And we thought we knew it!
THE CHAPTER KNOWN AS THE FIRST
Are you sitting comfortably, children? Good, then I’ll begin.
Once upon a time there was a rich gentleman at a Court somewhere in Europe, who was married to a beautiful lady. She bore him a daughter, but while the daughter was still quite a little girl a fever took her mother, and her father was left to bring up his daughter alone. He was worried about doing this, and felt she should have a mother; so a couple of years later he married again, to a rich and fashionable widow, the Grafin Eisenmieder, who had two daughters of her own.
Now this second wife wasn’t altogether a wicked woman, but she spoiled her daughters terribly and let them have their own way in everything. When they found out that their new stepfather already had a little girl of his own, they didn’t like the idea one bit, and complained to their mother. She listened, said "Of course, my darlings!" and went to tell her husband that there was no way she was going to let his first wife’s brat be brought up with her own children. So the rich gentleman went to his own daughter and sadly told her that she would have to go away. She wept and begged him to let her stay in the house, and eventually by means of compromise it was decided that if she became a servant she wouldn’t have to leave. So Cinderella, which was her name, went down the back stairs into the kitchen and—
You at the back there, shut your noise. Who’s telling this story?
All right, I admit it, you’ve probably heard something like it before, but you haven’t heard this story. Jakob Grimm was a fine fellow in his way, but he should have stuck to proto-Indo-European phonology. He did have a stab at telling this story, but he felt it wasn’t proper to explain what really happened, and so he changed a few things round to make it decent for little folk. Whoever heard of a glass slipper? How could you possibly walk in glass slippers? For one thing, you’d slip and fall over, and for another you’d break them as soon as you tried to come down stairs. No, there never was a glass slipper, and if you shut up and let me get on with the story you’ll find out what it really was that Cinderella left behind at the Ball. All right?
Ahem. As I was saying:
Well, Cinderella went down the back stairs to the kitchen and sat down on a stool, and there she cried. Nobody came to visit her, though, except for an old tabby cat and some insolent mice who proved the cat wasn’t doing much good, so in the end she dried her eyes and went to work sweeping out the flagstones and cleaning the pots. She gradually got to know the people who worked below-stairs, and most of them were very sorry for her: they remembered the Old Mistress, and they didn’t care for her replacement, who was demanding and let her foolish daughters order them about in the most arbitrary way. She made friends in particular with an old cobbler who lived down the road, and who came to the house regularly to deliver shoes for the three ladies upstairs who never seemed to have enough. He had been a friend of her parents, once, before her father married again and her stepmother said it wouldn’t do for him to keep company with the working classes; and he and his wife, who had left him some years before, had been Cinderella’s godparents. He used to tell her that her godmother had promised to look out for her, and that one day she would come back and bring Cinderella back to the life she should have. That didn’t seem very hopeful to Cinderella, but it was something to dream about when she was dozing by the fire at the end of a hard day’s work.
Meanwhile, what was going on upstairs?
Jakob Grimm will have told you that Cinderella’s stepsisters were ugly. This isn’t really fair. Their mother was a fine-looking woman, and her daughters took after her well enough: ugliness wasn’t their problem. The problem was that they were spoilt. This made them a pair of selfish, unappealing children right from the start, and their stepfather kept out of their way as much as possible after they somehow managed to prop a Chinese lacquered cabinet weighing about twenty pounds on the top of a door which he had to go through. When he came round he heard them laughing, and complained to their mother, who said "They didn’t mean any harm! It’s only a joke!" and refused to see them punished. After that, though he tried to avoid any contact with them, he couldn’t help finding out that they were growing up decidedly unpleasant. They always insisted on the finest and most expensive clothes, but they didn’t take care of them, so that things were always having to be cleaned or repaired or replaced altogether; and they were silly about eating, refusing all the good things and then stuffing themselves with dessert. By the time they were into their teens they ate almost nothing but sweets: jellies, cakes, crystallised fruit, pastries oozing with cream, sugary pies, and all in quantities enough to make a Viennese pastry-chef feel ill. The inevitable result was that they got fat and spotty, and that made them more disagreeable, for their mother had encouraged them to be as vain as she was. They wanted to be beautiful like her, but somehow when it came down to it they wanted sweet things to eat more. Their mother had tried to train them to corseting, as she had been at the same age, and they both had many sets of strong and beautifully-made stays; but if they felt uncomfortable they protested, and she could never refuse them, however much she felt it mattered. She had tried explaining that if they would only lace tight they wouldn’t feel so hungry and would be able to eat less, and that had interested them; but at the table habit took over, and one daughter ate until she made herself sick, whereupon the other demanded that her stays be loosened so that she could enjoy another helping of apple strudel. It worried their mother very much, as she had a magnificent waist and feared that if her daughters went out into the world stout they would never find decent husbands, however rich and fashionably dressed they might be. She finally got them to the point where, with much persuasion, they could for appearance before guests be corseted tightly enough to look fairly slim; but it was a terrible business, the lacing-up requiring two of the strongest footmen per daughter, and the desired result could be achieved only at a dreadful cost in dead faints and snapped staylaces. Naturally the girls were extremely uncomfortable like this, and would only tolerate it for half an hour at a time, at most an hour; and the experience did more than ever to put them off corsets. Their mother despaired of ever getting them to look presentable; but despite knowing that they were in the wrong, she was still too soft with her babies to consider using any kind of coercion. If they wanted to be stout, then stout was what they should be.
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