Reading old fairy tale books

Over the break, I started reading a book. This is not altogether unusual for a scholar specialising in literary studies. However, the book I began to read was a 1849 edition of Anthony Hamilton’s fairy tales.

Title Page and frontispiece - the count is wearing some serious hair, don't you think?

Title Page and frontispiece – the count is wearing some serious hair, don’t you think?

Often I read contemporary, scholarly editions of fairy tales or, frequently, old books that have been digitalised. Recently, however, I’ve been expanding my collection of old books and there is a particular pleasure in reading words on dusty, mottled pages. There is a certain texture to the print, a certain way the books creak open.

A sober spine

A sober spine

The leather feels luxurious and scholarly. The gilt glimmers. It’s special.

I did find copies of Hamilton’s tales digitalised on Google Books and Internet Archive, but when I did a quick rummage at AbeBooks, I discovered that editions of the books weren’t prohibitively expensive. It’s much more fun to read this edition.

Hamilton actually wrote his tales long before this book was published. The tales were written in French at the very beginning of the 18th century. Hamilton, though Scottish, was familiar with the courts of Louis XIV and James II and at home in the French language. It is thought that he wrote his tales as a bet – the court ladies challenged him to write a fairy tale, since he was poking fun at their obsession with the genre. As a result, the tales are parodic and he takes aim at Galland’s Arabian nights and Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy in particular. “The Four Facardines” begins in the world of the Arabian Nights:

At the court of Schahriar, (that monarch, whose method of preserving his honour by cutting his wife’s head off, has rendered him so justly celebrated throughout the world,) was educated the heir of the small principality of Trebizonde.

I have to confess, I was ready to hate him at this point. Yet, I am enjoying the tales. At times, the quirks of fairy tale he parodies are themselves parodies, which makes for interesting reading. There’s some business with a shoe, for instance, that made me laugh, because I don’t know whether he quite knew that d’Aulnoy’s tongue was firmly in cheek when she wrote about Prince Cheri’s shoe fetish. Likewise, these tales are not brief, flippant pieces. The book I’m reading is, at a practical level, very thick. For a spot of fun at the expense of female readers, Hamilton certainly didn’t skimp. He invested a great deal of time in writing his tales. And while there are gratuitously naked ladies and bawdy humour, actually chiming with Basile’s tales, Hamilton now and then betrays an interesting perspective on sexism and gender with a king, for instance, assuming the fault of failing to produce an heir lies with him, rather than with the queen.

 

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