is fiercely loyal to her friends and goes to great lengths to protect them–admirable. But at the same time, she engages in more and more dubious activities and makes more and more dubious decisions for herself. I suppose you could say the same of Tony Soprano. Or Walter White. Or almost anyone in any of Abercrombie’s novels. And it’s okay for a novelist to write about an unsympathetic main character. Actually, the writer I was most reminded of during my gloomy slog through Harwood’s novel is Theodore Dreiser, although Dreiser is very American and The Shadow in the Glass is a very British book. Dreiser’s Sister Carrie is a pretty unsympathetic character. This novel is kind of Bleak House Dickinsian without the humor and generosity. It’s Vanity Fair without the sharp satiric edge.
In the end, Harwood’s Ella strikes me as unsettlingly inconsistent in her principles. One minute she’s one way, another minute she’s something else. I’m just never sure how to take her. A good girl gone wrong? A person who was all about power from the get-go? And the “prince” character is a simpering idiot, so it’s hard to know why anyone would risk all for such a silly guy. I suppose she really doesn’t. I’m thinking in the end it’s all about the power.
Here’s the thing I really loved about Harwood’s novel: the Victorian setting. The novel is gloomy because those times and that London were gloomy. Everything in the novel is in a state of decay, mildew, and rot. I found that to be very realistic and interesting, and it’s clear Harwood knows what she’s talking about. I’ll mention just one detail out of many: dye colors in women’s dresses tended to run in wet weather–and so, given the weather in London, especially a London where industrialization had created rampant, toxic air pollution–women were in constant danger of having their elegant dresses go damp and runny on them. I found that a fascinating little fact, and I think Harwood does a great job of cooking it into the overall ambiance of the novel. I never had the feeling she was pushing her research into my face. All of it seemed organic to the novel. I really admired that.
Unfortunately, I think the very realism of the setting jarred, for me, with the improbable magic parts. By the end of the novel, those parts had come to seem more psychology than magic, and I wish Harwood had taken the novel more in that direction. I guess she couldn’t because she was too bound to the Cinderella story. I ended up wishing this book had been more like Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent or Melmoth. Harwood is really talented. I wish she’d write some kind of book relying on atmosphere with perhaps more of a magical realism twist than fantasy. In the end, I don’t think the Cinderella underpinnings of her novel do her any favors. Any favors for the reader, I should say, because apparently this was a savvy marketing decision. But maybe I’m just a cynical, grouchy reader. There’s always that.
NEXT UP: My discussion of L. Phillips’s Sometime After Midnight: A CinderFella Story
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