By Hester Velmans
Van Horton Books 2018
Sheffield — Hester Velman’s first novel for adults, Slipper, is rooted in the story of Cinderella; that said, it is not the fairy tale you remember. Velman’s protagonist is Lucinda, a penniless English orphan, who is abused and exploited as a cinder-sweep by her aristocratic relatives. On receiving her sole inheritance — a pair of glass-beaded slippers — she runs away to France in pursuit of an officer on whom she has a big crush. Slippertells the story of a would-be princess, whose search for one true love or another takes her all over 17th-Century England, France and the Low Countries. Along the way, Lucinda befriends the man who will someday write the world’s best loved fairy tale: Charles Perrault. “Who knew that the author of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ‘Puss in Boots,’ ‘Tom Thumb,’ ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ and ‘Cinderella’ lived a full century before the brothers Grimm and almost two hundred years before Hans Christian Andersen?” quips Velmans in her author’s note. She goes on to elucidate, “It was Perrault who invented the clear, straightforward prose of the fairy tale as we know it, at a time when his peers were writing in ornate, flowery verse. Shouldn’t that be enough to give him a place in the literary pantheon?” Needless to say, these seminal works — which have been both celebrated and scrutinized — provide Velmans with a subject worth exploring both as fiction and through the lens of history; the result is a surprisingly complex and refreshing perspective that turns the classic fairy tale on its proverbial head and awakens the power of possibility for everyone — from little girls to grown women –who dares to challenge the traditional happily-ever-after by taking control of her own fate.
HVS: What served as the genesis for this writing project, your first novel for adults?
HV: I got an idea: Wouldn’t it be fun to write a pseudo biography of the historical character who inspired the author of the fairy tales to write Cinderella? What would the life of a 17th century woman be like? I did a lot of research into the [time period]. I didn’t realize that the author of the fairy tales, Charles Perrault, was not a household name. Over time, when I realized people did not know who he was, I had to adjust the story. Put more of his life — he is a real historical character — into the book in order for it to make sense. The story of Cinderella — there have been lots of retellings — is such a basic story that every child, specifically girls, grows up with; it encompasses all of our dreams, basically. That somehow or other we will be recognized for being better than people think we are. We may think that people ignore us or discount us in some way, for being women or girls, so it’s this dream that underneath your foot is so small — you are so special and beautiful — that you will dazzle everyone at the ball. It’s a very basic, psychological urge in youngsters to have those kinds of dreams. And everyone else is the wicked stepsister. This was my motivation for writing: to catch something that everyone longs for, the rags to riches story.
HVS: How has the purpose of the fairy tale evolved over time?
HV: The fairy tale, as it has evolved, [has created] a whole industry of fairy tale retellings. While others have been retold, Cinderella is the most appealing of them all; people seem to always want to hear the story. One of the things that I find so fascinating is the way Perrault wrote the story of Cinderella is basically the way it has come down to us [as readers] with very few changes. The brothers Grimm had a much more scary, ruthless kind of version. All fairy tales are based on folk tales that are in the general circulation, but it takes an author to give shape to it. In Charles Perrault’s case I think his voice is the voice that we hear when we think of the Cinderella story. He was a very kind, avuncular kind of person, slightly amused, and he tells the tale in a very straightforward way.
HVS: Slipper offers a fresh perspective on the classic tale of Cinderella; what is the most apparent deviation?
HV: That’s the thing that I wanted to twist on its head: that marriage equals happily ever after. But that’s what we dream of. We dream of an ending, but we don’t dream of death as an ending, or old age as an ending. Little girls are kind of encouraged to think of marriage as a happy ending. In my book, I definitely twist that around. I find that the heroines in fairy tales are very passive beings, [and] things are done to them. They have no agency in their fate, and so I tried to turn that on its head, too. A lot of this book is very apt for the Me Too movement as it shows the dangers of being too passive as a girl. You have to take your life into your own hands. The motivation for writing [came] when I started doing historic research and I started immersing myself in that period in Europe. There was so much to tell…about the language and the habits and the social life, even the psychology of the time, but obviously I have a modern perspective.
HVS: Is there a particular element of the classic fairy tale that you tackle in your novel?
HV: I’m worried about the whole Disney princess industry — that’s not in my book — but I feel like [as a society] we are really encouraging girls to be so incredibly girly and to dream of being princesses. Even though it’s a basic instinct that little girls have, I don’t know that we should be feeding it to the extent that in the last few years we have been. And that is a dream, actually, that we all have; the passiveness that somebody else will just rescue us — will carry us away on his white horse — and then you have happiness ever after. I think that children need those kinds of fantasies, that it’s really healthy, but at a certain point I don’t want children to become so disillusioned that they lose sight of reality. Your children will be happier if they take off the rose colored glasses. This is my own perspective on life: daydreams are great…but at a certain point in life one needs to throw away your daydreams and be realist and make the best of things.
HVS: How is your story relevant to modern women today?
HV: You can twist your life story around, that’s really the message of the book. And find your own happy ending; it doesn’t have to be marriage, and it doesn’t really have to be love — it can be finding yourself, and standing up for your own beliefs, and taking responsibility for yourself. As opposed to waiting for the prince to show up and proving your worth because you have a tiny foot that fits the slipper…
Hester Velmans is an award-winning translator of contemporary Dutch and French literature; her translation of Renate Dorrestein’s “A Heart of Stone” won the 2001 Vondel Prize and in 2014 she was awarded a U.S. National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship to translate the neglected novelist Herman Franke. She was born in the Netherlands, educated in Switzerland and England and currently makes her home in the Berkshires. Velmans is the author of the popular children’s books “Isabel of the Whales” and “Jessaloup’s Song”; her historical novel, SLIPPER, will be released on Tuesday, April 17, 2018 and is available at The Bookloft in Great Barrington as well as The Bookstore in Lenox.