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Fairy tales, myths and stories retold for feminists by Cambridge-based author

Anita Lehmann. Picture: Keith Heppell
Anita Lehmann. Picture: Keith Heppell

There’s two sides to every story, but when it comes to fairy tales, nursery rhymes and myths any alternative points of view (read ‘female’) have been obscured... until now, with the publication of The Princess and the Prick, written by Cambridge-based author Anita Lehmann.

Here, for the first time, are fables and stories retold for a new generation of readers who’ve been through the #metoo resurgence in female empowerment and see some underlying issues among the quixotic characters and plot developments in Sleeping Beauty, The Lion King or Aladdin. And Hansel and Gretel. Among others.

The genesis that resulted in The Princess and the Prick, published today (October 15), began when Anita, a Swiss-German social historian, was reading to her daughter.

“It had been niggling at me,” she explains. “I grew up with these fairy tales. The Brothers Grimm were super-important in my world as a child, and it puzzled me: ‘Why didn’t Rapunzel make a rope to get out of the tower?’, for instance. I got annoyed with Anne in the Famous Five for making yet more cucumber sandwiches instead of exploring that cave. But I got really fed up with these hopeless women when I was reading books like The Hobbit with my daughter, aged eight, who said: ‘Mum why are there no girls in this story? It’s boring’. And I realised there are not many girls in these types of stories. Once I noticed, it became impossible to un-notice. This set me off on a chain of realisation.

“The early Thomas the Tank Engine books sum it up: girls and women are ‘carriages’ rather than ‘engines’. They are weak and silly. Grimms’ fairy tales offer sleeping beauties, helpless maidens and wicked old women. The mother in Treasure Island – the only woman in the story – causes trouble by fainting. The women in Asterix are dim and gullible. In Watership Down, females are reduced to voiceless warren makers and breeding machines. In Little Women, Jo needs to learn to manage her temper and her expectations of life, while little Beth with her self-effacing, servile work ethic is presented as an example to us all.

“So I started thinking about what bothered me in particular about these fairy tales. So for example in The Frog Prince, I couldn’t put my finger on why I didn’t like reading this story to my daughter, there’s something creepy about it, and one morning I woke up with this in my head.”

The Frog Prince retold from a feminist perspective goes thus:

That was just the start.

“Somehow, my sleeping brain had distilled my issues with that story to its core,” continues Anita. “The coercive control of father and frog over the princess, forcing her into a situation she feels deeply uncomfortable with...

“I leapt out of bed and, by the end of the day, had retold 12 well-known fairy tales as micro-fiction retellings that were funny and packed a punch. It became a game, but how could I develop these stories into a publishable concept? That really inspired me. I realised I could retell lots of different fairy stories in this way. The reason they’ve endured is because they are good, powerful stories. But they’re not good for women.”

The results are hilarious, tragi-comic portraits of dysfunctional relationships, skewed priorities, gaslighting, accidental (and intentional) cruelty, hopeless naivete and broken dreams.

‘The Lion King’ reads:

“Nala has abundant powers:

she’s smart, and born to reign.

Good for her, to be allowed to

lick the new king’s mane.”

And ‘Bambi’ goes:

“To seduce your Bambi-boy for

woodland rumpy-pumpy,

Flutter those eyelashes, or

risk just looking frumpy.”

You'd never have guessed that the retelling of these stories could be so funny but then, so is their author: just as her stories are the antithesis of the tales they have sprung from, so is Anita the antithesis of the austere feminist. But we digress. Pretty soon, there was a collection of reinvented tales, which Anita thought too short to be publishable, so last year she decamped to the Primadonna writers’ festival in Suffolk and discussed the project in a chat with a publishing executive – who signed her up on the spot.

Anita Lehmann author . Picture: Keith Heppell. (42704086)
Anita Lehmann author . Picture: Keith Heppell. (42704086)

“The stories were too short but I wanted to get them out there,” she says. “There was a HarperCollins executive talking to attendees, it was very informal – a makeshift tent in these lovely grounds – and she was chatting to people who wanted to chat to her, and I showed her these tales and asked her how to develop them, and she just fell in love with them at first sight. She had a fairytale reaction and that was that.”

So, with input from an editor at HarperCollins, “the concept expanded to include retellings not only of fairy tales, but also nursery rhymes, classic children’s books, films, and myths”.

The next stage was to get an illustrator.

“HarperCollins found the illustrator,” says Anita, “Seobhan Hope has a really modern style. I really like it and where she’s gone with it.”

Anita adopted a pseudonym, Walburga Appleseed – “Walburga is an old Germanic name, linked to the witches at Walpurgisnacht, the night when the witches dance, on Halloween), and Appleseed because – well, I like planting trees, one seed at a time”.

The pseudonym is also because Anita publishes children’s books. Indeed, Sabber Schlabber Kussi Bussi (‘Slobber Slobber Kiss Kiss’ in English), available in French and German (for her homies), is up for a German Youth Literature award, with the winner due to be announced later this month. And an author with a book out with ‘prick’ in the title, well... although Anita insists that “‘prick’ has many meanings and sub-texts, it was only in the 1920s that it became an insult”, The Princess and the Prick is aimed at an adult audience. Reading it won’t stop your enjoyment of children’s fables, it’ll just add a layer of hilarity to the genre.

“So when your child next asks you why there are no women in this or that story,” concludes Anita, “or why Rapunzel doesn’t just fashion her own rope, you will know what to say: ‘Let’s rewrite that story together, shall we?’”

- The Princess and the Prick (HarperCollins) is published today (October 15), price £9.99.

The Princess and the Prick, by Anita Lehmann (HarperCollins), is priced at £9.99.
The Princess and the Prick, by Anita Lehmann (HarperCollins), is priced at £9.99.

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