All posts by candice.mccrindle

The Damsel in Distress to Leading Lady: Do Fairy Godmothers Really Help?

Front cover of The Princess Elizabeth Gift Book which houses the story,  The Unromantic Princess.

Bowen, Elizabeth. The Unromantic Princess. “The Princess Elizabeth Gift   Book: In Aid of the Princess Elizabeth of York Hospital for Children”. Ill. Paul Bloomfield. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1935. 83- 99. Print.

© Copyright 2011, Candice McCrindle, Tara Wong

Rediscovering the Roots

Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen (1899- 1973) was an Irish novelist and short story writer who focused much of her career and writings on the theme of innocence within systematic life as well as those experiences that transform beliefs and notions of current culture (Hoogland 25). Bowen has been said to examine and explore the disloyalty and secrets that inevitably lie between the facet of morality and respectability in everyday society. She has also been credited for forming and paving the way to literacy modernism through her vivid and telling influences of film and film-making techniques. Bowen relates heavily on the psychology of the characters and plots making for an undoubtedly interesting read in all of her publications (Hoogland 27).

Published in 1935 by Hodder & Stoughton, The Princess Elizabeth Gift Book: In Aid of the Princess Elizabeth of York Hospital for Children is a book that houses numerous stories, poems and a single play that is targeted for juvenile audiences. Within the collection is Bowen’s story, An Unromantic Princess that tells the tale of a young princess named Angelica who receives the gifts of punctuality and commonsense from two very unconventional Fairy Godmothers. These gifts however do not give the princess what she essentially longs and desires for. Through Princess Angelica’s tribulations of growing up, longing for beauty, and losing her mother she learns the power of liberty, independence and transformation.

Illustrated by Paul Bloomfield, The Unromantic Princess gives its readers an opportunity to use their imaginations in creative and critical ways, as there are only two black and white illustrations within the sixteen page story (Bowen 41). Perhaps one reason why this book is targeted for juvenile audiences is because of this fact, as it enables readers to imagine the story, ambiance and context for themselves instead of simply painting the picture with vivid illustrations, detail and colour on every page. The story itself is also one that is targeted towards an older audience as the vocabulary, structure and message all in a way represent a more mature world- one that may only truly be understood by established thinking.

Curating The Unromantic Princess first began as a single idea which then became a question which ultimately transcended into a research- filled area of study. With this being said, The Unromantic Princess delves into the world of not only fairies, but more specifically Fairy Godmothers and the roles they play within the lives of the people they affect. Within this piece of work, Tara Wong will be responsible for dissecting the selected category of Fairy Godmothers within the broader category of fairies. Candice McCrindle will be responsible for delving into the historical and contemporary context of Fairy Godmothers and how these mystical women satisfy gender roles within a feminist ideology. The Fairy Godmothers presented in The Unromantic Princess help to illustrate gender identification within a modernized view of how women are independent, powerful and self- sufficient.

This illustration enforces a modern view of how the princess is the independent go- getter woman in charge of her own future. Seen on a horse with her guards behind her, the princess approaches and initiates conversation with the boy she had met at the party her father threw her. Essentially, she finds and approaches the boy, which to this day, is quite uncommon in many fairy tales and stories.

Category: From Fairies to Fairy Godmothers

Bowen created a nontraditional fairy tale of The Unromantic Princess, where the princess is like no other ordinary girl. Princess Angelica, was given the gifts of punctuality and commonsense on the day of her Christening from two Fairy Godmothers. When the princess’ mother passed away, her father took care of her until she fell in love with a boy. The Fairy Godmother’s gifts had caused inconvenience to the princess however once she had lost the ability to be punctual and have commonsense, she came to the realization that she was beautiful inside and out in her own way. No gifts were needed to show or embody beauty as nobody is perfect. The princess depicts that what makes people beautiful, is the confidence they have in themselves.

Traditional fairy tales lead to one ultimate goal, and that is to live happily ever after. With the help of a Fairy Godmother, life is much simpler because of their magical abilities with a simple flick of a wand. The traditional figure of the Fairy Godmother is to help characters that are in need, and to guide people’s lives into living happily ever after (Jorgensen 219). Because of this, they are often seen as elderly, and more wise characters with the need and willingness to assist. In tales like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, the Fairy Godmother is essentially the aid to creating an ending of happiness and love. In these tales, they did this by taking on the mother role and supporting the princess who had just lost her mother (Jorgensen 221). In Elizabeth Bowen’s tale The Unromantic Princess, a different outlook of the role of Fairy Godmothers is presented. They essentially challenge tradition, and cast a new outlook on how females should behave and act.

The representation of Fairy Godmothers in Bowen’s story sheds new light onto the view of the traditional helper as the featured fairies are seen as insensitive, dull and a nuisance. Their personalities show in their appearance, and their clothing contradicts what most Fairy Godmothers look like (Jorgensen 220). Traditionally, Fairy Godmothers, such as the ones in Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella have the same type of colour-coordinated clothing, however in The Unromantic Princess; the Godmothers are represented with musty brown wings and no distinct traits. The Godmothers’ clothing suggests that they go against the traditional views of how women are to be portrayed and fundamentally modernize the outlook of these mythical creatures. The cultural role of women and Fairy Godmothers in Bowen’s tale creates comedic relief for readers as they challenge the status quo and question the dominant ideology of the female gender.

Bowen takes on a satirical approach within the world of fairy tales. She creates a female character that struggles with autonomy and self-expression. The two gifts the Fairy Godmothers had given her do not help, but actually harm the princess (Jorgensen 221). It is actually the realization from the princess herself, that the good characteristics she has inherited are what truly make her beautiful, and loved- not her commonsense or punctuality. Bowen’s representation of the Fairy Godmother contradicts traditional views because instead of helping the damsel in distress, the gifts they bestowed upon her actually held her back from love, happiness, independence and transformation.

The significance of the Fairy Godmother’s portrayal in The Unromantic Princess is to challenge the traditional modern views of women. Fairy Godmothers can either enforce or challenge tradition, and in The Unromantic Princess, the Fairy Godmother’s view of women upheld the values of good looks. However to counteract these traditional views they believed the princess did not exhibit, they gave her the gifts of punctuality and commonsense. The idea of the Fairy Godmother is to inspire hope for a better future and as the likes of the characters in the tale; they tried to change the princess into someone they thought was more desirable. The Fairy Godmothers essentially have their own view of what makes girls beautiful, but that wasn’t necessarily in the best interest of the princess. The traditional view of the female gender is to have beauty and to marry a rich man, but in this modern tale of The Unromantic Princess, Elizabeth Bowen challenges the roles of the female identity and creates a moral that beauty is only skin-deep and happiness is found within. The Fairy Godmothers’ own hegemony of a happy ending is challenged by this nontraditional and heroic princess.

Context: Fairy Godmothers and Their Roles as Traditional Women

Godmothers within a historical and religious context have always been viewed as confidantes to their younger counterparts. In the Christian religion, the Godmother is a mentor of sorts, being of special importance in the nurturing and supporting of children from a very young age. Interestingly enough, Fairy Godmothers are quite rare among fairy tales but have had their popularity increased because of the literary fairy tales of Madame d’Aulnoy and Charles Perrault (Jorgensen 220). Additionally, Fairy Godmothers are vivid characters in both classics Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Variations of Fairy Godmothers are presented in Perrault’s version of Sleeping Beauty as well as the Grimm Brothers’ and this exposure has been said to have led to the larger and more wide- spread fairy tale motif of Fairy Godmothers (Jorgensen 220). What seems to be clear is the fact that Fairy Godmothers behave in similar ways to traditional Godmothers- they create benefit and gain for their loved ones for a slim price of respect.

Fairy Godmothers, like the ones observed within Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella seemingly always have the same traits bestowed upon them- these being kindness, a gentle demeanor, and loving attitude. These mannerisms are ones that are also found within the female ideology of gender roles that women were allegedly supposed to take on in previous history. Women were never seen as independent, or responsible for their own destiny and positive outcomes. Rather, they were seen as relying on other stronger forces for support such as a man or even a Fairy Godmother.

However The Unromantic Princess proves to detest the older generation, which was a popular movement within tales written in the 1930’s. Bowen observed the plight of displaced and unhappy children, as seen within her writings of numerous orphans (Bowen 44). In an interesting finding, children within Bowen’s publications possess the traits commonsense and bravery, often being in charge of their own destiny. Contrary to Cinderella, Princess Angelica looks for the boy, and in the end good sense rather than good looks prevail.

Princess Angelica does not rely solely on the gifts of commonsense and punctuality her Fairy Godmothers give her, as when they do not seem to work anymore she does not fret. Instead, Princess Angelica continuously takes matters into her own hands and essentially seals her fate and her future all by herself, demonstrating a new and modernized view of the protagonist- one that is independent and self- fulfilling. Princess Angelica also does not fit into the classic fairy tale princess motif as when she looks into the mirror she does not see a woman with the most beautiful face or hair. Perhaps this was another transition to a more modern and contemporary view of women. The fact that princesses can indeed be independent all while not having the most beautiful features we would all assume a princess to have. Princesses and women alike should be shown to be confident to fight for what they believe in instead of simply riding on a higher forces’ coattail.

Bowen was a true advocate for dismantling the language of Western culture which she believed to be devastating for women (Shiffer 2). Her novels are haunted by the fact that female characters are devoted to the search of truth, and importance if nothing else.  She believed in the mindset that women should extend boundaries and in order to find happiness and love, one must fulfill the quest by herself. Essentially, women within Bowen’s standards are seen to protect themselves, their wants and their needs whole- heartedly.

In this illustration, the princess is seen with her father, the king. The princess is represented with short hair, which steers away from the traditional female princess character. The princess is also seen with impeccable posture, again suggesting the comfort and confidence she has with herself, despite her longing for beauty. Traditional accessories are also seen here such as the crowns, pipe and king’s rod.

Final Thoughts

Bowen’s work on The Unromantic Princess puts power behind words and brings the imagined into the reality. New ideals for women were brought into the Western culture, and essentially broke down the stereotypes women were previously confined to. The possibility of a women’s revolution just from language seems in sorts to be a powerful way to deconstruct the ways in which women have been looked upon not only within stories, but in film, and everyday society at work, school and within the home. The representation of Fairy Godmothers in The Unromantic Princess looks at a modernized view of women, one that is quite different from previous fairy tales.  Thus it is safe to conclude that the shift of the damsel in distress to an independent leading lady is a positive one that teaches audiences an essential lesson. After all is said in done, maybe the lesson learned is that there are no Fairy Godmothers looking out for your “happily every after” and maybe that ending that every girl wants is essentially up to nobody else but her.


Bowen, Elizabeth. The Baazar and Other Stories. London, England: Curtis Brown Ltd. , 2008. eBook. < bloomfield- unromantic princess&source=bl&ots=iB2XjHUixH&sig=__HSNNyD_yb-Zh5zAz61dNh34_M&hl=en&ei=_y_PTtr6FMb50gGq7skO&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBsQ6AEwAA>.

Hoogland, Renee. Elizabeth Bowen: A Reputation in Writing. New York, New York: The Cutting Edge: Lesbian Life and Literature, 1994. Web. <>.

Jorgensen, Jeana. “A Wave of the Magic Wand: Fairy Godmothers in Contemporary American Media.” Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies. 21.2 (2007): 216- 227. Web. 20 Nov. 2011. <>.

Media.” Marvels & Tales 21.2 (2007): 216-27. Web. 10 Oct 2011.

Nicholson, Helen. “Postmodern Fairies.” History Workshop 46. (1998): 205-212. Web. 10 Oct 2011.

Shiffer, Celia. “‘Writing the Body: Women and Language in the Novels of Elizabeth Bowen and Jeanette Winterson.” Dissertation Abstracts International, Section A: The Humanities and Social Sciences . 63.4 (2002): 2-45. Web. 20 Nov. 2011. <>.