Rating: 5 out of 5
There are many inceptions of maidens being rescued from poverty by handsome princes. Most renowned is probably “Cinderella”. First recorded in 7 BC Egypt; the tale appears in Italy around 1634 and laid the groundwork for both Charles Perrault (1697) and the Grimm Brothers(1812). With Disney, sampling from Perrault in their 1950 animated movie. Though borrowing the french Prince Phillippe de Marsillac our tale takes place in Holland.
I have come to regard Gregory Maguire as one of my favorite authors. His ability to recreate and expand upon world’s I’m familiar with is refreshing. I aspire to his talents someday in my own writing pursuits.
After my experience with Wicked I knew he was a good author but my read through Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister gave me a newfound respect. Set during the 17th Century, the book was simple enough to read, I even learned a few new words no longer in common use.
A reimagining of the classic fairytale Cinderella, Confessions offers a look at the tale from the view of the stepsisters of the fairytale. One mentally impaired, oversized and unable to speak. The other extremely observant; clever in her own right, a talented painter if not heavy on the eyes. Two sisters thrust into our story by fate.
Someone murdered Jack Fisher, and because of his death the widow Fisher and her two daughters Ruth and Iris fled to Holland for safety. Having read the story, I have my own ideas as to why Margarethe may have been in danger.
Once there we witness Cinderella, through Maguire’s eyes. The widow Fisher works as a scullery maid for room, board and meager wages to care for herself and her two daughters. Though she earns the affections of painter, Luykas Schoonmaker, she leaves for a position in the wealthier Van den Meer household. Initially they are servants, but Margarethe ensures that soon she is the mistress of the house.
I enjoy Maguire’s ability to add depth to his characters. He advises initially that the story of Cinderella had been embellished to disguise a families shame and proceeds to unveil the sordid details of how Clara “Cinderella” Van den Meer came to find her prince. There was almost nothing I would change about the novel except for the minor loose end that is discussed but not resolved in the epilogue.
Echoing the traditional tale, widow Margarethe Fisher marries wealthy widower merchant Cornelius Van den Meer and is charged with caring for his home and his beautiful daughter Clara. Margarethe has two daughters of her own, though the eldest Ruth is oversized and mute, the youngest Iris is merely unbearably plain to look at. Despite her hopes, however, the Van den Meer fortune was not as secure as she’d speculated and the fate of of the household depends on attending the royal ball and wooing the Prince.
The Van den Meer fortune, has as big a role in the story as any other character and it was more impactful. It was their wealth that made the Vinckboons so notable in Haarlem, their wealth attracted Cornelius Van den Meer, Henrika’s dowry made him wealthy and kept him in line.
Their wealth drew the attention of the kidnappers, “Crows”, who took Clara and called Margarethe to their home. It was wealth Margarethe coveted, squandered and lost. The family fortune was restored and possibly exceeded when Clara ascended the throne. The Van den Meer fortune was the true magical force in the story.
Confessions is a story of transformations, altering the tale of “Cinderella” itself entirely but specifically regarding the characters. Margarethe is crafty, always moving she consistently changes her surroundings and her station in pursuit of “better”. Always looking for her next big opportunity.
It is then ironic that her sight is the very sense that begins to fail her, having been so sharp with her tongue regarding beauty and her observations of the world around her. We watch a gradual regression of her sight and its effects on her ability to manipulate her world.
The concept of sight is heavily discussed in the book with focuses on artwork, religion and beauty being mentioned frequently. We come to discover that though the story is full of artists, monstrosities, muses and fair maidens, each character lacked some form of beauty and was unwilling to see the truth of their world.
Clara is both gifted and cursed with physical beauty. It is possibly what attracted the kidnappers to her in the first place, a reason the townspeople think she is a changeling, as well as the reason her father commissions, Girl with Tulips. Her beauty is her greatest asset and her biggest burden. She despises the attention she gets for being attractive, yet it is her looks that earns the affections of the Prince. She was blind to her strength but was willing to forsake her comforts for the safety of her family.
Iris is visibly hard to look at, but has a sharp mind and a keen eye.
She absorbs images like a sponge, a gift that exhibits itself in her painting and weakens itself when blurred by her emotions. She is blind to her own inner beauty, her resilience of spirit or how others perceive her.
She becomes so accustomed to being criticized on her outer beauty, she disregards her gifts entirely, only realizing after its too late that she too had a chance at the Prince. It is Iris who made it feasible for Clara to attend the ball. Her inability to see Caspar’s feelings for her is one of few annoyances throughout the story.
Margarethe was unwilling to see her future with Schoonmaker who may have truly cared for her once, her obsession with wealth corrupts her and she grows old and literally blind to the world around her. Everyone seems blind to Ruth as she is mute and perceived unintelligent, she actually happens to be the narrator, proving her to be highly observant in her own right and equally intelligent.
Beauty is seen both superficially in the obvious beauty of the tulips or Clara, but also in stark contrast to things seen as ugly. The the beauty of sorrow is addressed. The comparison of how uncomely Iris is in comparison to the wildflowers of the meadow as well as her step sister Clara. Clara has all the beauty and social graces that Iris lacks but is confined to the manor first by her mother and then by herself.
She is infantile and spoiled though she matures over time taking on the responsibilities of the kitchen and her ailing fathers health. Her looks occasionally currency for items Margarethe desires but can’t afford. Maguire uses the obsession with stereotypical beauty as a curse while elevating inner beauty to a higher standard. It is kindness that indicates true beauty.
This is the second book I’ve read, (since I haven’t finished the Wicked Years series) that Maguire reimagines with a less fantastical explanation to magical occurrences. The concepts of magic are considered to be childlike understanding that as you grow you create your own magic. Margarethe often says to let her cast her eel spear and to move out of her way. Clara sees herself and Ruth initially as changelings, Iris believes she sees imps and Margarethe flees England with the girls for fear of persecution of being a witch.
Maguire toys with societies superstitions and understanding of science during that time period to give a more realistic still very magical spin on the chain of events that control our story.
Margarethe’s gifts for herbs which suited her in getting her way was also her downfall, perhaps the price for trafficking in that particular sort of “magic”. The loss of her eyesight fitting for a woman whose hubris and vanity hinged on pride and appearance.
The imp that plagues Iris and the crows who “changed” Clara are metaphors, psychological projections of the evils of man. Clara rationalized the ‘crows’ as spirits who abducted her for misbehaving and returned her once she became a “good” child. In truth she was kidnapped probably by Von Stalk, (it’s never made clear if he’s definitely responsible). Iris feels the “imp” whenever she or another character are up to some form of mischief or another.
Having finished the book my only question is did Margarethe kill her husband or did she really flee because they thought she was a witch? I would love to know more of her backstory. It reminds me of Cora from Once Upon A Time.
Have You Read Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by
Gregory Maguire? What did you think? Which is your favorite retelling of Cinderella? Let me Know in the Comments Below!