The Puffin Book of Princesses, by Pamela Hope Johnson

My tatty copy, found in Blackheath Oxfam last spring

As well as new books, I’d like to celebrate the best of the past with this blog too. I may not be mad about princesses, but I do royally love an old Puffin: there is nuffin’ quite like them. I long ago forsook collecting them – there are just too many – but I make an exception for their anthologies. A Book of Princesses is the first, but there would soon be a Book of Princes to go with it, books of Dragons and Heroes and more (there are all sorts of second-cousins and fairy godmothers I won’t go into now). I can’t say quite what delights me about these collections: perhaps it’s the combination with authority with eccentricity. They are like stand-ins for the best teacher you never had.

Actually, I would ask why the anthology as a genre seems to have gone out of fashion in children’s publishing nowadays – but perhaps not today.

Fritz Wegner illustrates ‘The Light Princess’ by George Macdonald

Of course, Puffin Books are just one part of the story when it comes to A Book of Princesses. The books were originally a series published by Hamish Hamilton (still with us today as an imprint of Penguin Random House). Have a peek online at the Hamish Hamilton Book of Princesses, first published in 1963. Square, solid, with lavish artwork by the illustrator, the immortal Fritz Wegner (I’ve illustrated this post with samples from the book: you’re welcome), it was a Christmas present sort of book, a treasury as weighty as treasure itself. This was the first, immediately followed by titles that, curiously, didn’t make it into Puffin (Myths and Legends by Jacynth Hope-Simson, and, individually, Kings and Queens, jointly edited by Eleanor Farjeon and William Mayne). It’s put together with such care by its editor and illustrator that it retains all its charm in paperback: if foxed, yellow pages could glitter, these would.

Fritz Wegner illustrates ‘ A Toy Princess’ by Mary de Morgan

Sally Patrick Johnson introduces her selection by wondering why we (in 1963) still care for princesses: “There are not as many real Princesses in the world as there once were, but those who remain still make headlines and inspire love and curiosity in ordinary people,” she says. Perhaps it’s because the Princess represents an ideal of “beauty, wealth and privilege most perfectly”, free of responsibility, the focus of attention and “the centre of countless intrigues”. It’s fun to imagine that Johnson is referring here to the scandalous Princess Margaret; interesting, too, to consider how things have changed since 1963, given the ‘real-world’ life and death of Diana Spencer and the ever-increasing commodification of, for example, Disney Princesses TM.

The opening story, Andersen’s ‘The Princess and the Pea’, exemplifies this sense of Princess as a sort of fetish object for “ordinary people” to pursue or protect or measure themselves against. It comes with the caveat that “when you have read some of the stories about Princesses who are less delicate, you will see how much these Royal people have changed in the course of literary history”. One of the most subversive tales in the book, though, is one of the earliest: ‘A Toy Princess’ by Mary de Morgan, from 1877. The Princess of this story is born to a society so stiflingly polite its people never speak to one another; her fairy godmother rescues her, putting an enchanted doll in her place. The story is fresh and funny and its ending bittersweet: when the King and his people learn they’ve been tricked, they vote unanimously to keep the toy princess. The real one escapes to live happily ever after as a fisherman’s wife. Its now-forgotten author, born in 1850, lived in an era of royal women (a contemporary of Queen Victoria’s daughters) but de Morgan was an active suffragist and this is a political fable (with, perhaps, the influence of William Morris, a family friend). It’s tempted me to read her other work – and if you like looking at beautiful Victorian books, the original editions of her books are worth viewing online.

Fritz Wegner illustrates Melisande by E. Nesbit

In style, de Morgan’s closest echo is ‘Melisande’, by the wonderful E. Nesbit, but here as elsewhere in the book, the princess is more acted upon (or for) than acting: Johnson even includes the tale that became The Taming of the Shrew, the antithesis of de Morgan’s story. Almost every inclusion, though, is worth reading. There is an intriguing and entertaining fairy tale by Charles Dickens and the questionable selection of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Birthday of the Infanta’. My favourite – besides a retelling of ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’ by Walter de la Mare, which I’ve always loved – is ‘Many Moons’ by James Thurber. In many ways, though, it’s more a trickster’s tale – once again, the Princess is merely “the centre of … intrigues”.

In the years since A Book of Princesses, we’ve had Robert Munsch’s Paper Bag Princess and Babette Cole’s Princess Smartypants, Julie Corbalis’ Wrestling Princess and Pamela Oldfield’s Terribly Plain Princess: enough for a shelf of their own in the Impossible Library. In recent years, Anna Kemp’s picturebook The Worst Princess and Mike Brownlow’s Ten Little Princesses have returned to the same subversive process: it seems love for the subject is undimming and the task of deconstructing never done. I think a new Book of Princesses would have to feature a story devised by Joan Aiken (perhaps ‘The People in the Castle’) but what else? As well as modern fairytales, I’m sure there are older ones about royal women who are the tricksters of their own stories – perhaps it’s time to go back to Angela Carter…

7 thoughts on “The Puffin Book of Princesses, by Pamela Hope Johnson

  1. I love, love, love The Light Princess. On the strength of it I downloaded all of G McD’s works to my kindle years ago, and was disappointed to find that a lot of them are sermons. This collection looks fantastic. I SO want to read The Toy Princess! And YES to the oldest being subversive! There are so many gems hidden in Olden Tymes (TM), and as always the narrative that it’s only now that we’re getting interesting and breaking set shapes is reductive and counterproductive.

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  2. I, too, shall go and find de Much de Morgan. These Fritz Wegner illustrations are goooorgeous. So, so beautiful. Good subversive are also things like Dealing with Dragons and The Ordinary Princess, the second of which is also an older write, though this century still. Kate Beaton’s princess picture book is great because it’s finally breaking the ‘the main woman does a thing DESPITE being female’ structure, as there are lots of other female characters just doing what they do and that happens here to be fighting. Also to a certain extent Sleeper and Spindle, which I obviously adore. Is there a site with a list of subversive princess narratives? If not, we should start one. Thank you for so many exciting new stories to go and read.

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  3. I found this on Twitter. Oh I loved those anthologies. Fantastic flashback for me. Thanks so much for the swirl down memory lane.
    Wendy

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