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MAKING ROOM FOR NORA - ELIZABETH BIRD


If you’ve never heard of Leonora Blanche Alleyne, you’re surely not alone. But if you’ve ever coveted a Princess outfit, or even rolled your eyes when a favorite niece shows up in a sparkly tiara, you’ve experienced her legacy.


Though you may not have known it, perhaps your first taste of Leonora’s world was The Blue Fairy Book, which in 1889 introduced Victorian children to Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstiltskin, Beauty and the Beast, Hansel and Gretel and over 30 more. Or maybe it was the Red Fairy Book, from which you became acquainted with Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, or even the Enchanted Pig?


But if you remember those books, or any of the dozen Rainbow Fairy Books, each with its own distinctive color, you might recall the author whose name was emblazoned on the covers. Andrew Lang, right?


Indeed, a recent edition of the Blue book enthusiastically touts the 37 tales, “narrated in the clear, lively prose for which Lang was famous … His first-rate literary abilities make his collections unmatchable in the English language.”


And they are great stories. As a child I owned several of the Rainbow books and used my family’s weekly library trips to devour more. I journeyed through the forests of Germany, the fjords of Scandinavia, and far into the Russian steppes. Later volumes, compiled as the flow of more accessible European tales began to run dry, introduced me to the Bunyip, a magical creature from the Aboriginal people of Australia, and the exotic Snake Prince of the Indian Punjab. Those tales lit a spark of curiosity that helped lead me to anthropology, where I made my career.


It wasn’t just me, of course. The Fairy Books are a cultural phenomenon, reprinted and repackaged for well over a century, and read all over the English-speaking world. In his time, Lang was a literary giant, gaining fame as a journalist, historian, poet and critic. He was one of the Victorian generation of “armchair anthropologists” – scholars who never left home, but wrote monumental works about the customs, folklore and mythology of “primitive” people across the globe. Lang’s fellow-Scot and contemporary, Sir James Frazer, wrote the most celebrated of such tomes – The Golden Bough.


Lang himself wrote hundreds of books and articles about world mythology, as well as commentaries and criticism, original stories, and histories of notables from Homer to Mary, Queen of Scots. Along the way, he developed a deep appreciation for the richness of the oral tradition, at a time when many educated people dismissed the old tales as crude and violent.


Some of his sentiments, expressed in his prefaces, grate on us today, such as references to “savages” and “primitives.” But his love of ancient myths and tales allowed entry to a world of marvels. As he wrote, “The old fairy tales are really 'full of matter,' and unobtrusively teach the true lessons of our wayfaring in a world of perplexities and obstructions.”


Lang credited fairies with inspiring a love of books, “the magic key that opens the enchanted door.” Much like the Harry Potter series a century later, the Rainbow books were a gateway to young readers and earned a permanent place in our cultural heritage.


***


Yet in his introduction to the last volume, The Lilac Fairy Book, published in 1910, Lang sounds positively anguished:


“The reputation of having written all the fairy books is ‘the burden of an honour unto which I was not born.’ It weighs upon and is killing me...”


And here’s where we finally return to Leonora Alleyne. Known as Nora, she became Mrs. Andrew Lang in April 1875. She shared his love of literature and world cultures, and the couple became a fixture of literary circles in London and Edinburgh. While he was the undisputed star, she published articles and reviews in a wide array of newspapers and magazines. And together they decided that the oral tales of Europe, collected by scholars like the Brothers Grimm, could be reworked to make them child-friendly, without sacrificing the serious themes that some found disturbing. The Blue Fairy Book was never intended to launcha series, but its spectacular success demanded more, and color after color was added to the rainbow.


And so, it came to be that for all Andrew’s academic renown, “he is best recognized for the works he did not write," as one critic put it. You see, the “clear, lively prose” that delighted young readers was not Andrew’s but Nora’s. Andrew usually sourced the tales, but Nora, aided by a team of other women writers, translated and wrote them for their young audiences. In The Green Fairy Book, the third in the series, he briefly credits the contribution of “Mrs. Lang;” by the time Lilac appeared, he acknowledged she was responsible for the entire rainbow, drily noting, “My part has been that of Adam, according to Mark Twain, in the Garden of Eden. Eve worked; Adam superintended.”


***


And what work it was! The Rainbow books take us on a wild journey across the world, filled with beautiful princesses, handsome princes, malevolent witches, miraculous transformations, and beings from brownies to banshees to boggarts – though actual fairies are few and far between. Those raised on cartoons may be surprised to see the resourcefulness of so many heroines, even as they are traded from father to husband. It is Gretel whose ingenuity saves the life of her brother Hansel, being fattened up for the witch’s supper. One of my favorites was always the strange and mystical Norse tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” which begins with our Princess being sold off to a White Bear. An enchanted bear, naturally. She travels with him to a frozen castle, where every night he lies down beside her and transforms into a dazzling prince. Hmmmm … She falls in love, loses him, but eventually travels the length of the world, navigating trial after trial, to save her lover from a coerced marriage to a troll. A super-woman indeed.


All the tales originated with the people, but everywhere we can see Nora’s hand at work. It is a delicate hand, bringing hope and benevolent magic. The Grimm brothers gave us the ancient tales in all their gruesome glory – their Cinderella’s stepsisters sliced off their toes to fit in the slipper, before having their eyes pecked out by birds. Nora’s heroine forgives her nemeses, and even finds them good husbands.


In some editions, the later books included her name on the cover – Mrs. Lang. By then, it was too late for Nora to step out of the shadows. Could Andrew have done more? It’s easy to blame him for preventing Nora from receiving her rightful recognition. But by all accounts, he was a good man, with enlightened views – for his time. His public acknowledgment was significant, although probably went unremarked. Sadly, her neglect was a product of her era – a time when the idea of a “woman of letters” was almost inconceivable, especially if she were married.


Nora understood that, even while she used her talent to gently protest. In an article published in 1898, she wryly reflects on the “Trials of a Wife of a Literary Man,” who “must be prepared to be ignored, consciously or unconsciously, by people who are either unaware that she exists at all or are profoundly indifferent to that fact.” The literary wife must patiently listen to her husband expound on his current enthusiasm “morning, noon and night” -- although she draws the line at an invasion of her daily walk. “She must possess her own soul for some part of the day. The demon might breakfast with her, dine with her, mingle with her dreams. But take a constitutional with her? He may not!”

And in a conclusion that reverberates over the years:


“If she, like him, occasionally has a fancy for dabbling in literature, every word she writes (as long as it is worth anything at all) will be ascribed, directly or indirectly, to her husband … No wonder literary ladies are proverbially somewhat short in their tempers.”


***


Nevertheless, the Langs had a happy marriage. In 1912, the year Andrew died, Nora published a collection of her essays – including her advice to literary wives. She writes affectionately of her husband: “we had chosen them together and laughed over them together.” Her last fairy tale collection, the Strange Story Book, was published the same year. Her preface, a loving tribute to her husband’s inspiration, complicates any simple narrative of the downtrodden wife. She writes about Andrew’s love of countryside, cricket and cats. “He never could resist a cat, and cats, like beggars, tell each other these things and profit by them.” Most of all, he loved children: “Wherever he stayed, children were his friends. He would tell them stories and write them plays and go on expeditions with them to ghost-haunted caves. He would adapt himself to them and be perfectly satisfied with their company.”


Nora lived on for 20 years after his death. While I’m sure she mourned him, she was her own woman, and lived a rich and fulfilling life. Fluent in French, she also learned Russian, using it not only to read classic literature, but also to communicate with Russian soldiers in British hospitals and camps after World War I. She wrote a novel, Dissolving Views (appropriately now available from Forgotten Books), and maintained her flow of sharp-witted magazine articles. She was much more than a literary wife.


Nora and Andrew had no children of their own, which makes me a little melancholy. In the Victorian age, remaining childless was rarely a matter of choice. But perhaps if they had, the world would be a less magical place. Andrew’s career would undoubtedly have forged ahead, while Nora would likely have had little time to create her astonishing legacy. That legacy was profound, inspiring generations of readers and writers with new respect for the richness of the folk tradition. J.R.R Tolkien, oblivious of his slight as he wrote from his Oxford study, remarked that without “Andrew Lang and his wife,” we might not have the mythical world of Bilbo Baggins, Frodo, and the Ring. C.S. Lewis drew on the Rainbow books for his Chronicles of Narnia, and Margaret Atwood, that inspired spinner of fantastical and visionary tales, remembered reading them “with wonder” as a child. As did I.


In recent years, feminist scholars have labored to rehabilitate Leonora, and her contribution is now appreciated in academic circles. But in the popular imagination she remains deep in her husband’s shadow. It’s a sad irony that the tales most deeply cherished by women are even now defined by “great men.” The Grimms, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Anderson -- even Aesop and Oscar Wilde – are all there with Andrew Lang in the pantheon of fairy tale collectors and authors. But nothing should be forever; surely, it’s past time to make room for Nora?


A retired professor of anthropology, I have published seven books (most recently Surviving Biafra: A Nigerwife's Story), and I now focus on creative non-fiction. My essays appear in Under the Sun (winner, Readers' Choice Award 2022), Tangled Locks, Biostories, Streetlight, Dorothy Parker’s Ashes, Ariel’s Dream, The Guardian, Mutha Magazine, 3Elements Review, Heimat Review, and elsewhere. My website is: www.lizbirdwrites.com.

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