There are lots of reasons I love this book. First, it was given to me by my Auntie Queenie. She wasn’t a real aunt, not by blood or marriage, but the eccentric sister of my grandmother’s best friend and a huge, slightly scary, presence in my early years. She lived in a big black and white house, Ferndale, in Tilley, a small hamlet on the gorgeous, plains of north Shropshire. With its creaking stairs and warped floorboards, open fires and old-fashioned range in the kitchen, beams and secrets hiding places, the house was rather like a fairy tale itself, and digging this book out never fails to remind me of her and the thousands of happy hours spent exploring Ferndale.
The book itself dates from 1918 when the horrors of the First World War were scarring generations. Auntie Queenie, a child at the time, was given this book as a Christmas present in 1919. She passed it on to me as a birthday present. I don’t recall exactly when and unfortunately she didn’t write an inscription in it but it would have been when I was five or six, perhaps. But the inscription written in 1919, by ‘Stanley’ remains. I wonder who Stanley was? Having been the plaything of at least two children, both with jealous siblings, my copy is a little battered and bruised. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
As a child, I loved the stories simply for their sheer escapism and was entranced by the detailed, colourful and fantastical illustrations (there are 16 colour plates and 43 monochrome drawings). But more than that, it was this book which triggered a life-long love of reading, of illustrated books, and an enduring interest in the origin, morality and symbolism of fairy tales. It was the first book I attempted to read on my own, and I vividly remember hiding under bedsheets and blankets with a torch, listening out for my father’s footsteps, desperate to read just one more tale way after ‘lights out’ and before being caught.
It was fortunate that it was this particular book which my aunt gave me: Rackham’s earlier works had been much wilder, more violent, terrifying even. James Hamilton (Arthur Rackham: A Life in Illustration, Pavilion, 1995, pp109-10) described this change in Rackham’s style thus: where previously “Rackham happily includes illustrations of people battering each other to death or hanging by the hair and caught in brambles alive or half-dead, this kind of image is not dwelt on” in Rackham’s war time works “even though some of the stories are as red in tooth and claw as any of their type, and certainly would have allowed a violent interpretation. Reports coming back from the Front, eye witness accounts of devastation, violation and butchery, were quite enough to suggest…that [readers] could be spared violent images with their family reading at home”. The child under the bedsheets was wholly unaware of such things and the influences they would have upon art, illustrations and literature. I simply enjoyed being transported into an illusionary world of fantastical beings and wonderful things. But as an adult, it is the multi-layers of meaning in Rackham’s work which keep me coming back for more as much as their sheer beauty.
Many of the stories included in the volume are established favourites recognisable from their titles alone – Jack the Giant Killer, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Three Little Pigs, Dick Whittington, Henny-Penny – although with 41 tales in total, some are more unusual. They were collected and retold by Flora Annie Steel, a prolific English writer who spent much of her life in India. Steel was an unusual sort of memshabid, keen on women’s suffrage and a staunch feminist but a firm proponent of the Raj. One cannot help but wonder whether it was her concerns for the British empire or compliance with the mood of patriotism which swept Britain during the First World War that led her to place “St George of Merrie England” as the first story in her collected fairy tales.
A few years ago, while studying for my MA, I took a module examining how literature effects nationhood and the experience of national identity. Rudyard Kipling, with his India-inspired writings, was of course required reading on that course. His works have remained part of the English canon. Flora Annie Steel’s have not but in her time she had the reputation of being Kipling’s only serious rival. And so, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, I found myself slap-bang back where I had started reading as a child, deep in Steel’s English Fairy Tales. This then is truly one of the books which has mapped and shaped my reading life.
A version of this post first appeared as a guest post on Lavender Likes, Loves Finds and Dreams