Cinderella Stories

I read three Mary Burchell books from the 1940s back to back because I borrowed a three-book collection from Open Library: it included Take Me With You, Choose Which You Will, and Meant for Each Other. (This was my first experience with Open Library, and although there were a lot of OCR  errors, I learned to interpret them pretty quickly and only occasionally felt confused. Things like “/ *wi” for “I’m” did take some decoding. I look forward to reading more hard-to-find older genre fiction soon. *side-eyes TBR*)

I avoid “glomming” an author, and although I enjoyed all three of these books very much, reading them in quick succession reminded me of why I don’t glom: there are a lot of similar elements (including two heroes named Lindsay). Young (18-20ish) orphan heroines who need to make their own way in the world; older (late 20s-35), wealthy, often cynical heroes; a glamorous Other Woman; at least one character involved in the theatre. The basic trope here–the poor young woman and wealthy older man–is one I’d say I Don’t Like in the abstract. But there are books featuring it that I’ve loved, including these. So this isn’t a review but a meditation on why some iterations of what I’ll call the Cinderella trope work for me. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments on how a particular author/book has made you like Something You Usually Don’t.

Most (romance, at least) authors who write as prolifically as Burchell does tend to produce variations on favorite themes. To me, such books feel like tired formula if I don’t care for the author’s voice (Stephanie Laurens); they feel like tired formula but I don’t really mind if I do like the author’s voice (Jayne Anne Krentz); and then sometimes they don’t feel like formula at all–I can’t say exactly what it is, but when I feel like there’s some energy behind the story still, when the book seems engaged by exploring familiar themes in a slightly different way (Heyer, for one). The theme-and-variations in these three Burchell books felt like the last kind to me.

I think part of why the Cinderella trope worked here for me is that the books are self-conscious about it: the heroines want to be independent, for instance, and resist too much rescue; they are aware that part of their attraction for the hero is their naiveté and have mixed feelings about that; the heroes don’t have all the power–they are often constrained in various ways from pursuing the heroine and taking over her life (which is when I often hate this trope, though Betty Neels has made it work for me). At the end of Meant for Each Other, the hero declares that

“of course [our marriage] isn’t especially suitable. I’m too old for you. . . . And I’m not an ideal husband for an innocent young girl.”

I actually believed in their happy ending all the more because he acknowledged that love wouldn’t conquer all differences between them and there would continue to be issues to work out.

I do love Burchell’s voice. There’s a tartness to it sometimes, and a psychological astuteness, that means she doesn’t write these Cinderella tales as pure fantasy.

“I haven’t any kind women friends. I’m not that sort of man,” he told her dryly.

“Oh.” Thea wondered irresistibly what sort of man he was, but didn’t see how she could ask.

The heroes are not entirely idealized. The heroines think the best of them, certainly, but are aware of their mistakes (which are often emotional ones). In general, their rakishness is presented as a mis-step rather than as the source of their attractiveness. And the heroines are emotionally self-aware as well. One thing I like–and which reminds me of old Amanda Quick historicals–is that the heroine brings out the best in the hero by seeing it and believing in it. She notices that he’s kind to her and insists that he’s a kind man, despite his insistence that he’s a cynical reprobate. And she is, ultimately, right. I’d get tired of a steady diet of books where the heroine does the emotional rescue work while the hero does the practical kind, but Burchell did make that seem like a reasonable balance here–to be happy, the heroes really need the emotional honesty and fresh perspective the heroine brings.

do have a soft spot for Cinderella rescue stories when they aren’t romance. I loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess in my youth, when the downtrodden orphan Sarah Crewe is mysteriously showered with comforts. Ohhh, when she finally wakes up warm under a beautiful quilt and finds breakfast waiting for her! I think I said before that Burchell’s style, and Neels’ too, reminds me of some favorite children’s books, not because they are simplistic but because they come from the same time and place, mid-century Britain. Maybe this association I have with Burchell and Neels makes me more comfortable with this trope in romance? Although combine that with very young heroines and heroes who sometimes call them “my child” and . . . look, let’s not delve too deeply into my pscyhe, OK?

Possibly I just don’t know myself–I’m not as emotionally honest or self-aware as Burchell’s heroines. I mean, Meant for Each Other is an angsty marriage of convenience story with a deception and a Big Misunderstanding. I’d have said I only liked one of those things (marriage of convenience is a favorite trope), but I raced through the book, breathless and with aching heart. I haven’t been so moved by a genre romance in ages. To some extent maybe I avoid tropes and elements I feel I shouldn’t like, telling myself I don’t like them. I think voice and craft come into play again here: if an author is good enough, she gets past my defenses and I let my id reader out.

Finally, and this is a huge one for me: the heroes in Burchell and Neels are rich, but they aren’t Billionaire Rich. They’re Old Money, mostly. They have nice flats in Georgian houses with comfortable, well-loved furniture and art in Good Taste. They have cozy, family-sized and family-style country houses, not Mega-Mansions. I was raised to find New Money tacky. I’m not very interested in the trappings of super-wealth and books with helicopters and brand name dropping and private islands don’t do much for me. But heroes who have comfortable, old money, professional-class lives and taste I admire? Bring it on. This is partly personal taste, obviously, but it’s also that the heroes can certainly help fix things for the heroine but not buy her whole world: get her a job as a typist in their company, yes; buy the company she works for, no. There’s enough money to make life much easier, but not enough to buy your way out of every problem. There’s a class-power imbalance between the hero and heroine, but not an absolutely overwhelming one. As Elizabeth Bennet says, “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.” (What I wouldn’t give for more comfortably middle-class characters in historical romance, by the way). I guess this is really, again, about my preference for some realism in my fantasy.

Now if only I had a hero who could fund my acquisition of Mary Burchell’s many works without blinking. One at a time, I guess.




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10 Responses to Cinderella Stories

  1. What a lovely post! I love a well-done Cinderella story more than just about anything — I grew up with A Little Princess, too, so we have that in common! — and to me one of the essential qualities is that Cinderella is both a story about attaining something, and escaping something else. The push-and-pull of that tension grabs me instantly. For instance, cultural shorthand talks about Cinderella and the prince but often leaves out the stepmother and stepsisters. I find myself drawn to Cinderella retellings that emphasize the situation she’s caught in as much as the rescue fantasy: Ella Enchanted, Malinda Lo’s Ash, and Mercedes Lackey’s Phoenix and Ashes (WWI flying ace hero-mage in England, heroine magically bound to serve in silence — oh, my poor teenage heart!) are all very grounded in their heroine’s struggle to free herself as much as they are in the rescuing actions of the prince. (Or huntress, in Ash’s case.)

    I am tempted to ramble further, but I’ll just end with this: it sounds like Mary Burchell’s stories above go out of their way to emphasize the heroine’s authority in the world of the text. Not in class or money or experience — but in insight, and intelligence, and observation, and conscience. They can see the world and the hero more clearly than others, despite their supposed innocence. I think the off-putting Cinderella tales are the ones where it’s a straight sad-sack rescue operation: where the romance is divided between the Hapless Heroine and the All-Powerful Hero. Too great a power imbalance and I lose heart.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, that’s a good point about needing to escape something. That’s actually not true of two of these novels; only in Meant for Each Other (the marriage of convenience) is the heroine really in dire straits, unable to work and with nowhere besides the hero to go. In the others, the heroine is supporting herself, if not in affluence, and has friends/a sister who help and support her. I wonder if that’s also what makes it easier for me to read–though the biggest gut punch was the one where the heroine was alone/trapped!

      Yes, absolutely Burchell gave all these heroines emotional intelligence and insight; they’re observant, and they’re good people (something they have in common with the hero, or call him back to). They make mistakes and get into tangles, but they help to extricate themselves because they’re clear-sighted and honest. And yes, that’s a huge part of why the stories worked for me. These are heroines I didn’t mind identifying with to some extent and certainly sympathized with. (Also, I think there’s part of me that still feels like a rather gauche 18-year-old, you know?)

  2. Barb in Maryland says:

    Mary Burchell led the most fascinating life! if you haven’t yet done so, head over to Wikipedia for a nice bio. You will see why a goodly number of her books have a theater connection.
    She must have known she was writing Cinderella stories–one of her books from the mid-1960s is titled ‘Cinderella After Midnight’!

    I find that if I like an author, I’ll give a shot at almost any trope that author chooses to write. I am a bit quirkier about new to me authors. I think the only theme I deliberately avoid is ‘handicapped child’.* I also have a hard time with infidelity–but that isn’t a deal breaker with me–depends on how it is used.
    *I am living that life–don’t need to read about it.

    Good point about the ‘old money’. A number of Neels’ heroes talk about the ancestor who hit it rich in the East Indies trade while giving the heroine the tour of the tastefully furnished old house.

    And now I must go add some Mary Burchell to my TBR! Thank you (I think) for reminding me how much I enjoyed her books.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I want to read her autobiography now! What a fascinating life. Her books feel very self-aware to me. Not in a tweaking-the-genre, look-at-me-playing-with-tropes way, but as if she is not immersed in fantasy herself but exploring the meaning and appeal of the fantasy in some way. I think that’s part of what makes it work for me: she has a certain distance from her characters, a rather omniscient style of narration, so I don’t feel expected just to give myself over to an emotional experience, but can be an observer of it in the characters too.

      And yes, I’m a bit sorry I fell for an author who’s so hard to get hold of.

      • Barb in Maryland says:

        You are so right about how self-aware Burchell was –in a very reader-friendly way: no sarcasm, no ‘wink-wink-nudge-nudge.’. As you know, she led the well-off life, so she wrote it from the inside. (Betty Neels wrote it from the outside–a subtle difference). She was an intelligent, active woman–so that is who she wrote (with variations)–no TSTL heroines in Burchell.
        Just like with Betty Neels’ heroines– I feel that these women and I could be good friends!

  3. Janine Ballard says:

    I loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Little Princess (and also The Secret Garden) as a child too. I even remember buying the books for my younger sister as a teen because I was so excited to introduce her to them. Incidentally, Eva Ibbotson’s romances are the closest approximation to Burnett’s children’s books that I’ve come across in the romance genre, but then Ibbotson wrote children’s books as well as adults’.

    The Cinderella story trope is problematic but I also think it’s one of the most universally appealing. There are few things people love more than seeing an underdog come out on top.

  4. Sunita says:

    I know we had a conversation about this on Twitter but I have to keep going here on the blog. 😉 First, you should definitely read the Ida Cook autobiography, it’s terrific. And there is also a fascinating Granta piece on Cook/Burchell’s relationship with her sister. I think it’s 2009, but I’m not sure. Ros Clarke found it online, so it’s available.

    I think you nailed both why Burchell works so well and why billionaires work for some readers but not others. Burchell is class-conscious without tipping over into as much condescension toward non-middle- and gentry-class as Thirkell does, or even Neels, frankly. Burchell clearly has beliefs about the importance of education, taste, and proper behavior, but she doesn’t seem to attribute it to breeding and blood the way some authors do. When I look at the women authors of this period, they frequently go all misty-eyed over the Era That Is Over (Cookson is the obvious counterpoint). Burchell celebrates the good without completely papering over the bad. I think that may be in part because her love and understanding of opera gave her a strong grounding in the importance of the need for talent to be accompanied by hard work, and neither of these are class-specific.

    Great, great post. I so enjoyed reading this, Liz.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, these are all excellent points. I found the class issues really interesting. In a way the heroines I read all represented middle-class “decency” and they called the hero back to that, or into that. It’s not a huge class gap but there’s some blending of different values there that’s intriguing. And no wonder I was reminded of Pride and Prejudice, really; remember how at the end Elizabeth thinks about how his better-informed mind will give her consequence, or something like that? Essentially, she understands that he will introduce her to a wider experience/understanding of the world than she’s had a chance to gain previously, and that she’ll gain by that. Burchell’s heroines are so inexperienced–in two of the books I read, the hero takes her to the theatre for the very first time. But they aren’t stupid, you get the sense that they will soak up the world the hero opens to them and make themselves at home with the best parts of it, without taking on the worst values. They may be entering marriage unequal in some ways, but equality and comfort in the hero’s world isn’t going to be impossible to them. They’ll gain sophistication, but not cynicism.

      A lot of Cinderella stories in 19th century novels (and again P&P is an example, though a tricksy one) reward the heroine who is above caring about making a good/prudent/wealthy marriage with . . . just such a marriage. It’s the catch-22 of the Victorian marriage plot. And that was true here, too, I thought. The heroine is often explicitly contrasted with a grasping woman who’s interested in the hero for his money. And though she enjoys the things his money brings–dinner at the Savoy, travelling by car instead of train/bus, etc.–she doesn’t care about them or need them to be happy. And OK, one hero drove a Rolls, but there really is not a lot of dwelling on the trappings of wealth, descriptions of clothes and objects, all that stuff that I find really off-putting. And giving the mores of the time, the hero does NOT woo her by buying her things. No designer make-over Pretty Woman scenes.

      Thanks for introducing me to Burchell!

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