(Image from C/W Mars Catalog)
**SPOILER ALERT: reading will spoil the book**
In comparison to Boy,Snow, Bird that I reviewed previously, While Beauty Slept by Elizabeth Blackwell is a much better example of a fairy tale retelling! Despite being set in a world without magic, it still creatively contains all of the most important, recognizable elements of the fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty. The evil witch, the sleeping curse, charming princes, and true love all make an appearance, even if they do not look the same or have the exact same significance as in the traditional story. But just as with The Snow Child, this story is about so much more than just the fairy tale: it gives a relatively fair and balanced look at some of the challenges that women faced in medieval society (even if it is an entirely fictional world).
While Beauty Slept is definitely a feminist’s take on the traditional tale, since all of the female characters are in charge of their own decisions for the most part. They still have to adhere to some societal expectations of their rank, but they are largely depicted as being wilful people with ambitions and minds of their own. The modern notion that women are fully capable of inheriting the throne of a kingdom is a central theme that drives the main conflict. When King Ranolf breaks with tradition and declares his only daughter, Rose, his rightful heir instead of his brother, the next male in line for the throne, he stirs his brother’s resentment, as well as dissent among some of his subjects, which eventually leads to war. It is also what drives Millicent’s jealousy, since if her father, King Ranolf’s grandfather, had recognized women as capable of ruling alone, she would have been queen, as the oldest of her siblings. Millicent’s jealousy and thirst for power, especially after having been banished from the kingdom, is what leads her to cast a “curse” on the baby Rose at her christening, which hangs over the royal family for a long time.
The main character, Elise, ends up being the real hero for Princess Rose as well, since a different kind of love, that of friendship and loyalty between women, is highlighted as being more important than romantic relationships. For me, one of the best parts of this story, is how it does not vilify Elise for choosing to put her duty to the Queen and Rose as their servant and friend above the decision to marry her true love, who refuses to take a position at the castle so that Elise can keep her job. Since neither Elise nor Marcus is willing to give up their profession to be together, they both decide that they cannot be married and have to live with the consequences of that decision. But rather than having Elise be alone and miserable for the rest of her life, the story shows that Elise takes real pleasure in her job and is eventually able to make a politically advantageous and happy marriage, even if there is little real love in the union. This story provides one of the most fair and balanced representations of love and marriage, how they are intertwined but also play different roles in different women’s lives. Some of the female characters are praised for being able to make a love match while other characters are praised for making a political match, since whatever the reason, it is shown as being the best thing for that woman to do, and few if any of the characters are shown as ending up in a miserable situation.
The way that most of the characters get their happy ending is actually quite impressive, if perhaps a little trite. I do not want to spoil it too much, but I was surprised and happy at how well things worked out, since it really brought all of the fairy tale elements together to make the story that much more cohesive. The way that the story ends is also what really saved this book for me because I had been caught off guard by how much the story dwelled on Elise’s life and relationships, rather than Rose and the curse. It read much more like a romance novel for so long that I almost did not finish, but the ending is so good that it helped me enjoy the book so much more.
Overall, While Beauty Slept is another good example of how a fairy tale can be adapted to a different message while still retaining enough elements to be recognizable. The fact that this story is used to demonstrate how female friendship can triumph in place of romantic love also gives it a very modern feel, despite being set in a fictional medieval kingdom. It is both a clever adaptation of a fairy tale and an interesting story about women, so it should appeal to a broad audience of readers.
Blackwell, E. C. (2014) While Beauty Slept. New York; G.P. Putnam’s Sons.