Welcome back to Fairy Tale Friday! It’s been a very long time. My semester is over, so I’m hoping to post a few of these during my summer break. But considering I’ve been trying to get this finished for a month and a half, I’m not sure how that will go.
My Rating: 5 stars
Warning: Contains spoilers
As a Retelling:
Teller mainly draws from the well-known Perrault version of the story. There are glass slippers and a godmother (though not a fairy godmother, as we will discuss later). However, there are a few things taken from other versions. In reference to the Grimm tale, there is a rumor going around the royal court that Ella’s stepsisters cut off parts of feet in order for the slipper to fit. It also draws from the Italian “Cat Cinderella” for the stepmother’s backstory. In this version, the stepmother starts out as a governess to Zezolla, the Cinderella character. It’s the only variation I’ve read so far that gives any detail on the stepmother prior to her marrying Cinderella’s father. Agnes, the main character in All the Ever Afters, is Cinderella’s stepmother and we follow her story from childhood until after Ella’s marriage to Prince Henry. It is not a particularly happy life story. She is born into serfdom and goes to work as a laundry girl at Aviceford Manor. She slowly works her way up in the world, moving through roles of maid at Ellis Abbey, owner of an alehouse, nursemaid to Ella (which is where we see the influence of “Cat Cinderella”), and finally lady of Aviceford Manor and wife of Lord Emont. In the end it is her rather than Ella who has the more traditional Cinderella arch. We even see her covered in ashes when she is working in the laundry and Fernan, who becomes her first husband, teasingly calls her “Cinder Girl” several times.
Elfilda, called Ella, is our Cinderella character. I really enjoyed Teller’s take on her. Ella is coded as on the autism spectrum. Since the book takes place in medieval England, the word is never actually used, but it becomes quite clear as we get to know Ella. An early hint is when her stepsisters describe her as quick with lessons and music but oblivious to social cues. It is confirmed as we watch her grow up; she doesn’t start speaking until she’s four, she has meltdowns, she doesn’t have a filter when talking to people, and she takes an extreme special interest in clothing and fashion. She is extraordinarily beautiful and from a wealthy family, which causes most everyone to dote on her. Her father in particular gives her everything she wants. Agnes is the only one to treat her the way she would any other child and try to discipline her. Though she once declares that Agnes treats her as a servant and dresses her in rags and apparently tells similar things to people at court, Ella is never truly mistreated by her stepfamily. These statements are the result of her misunderstanding situations in which she doesn’t get her way or is punished for her bad behavior. The misunderstandings seem to be partly because she is so spoiled and partly because she is on the spectrum. The rags she refers to are the mourning clothes she has to wear after the death of her father. Her stepsisters are able to get new gowns but she is not until she is out of mourning, which causes her to throw a tantrum. She is forced to do the work of a servant once in her life as a punishment. She leaves an unused dress in a heap on the floor, making more work for the laundress. Agnes, infuriated since that was once her job, sends her to work in the laundry for the day. Ella returns crying and covered in ashes, resulting in the nickname Cinderella.
Agnes’s daughters from her first marriage to Fernan are Charlotte and Matilda. Most people consider them ugly, as are the stepsisters in most modern interpretations of the fairy tale. I’ve yet to find an actual variation of the tale that includes this. Either their physical appearances aren’t mentioned at all or they are simply described as less beautiful than the Cinderella character. I’ve wondered if perhaps the Disney movie originated the idea of the ugly stepsisters, but I haven’t been able to find anything about it. Charlotte and Matilda’s situation is far more complex than simply being unattractive. Fernan is black, so the girls are mixed race. Charlotte has dark skin like her father’s, which causes people to consider her ‘ugly’. Agnes remarks that she is actually pretty despite society’s views. Matilda is lighter skinned and considered beautiful as a child. Unfortunately, she catches smallpox, which results in extreme scarring that renders her ‘ugly’. Their relationship with Ella is also much more complicated than in the fairy tale. They mostly get on well. She wants them with her once she becomes a princess and moves to court, and they often play together as children. However, they fight as well, often because Ella calls them ugly. It seems to be more due to her lack of filter than actual maliciousness, but Charlotte and Matilda are understandably hurt. It results in them fighting and Ella claiming that they are being mean to her. They do hold a bit of resentment about her behavior and how much she is doted on, and they do sometimes make fun of her, such as nicknaming her Cinderella after the laundry incident.
As mentioned earlier, Teller uses the godmother from Perrault’s tale. This version is the only one to feature a fairy godmother, though all variations have some kind of magical helper. It is more often an animal, such as the fish in “Yeh-hsien,” or a plant, such as the tree planted at the mother’s grave in the Grimm tale. Teller’s godmother is Mother Elfilda, the abbess of Ellis Abbey. She is both Ella’s godmother and maternal aunt. This book is historical fiction, so she does not use magic, though there are rumors among the court servants that she is a fairy who conjured Ella’s finery for the ball. It is understandable why a rumor like this starts; Agnes describes Mother Elfilda having a very powerful charisma when speaking that could easily be taken for supernatural power. And she does grant Ella permission to attend the ball and provide her with the dress, shoes, and carriage. She does this with the authority and wealth she has a the abbess. Aviceford Manor is one of the abbey’s several holdings, so Mother Elfilda has a large amount of power over it. She is able to afford all these luxuries for Ella and give her permission to come out of mourning early for the ball. After Emont’s death, Agnes and her daughters could be turned out of the manor at any time, so she must comply with what the abbess wants.
Agnes does not deny Ella’s request to attend the ball out of spite as the stepmother does in the original fairy tale. Rather it is because she and Ella are still in mourning for Emont. Charlotte and Matilda can attend because as stepdaughters their mourning period is shorter. Agnes believes it will also be good for Ella to not get something she wants and that it might help her learn patience. Most European variations of the tale feature three major events, whether they are balls, festivals, or church services, but Teller only uses one. This isn’t unprecedented in folklore; “Yeh-hsien” features only one festival. It has become common in modern interpretations such as the Disney film. As previously mentioned, Teller includes the famous glass slippers. The extravagantly beaded gown Mother Elfilda sends comes with a pair of equally extravagant shoes with so much beading that they look like they are made of glass. The shoes are left behind at the ball not because Ella is fleeing to meet her midnight deadline but because she throws a tantrum when she doesn’t want to leave. Agnes sets the midnight deadline because young ladies staying later would be improper, but when the time comes, Ella wants to stay to continue dancing with Prince Henry, who she has been with all night. Agnes accidentally tears Ella’s gown while forcing her out to the carriage, and Ella throws one of the shoes at her in a fit of rage. The shoe misses Agnes and breaks a window, after which Ella runs to the carriage, leaving the other shoe behind on the stairs. There is no shoe fitting, though rumors of it do go through the royal court. Prince Henry is able to find out who she is by asking the hosts of the ball, which is far more realistic than the prince simply finding Cinderella through her lost slipper. Agnes, Charlotte, and Matilda are eventually invited to live with them at court for a dual purpose: to give them a place to live since they must leave Aviceford Manor and for Ella to be more comfortable at court by having people she knows and cares for around. This seems to be a slight twist on Perrault’s ending in which Cinderella forgives her stepsisters and sets them up with marriages to noblemen.
I adored this book, and the characters are one of it’s best features. Agnes and Ella are the two that particularly standout, but all of them are well-developed and feel real. I loved Agnes’s voice and following her life story. I saw another reviewer compare the book to Jane Eyre, and I agree with that wholeheartedly. Both are stories of women growing up in a society that oppresses women and the lower classes. Agnes is similar to Jane in her resourcefulness and practical life outlook. I also liked that Teller develops her as morally grey. While she certainly isn’t a bad person, she’s not quite a good one either. She loves her daughters and will do anything for them, but she also has a slight conniving side and admits that she has a hard time loving Ella.
I’ve mentioned time and time again that fairy tale retellings are not a particularly diverse genre, so I was delighted by the representation in this book. There are black and mixed race major characters and an interracial relationship, which I feel I see very rarely in literature, much less fairy tale retellings. This is also one of the very few books I’ve read featuring a major character on the autism spectrum. It’s certainly the first I’ve seen in this genre. It also felt well-handled, though I can’t say for sure since I’m not on the spectrum nor do I have any significant experience with it. Interestingly, I haven’t seen any reviewers really talking about this aspect. I mostly just see people calling Ella spoiled and bratty, which I think does a major disservice to the character, the book, and the author. The situation is far more complex than that, and it seemed to me that Teller does not intend for Ella to be read as simply bratty.
Though this is a fairy tale retelling, it is not fantasy. It is straight historical fiction. At first I did have a bit of a hard time identifying the place and time period. It’s clearly a medieval setting, but I didn’t know it’s England until Teller clearly states it. A more knowledgeable reviewer placed it in the 14th century. I love seeing how authors translate the magical aspects of fairy tales into a non-magical setting, so that was a lot of fun. There are a few aspects that reminded me of Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, but really only because it is also a historical fiction retelling of “Cinderella.” All the Ever Afters is quite original in it’s take on the fairy tale and a truly beautiful story.
Other Reading Recommendations:
The starred titles are ones I have read myself. The others are ones I want to read and may end up being future Fairy Tale Friday books. To keep the list from getting too long, I’m limiting it to four that I’ve read and four that I haven’t. This was Teller’s first novel, so she doesn’t have more to recommend. Hopefully she will soon! I’d especially love to see what she does with another fairy tale.
Other Retellings of “Cinderella”:
- Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire*
- Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine*
- Ash by Malinda Lo*
- Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly*
- A Dream Not Imagined by Shantelle Mary Hannu
- The Stepsister’s Tale by Tracy Barrett
- Bella at Midnight by Diane Stanley
- Five Glass Slippers edited by Anne Elisabeth Stengl