Revisionist tales can be slippery. We love them because they tell the tale we already know from a perspective that gives the story new meaning. Sometimes a revisionist history promotes a fairer review of the past, like The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty. Wide Sargasso Sea, is revisionist version of Jane Eyre but the new story is brilliant enough to stand on its own. Most of these tales aren’t that good. However, Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister brings something new to the table. It isn’t just a send-up of Cinderella – it’s a meditation on the difference between perception and the truth.
Cinderella is one of the stories that teams beauty with goodness. The poor, pretty orphan is mistreated by those who should love her, which makes her royal rescue all the more grand. But Maguire’s Clara is a hostage to her own good looks who chooses kitchen life from spite and agoraphobia. Her mother preached that a lovely face was in danger if exposed to the outdoor world. Her father attracted customers with her seldom seen beauty, associating her face with his wares in a painting. The combination has turned this Clara (this book’s Cinderella) into a unhappy, self-pitying child who seeks the kitchen to avoid being exploited and manipulates people to get what she wants. Beauty doesn’t make Cinderella a good person here; it doesn’t even make her the hero.
That role is for Iris, Clara’s step-sister, a girl obsessed with appearance and vision. In a way Iris has the same problem as Clara since it’s Iris’s fate to ignored by those who are swayed by the mask of appearance. Of the three sisters, (Iris, Clara and Ruth) Iris is the most discerning and probably the kindest but her vision is limited. Iris has the ability to view most objects in terms of form, color and light, but she’s blind to her own value. According to the rest of the characters, Iris is, at worst, plain but that’s a problem, living next to Cinderella. Who sees the glow of a firefly when it’s in front of a fire?
The presumption of perspective permeates this novel along with its attendant disaster. Maguire set his revisionist story in Holland during the “Tulip Mania” phase. While tulips have become synonymous with Holland, they aren’t an indigenous species – bulbs were imported from Turkey. The Dutch people became enchanted with the blooms and merchants started signing contracts to buy bulbs in upcoming seasons for specified prices; flower futures, you might say. The craze for the flowers was so strong, people sold and bought the contracts at ever-increasing prices and drove up the price on the bulbs. All sight of the intrinsic with of the flowers was lost in the search for wealth and when one buyer finally defaulted on his contract, the tulip market imploded. Prices on the flowers dropped by a hundred-fold overnight and bankrupt merchants finally remembered the true value of their investments. They had invested in flower bulbs, something people liked but no one needed to live. The perception of value eventually surrendered to reality.
An old Russian teacher once told me he gauged the leanings of incoming Soviet premiers by how they reacted to history. The progressives would refer to a certain Russian prince as “Ivan the Terrible.” Totalitarians called the same guy “Ivan the 4th.” So was the prince Terrible or an ambitious leader? The hero or the goat? The truth gets lost in the glare of conflicting perspectives.