My favourite book for a few years now has been Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones. It was written for children, but works beautifully for adults as a page-turning love story. Or it does for me, anyhow. It’s the sort I enjoy most of all, where the couple go to great lengths for each other but can’t acknowledge why for most of the book, even to themselves. It alludes to the attraction rather than presenting it neatly tied up with a bow. I don’t mind a more direct approach, of course, and I read plenty of those, too. But anyway, I digress slightly.
Where else but in a fairy tale can you have a romance between a girl under a spell, who spends most of the book as a wizened old woman, and a vain, selfish young wizard whose main hobby seems to be breaking hearts? They are so outrageously incompatible on the surface, and yet we know that they’re made for each other.
Soulmates pop up regularly in fairy tales. The princess and the talking amphibian by the pond. The girl in cinder-coated rags, imagining herself whirling around a ballroom in the arms of a prince. The beautiful merchant’s daughter who sees beyond the abrasive manner and hideous exterior of a beast to the lonely, tortured soul beneath.
I wrote fairy tales as a child, but then stopped as an adult in an attempt, I suppose, to behave like a grown up. It was in the throes of Harry Potter fever that I started experimenting with them again, eventually blending subtle magical elements with the romances I also enjoyed writing. I grew up on a diet of fables and folk stories, just like my own young daughter. Currently, she’s unaware of how much she inspired the character of the stepdaughter Lexie in my latest book Four Sides to Every Story.
Of course, we now know how much darker these old morality tales were originally. They’ve evolved over the decades for various reasons too convoluted to go into in this post. This development seems to have peeved some people, but I don’t see why we can’t have both. The whitewashed versions and the more sinister ones. The sweetness and light, to contrast with the gloom.
My readers want the innocence, the enchantment, and often tell me so! We need that kind of wholesomeness and hope in what seems an increasingly dark and sinister world. That doesn’t mean I don’t have heartbreak in my books, or more shady, reprehensible characters. Of course I do. How can you possibly have a fairy tale without some sort of villain? And I like my heroes flawed, but with a big heart. And stubble. They usually start out more like the frog or the beast than the smooth-talking, debonair prince.
The stories I digested as a child weren’t as diluted or sanitised as the current ones offered to children. And my daughter still reads from the same treasured book of fairy tales that I devoured myself. It’s the source of countless discussions between us. Because there’s no marry-the-prince happy ending for the Little Mermaid in this anthology from the 1970s. No Disney makeover. Here is Andersen’s version, retold but not drastically altered, with its message of love and sacrifice.
We also have the stories of The Little Matchgirl and The Little Tin Soldier. They have poignant conclusions, not the unashamedly happy endings we’ve come to associate with fairy tales these days. Not all the stories in the anthology end on a high note, but they still influence me today. Possibly they’re another reason I became a writer in the first place. As a child – just like Lexie in Four Sides to Every Story – I wanted to rewrite the sad tales. I longed to give them a HEA. Yet now, looking back with adult eyes, I understand why the sadness is there, and why sacrifice is necessary and redemptive.
It probably won’t surprise you to know I love Disney Princess movies, will it? Especially the latest crop. Throughout my new book you’ll find conscious and unconscious little moments of homage to some of my favourite films and novels… Tangled… Enchanted… And the (non-Disney) Howl’s Moving Castle gets a look-in, as I realised after finishing my first draft that I’d used the names Sophie and Lily (characters in Howl’s). More deliberately, however, was the hobbling old woman with the stick. The use of Travers and Brand as the name of the nanny agency was no accident, either. Nothing to do with Howl’s Moving Castle, though. I’ll leave you to work it out – far more fun that way!
Then, of course, there’s Cinderella. That’s probably the fairy tale I reference most. After all, it’s the most famous one to feature a fairy godmother. But I didn’t want to write about the sort of older, theatrical fairy godmother we might visualise when we hear the term, so I put a new spin on a classic tale, and then set it in the quaint fictional village of Fools Castle, which seems to be a hit with readers. So much so, that I’ve decided to revisit it in my next book. I hadn’t intended to, but to be honest, I’m missing it too much not to go back; and all those familiar characters are scrambling about in my head trying to get themselves heard again. There’s so much more to be said, I’m discovering. Who knew? Not me. Not till now, anyway.
Because, apparently, true love isn’t the end of a story. It seems it’s just the very beginning. ‘Happily ever after’ left to our own imagination may be the conclusion of most fairy tales. It’s what we’ve come to expect. But what we’ve come to expect from a fairy tale has never stopped me before…
My favourite mode of transport. Naturally 😉
You can read Sharon’s review of Valerie-Anne’s latest novel Four Sides to Every Story here
You can buy Four Sides to Every Story here
By day, Valerie-Anne Baglietto writes modern, grown-up fairy tales. By night, she clears up after her husband and three children. Occasionally she sleeps. During her career, she has written rom-coms for Hodder & Stoughton and won the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writer’s Award (the little silver rose bowl was a nightmare to polish, but it did look very pretty on the Welsh dresser). Aside from writing and household management, she takes perverse delight in bossing around the other members of Novelistas Ink, a writers’ collective founded by the bestselling author Trisha Ashley. You can also find her hanging out in the usual places on social media:
Website – www.valerie-annebaglietto.com