Michael Newton Talks About Fairy Tales

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Victorian Fairy Tales Edited by Michael NewtonMichael Newton is the editor of Victorian Fairy Tales. He is also the author of Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children (Faber, 2002), Age of Assassins: A History of Conspiracy and Political Violence, 1865-1981 (Faber, 2012) and a book on Kind Hearts and Coronets for the BFI Film Classics series. He has edited Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son for Oxford World’s Classics, and The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories and Conrad’s The Secret Agent for Penguin. He has written and reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, the New Statesman, and The Guardian.

He is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Leiden and has taught at University College London, Princeton University, and at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design.

He took the time to answer FangirlNation’s questions about fairy tales, Victorian and otherwise.

FangirlNation: What first interested you in making this collection?

Michael Newton: Like everyone else, I grew up with fairy-stories.  In his wonderful essay on the subject, J. R. R. Tolkien points out that in fact not all children like such tales; however, I certainly did.  As with Tolkien, I never lost the taste for them.  Many of the writers I most love – W. H. Auden, Karen Blixen, Charles Dickens – are imbued with a passion for such stories, and some of the realist literature and cinema that I value most is itself perhaps really a species of modern fairy tale – from Joseph Roth’s The Legend of the Holy Drinker to the films of Federico Fellini.

More specifically, I had edited a book of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories, and had immersed myself in a darker version of nineteenth-century fantasy; it seemed time to balance it out with something brighter.  I knew the really good existing anthologies of tales well, but also felt that some of the most interesting stories were hard to obtain and read in the form that they really should be read – in a book.

FGN With such a broad range of styles, subject matter, and authors, how did you choose the fairy tales you included in the collection?

MN It’s a great pleasure to me that within what is sometimes dismissed as a simply escapist form, there is in fact such variety and so many different possibilities.  In making the choices, there were some constraints operating: nothing too long (though some of the stories are already almost novellas); not too much that was still in copyright; and nothing that only looked like a fairy tale, but was actually something else.

Positively, I just chose the best stories I know by the best writers in the field.  Sometimes that meant putting something in – like Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River – that can be found elsewhere in other anthologies.  Yet I decided that one should make a book for someone who’s never going to buy another such book, while also bringing in as many tales as possible that fans of the genre would be eager to have for themselv

FGN Are there any tales that you wish you could have included if you had the space?

MN  I also decided that there should only be one story for each writer.  One consequence is that I do have some regrets that there wasn’t room for another story by both Mary De Morgan and Laurence Housman.  I didn’t know their work as well as I do now before starting on the anthology, and I was incredibly impressed by them. Otherwise it would have been great if there had been room for Jean Ingelow’s Mopsa the Fairy, but that truly is a book in its own right.

FGN  You have a good list of reference sources in the back of the book. Are there any in particular you would recommend for people starting to read about fairy tales?

MN  There are a number of scholars working in the field with whom one just has to engage – Jack Zipes, Maria Tatar, Marina Warner, U. C. Knoepflmacher.  It feels invidious to pick out one person when everything in that reading list is so valuable in itself.  In a way, I would say that the most illuminating statements on Victorian fairy tales were made by the writers of such tales – in the appendices included at the back of my book: George MacDonald, Ruskin, Juliana Horatia Ewing, and Laurence Housman.

FGN When did you first become interested in fairy tales?

MN  As I mentioned above, I was told these stories and read them when I was a child – just like nearly everyone else!  I suppose the really interesting question would be why I (like many other people) did not want to put away this particular ‘childish thing’ – or why ever since to me they have never seemed ‘childish’ at all.

FGN Do you have a favorite fairy tale–literary or otherwise?

MN  That is a tough one! And in the context of the anthology feels like being asked to pick out your favorite son or daughter… I find many of the Grimm and Perrault stories utterly amazing, and Madam De Beaumont’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is an endlessly resonant tale (not least in Jean Cocteau’s film).  But if pinned down my favorite writer of such stories is George MacDonald, and my favorite such tale is Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’, which means lot to me that I would find it hard to express.

FGN You have also edited The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories. Do you see a relationship between fairy tales and ghost stories?

MN  Absolutely – many of the writers of fairy tales also wrote ghost stories (E. Nesbit, Wilde, Kipling, among others).  To go back to an earlier question, one story I would have loved to include is Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People’, which is an extraordinary work of darkness about a girl who meets in the woods what we may assume are ‘fairies’.  Later in life, Machen regretted some of his Gothic tales, feeling he had smeared a visionary impulse with disgust and terror.  That touches on what I think about it – that both ghost stories and fairy tales aim at the visionary, only in very different ways.  One benefit of the Victorian fairy story is that it can also be very funny – as in Lang or Thackeray – and that injection of humor is, of course, for generic reasons rarely found in Victorian or Edwardian ghost stories.  (Though where it does appear, it is very interesting.)

FGN  Is there an overlap between the kinds of themes covered in fairy tales and the stories that emerge when people talk of feral children?

MN  That is an intriguing question! What I would say is that one thing that might be said to have happened to children like Kaspar Hauser or Memmie Le Blanc (otherwise known as ‘The Savage Girl of Champagne’) is that fable and fantasy and myth were overlaid onto their lives, so that in the eyes of others they came to exist in two ways at once, as archetype and as this particular, real, suffering person there.

FGN What are you working on now?

MN  Like half the people who use the internet, I am writing fiction at the moment, perhaps only for my own and a few friends’ pleasure, but I hoping for others too.  In the scholarly field, I want to write something about film, and am in the process of negotiating proposals.  I am also working on, in the age in Britain of ‘Euroscepticism’, something that returns to ghosts and Gothic.  Following a forthcoming conference on the subject, I plan to edit a book of scholarly essays, with a friend of mine, about ‘haunted Europe’, considering how the continent has been imagined as a Gothic and spectral zone.

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