“Subverting Standards and Formulating Fairy Tales: Sarah Fielding’s Conventionally Unconventional Use of Fantasy in The Governess,” by Jill Coste

Snow White, by C. Jackson

Snow White by C. Jackson

Volume 1, Issue 1 (July 2013)
Download PDF

Abstract:  In a time period where fantasy was largely ignored in favor of rational, sensible stories, Sarah Fielding’s The Governess served as a subversive text that undermined Lockean calls for realism in favor of fairy tale-like splendor. Although Fielding taught moral lessons with fairy tale-like structures, this device alone was revolutionary since fairy tales were considered dangerous delves into make-believe and indeed were not published and popularized until the Grimm Brothers serialized them in the 1800s. By comparing several of the stories the characters tell each other in The Governess to specific fairy tales from Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book, Coste shows how Fielding’s intricate plot structure disguised her subversive intents, thereby delivering a popular text that contributed to a change in sentiment about the use of fairy tales to both delight and teach the child reader.

About the Author:  Jill Coste recently graduated from San Diego State University’s M.A. program with a concentration in children’s literature. Her current research focuses on fairy tales and teenage girlhood in contemporary young adult novels and pop culture. She is by no means a specialist in 18th-century literature, but she has very much enjoyed reading about Sarah Fielding and the birth of British literature for children.


On the surface, Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, or The Little Female Academy appears to fit comfortably into the eighteenth-century mold of didactic, moral writing for children. Published in England in 1749, it offers lessons in kindness and gentleness within the narrative structure of school. Its main character, Jenny Peace, is an exemplary good girl who lives up to her name, and the other characters follow Jenny’s lead in trying to be kind, gentle souls. Mrs. Teachum, the titular governess, is a God-serving minister’s wife who thinks fairy tales are frivolous amusement. But Fielding’s tale has a subversive secret: it is peppered with original fairy tales, hiding in plain sight in the framework of a didactic text. Sarah Fielding was one of the first scribes of the literary fairy tale, a bold move during a time when fairy tales were considered frivolous and certainly not proper fare for children.

Fielding’s tale is an incisive precursor to the fairy tales that became part of England’s lexicon in the nineteenth century. Jack Zipes points this out briefly in his book When Dreams Came True, noting that The Governess “began paving the way for the reception of the fairy tale in England” (17). However, this is one of only two mentions of Fielding in Zipes’ book, and he doesn’t examine just how Fielding paves that way. This article aims to fill that gap by looking at how Fielding uses fairy tales in her work and why it was subversive for her to do so. By using fairy tales to impart a didactic message and by structuring her story around a character who is the prototype for the exemplary fairy tale heroine of the future, Fielding subverted standard storytelling, indulging in fantasy in an age of rationality.

Literature for children in the eighteenth century was bookended by truth and reason. In the early part of the century, theories of childhood were shaped most notably by John Locke, whose 1693 publication Some Thoughts Concerning Education stressed the importance of reason, rationality, and practicality. Locke stated, “The sure and only way to get true knowledge is to form in our minds clear settled notions of things, with names annexed to those determined ideas” (qtd. in Summerfield 10). To Locke and his followers, fantasy and fairy tales would not allow for such “clear settled notions” – indeed,  Locke “rejected the idea of children reading fairy tales” (Granahan 51) and encouraged reason as a virtue. Ideals at the end of the eighteenth century were influenced by a group of conservative women who were particularly vocal about their dislike of fantasy and fairy tales. As Zipes explains, “writers like Mrs. [Sarah] Trimmer and Mrs. [Favell Lee] Mortimer argued at the end of the eighteenth century that fairy tales made children depraved and turned them against the sacred institutions of society” (147). This is ironic, considering that it is the very nature of fairy tales to reflect and represent the culture in which they were written. But in a very fundamental time of England’s history, vocal proponents of Christianity envisioned fairy tales as useless. In fact, Mary Martha Sherwood took it upon herself to rewrite The Governess 70 years after it was written, completely omitting the fairy tales within and bolstering the Christian message. She stated, “fairy tales…are an improper medium of instruction because it would be absurd in such tales to introduce Christian principles as motives of action” (148). In her mind, Christian instruction and fairy tales were mutually exclusive.

The general lack of literary fairy tales available in eighteenth-century Britain is evidence of the enduring popularity of Locke’s theories of rationalization and reason and of the conservative writers’ chokehold on what was deemed appropriate for children. As Zipes states, “the fairy tale for children remained suspect until the 1820s…not regarded as prime reading material for children [and not] considered to be ‘healthy’ for the development of children’s minds and bodies” (19). Zipes also points out that “Close to two centuries of British educators, writers, and publishers debated the merits of fairy tales, and they were found – at least by the conservative camp, or what would be called the ‘moral majority’ today – useless and dangerous for the moral education of young and old alike” (147). Fielding went against the grain by incorporating fairy tales into her popular Governess novel. Even though fairy tales were suspect, Fielding managed to slip them into a didactic text to do the very thing they were accused of not doing – to help develop children’s minds. Each of her fairy tales, nestled in the framework of a group of young girls telling stories, had a purposeful lesson in them, teaching the girls various standards of proper behavior.

Not only were Fielding’s tales subversive at the time, they were also complex blueprints for the fairy tales we know today. We can see just how Fielding’s tales set the stage for future stories by comparing them with the tales that appear in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book (1889), one of the first compilations of fairy tales from numerous regions1 widely available to English children. Lang’s book brings together several tales from different time periods and countries. Roughly one third of the stories in his book come from the big names in fairy tales – Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. The Grimms are credited with pushing fairy tales into a common lexicon for children in the early nineteenth century, but Perrault was one of the first writers of the literary fairy tale in general. Perrault’s “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty,” among others, came to popularity in the French courts during the reign of Louis XIV, and they functioned as exemplary stories to direct the behavior of the upper class. In his book Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History, Seth Lerer explains that fairy tales of the French courts “taught ideal behavior and offer[ed] moral instruction under the guise of fantasy” (210). Hardly “useless and dangerous” (Zipes 147), the tales worked for seventeenth-century adults the way didactic, realistic stories did for eighteenth-century children. Perrault’s tales for adults would eventually be co-opted into books of fairy tales for children, but not until long after Sarah Fielding wrote fairy tales with similar themes and use of fantasy in The Governess. The tales that the Grimms collected were originally for adults as well, and the Grimms tempered them to be acceptable for children. By looking at two Grimm tales and one Perrault tale from Lang’s Blue Fairy Book in conjunction with the original fairy tales in The Governess, I hope to reveal how Sarah Fielding was ahead of her time in writing fairy tales for children.

The Governess follows nine schoolgirls at Mrs. Teachum’s boarding school and encompasses five different stories-within-a-story, four of which have fairy tale elements. I will focus on three of the four. The tales of Barbarico and Mignon, Princess Hebe, and Chloe and Caelia are models for the more simple and well-known stories of “Cinderella,” “The Goose Girl,” and “Snow White and Rose Red,” all of which appear in Lang’s Blue book. Though not a household name in the manner of the Brothers Grimm, Lang, an anthropologist who contributed to a renaissance in literary fairy tales for children (Zipes 168), compiled dozens of folkloric and fairy tales in his series of fairy books, each named with a different color. I’ve selected the Blue Fairy Book to compare to The Governess because of the familiarity with the aforementioned tales. A fairy tale is so amorphous that no one definitive version of it exists, but Lang’s compilation offers versions by Perrault and the Brothers Grimm that strike a chord of recognition in modern-day readers.

In addition to actually writing original fairy tales and using fantasy to convey didactic lessons, Fielding also makes use of the structure of her novel to create her own fairy tale heroine, which is a subversive tactic. Instead of using Mrs. Teachum, the pious adult, to disseminate information to the pupils, Fielding makes the primary instructor Jenny Peace, who is a fairy tale heroine in her own right. She is kind, good-hearted, and so attractive that “while she was in the room, it was impossible to fix [one’s eyes] anywhere else” (Fielding). An orphan, Jenny works hard to be good and avoids self-pity, just as we have seen in the heroines we know from “Cinderella” and “Snow White.” She takes the place of Mrs. Teachum as imparter of wisdom, leading by example. In this sense, because the person facilitating the lessons is reminiscent of a fairy tale heroine and not a staid adult, Fielding subverts storytelling standards. She slips in fairy tale aspects in both the stories she writes and in the character who uses those stories to promulgate a lesson.

Fielding still allows Mrs. Teachum to remind her students not to get swept away by fantasy, of course. Mrs. Teachum cautions Jenny “that giants, magic, fairies, and all sorts of supernatural assistances in a story, are only introduced to amuse and divert” (Fielding), which is in keeping with John Locke’s theories. She then tells Jenny not to think too much about magical creatures, since, on her part, “great care is taken to prevent your being carried away, by these high-flown things, from that simplicity of taste and manners which it is my chief study to inculcate” (Fielding). Mrs. Teachum’s use of the word “inculcate” shows us, as modern readers, just how much stories of that time were meant to instruct, not to entertain. In this way, Fielding’s work is consistent with the pedagogic expectations of eighteenth-century literature for children. But despite this adherence to societal expectations, Fielding undermines those assumptions by using fantasy and fairy tale elements to promote the ideal “good girl,” allowing the fairy tales themselves to bear the didactic message.

Fielding’s writing, however, is more than a didactic set of stories aimed at socializing young girls into the behavior proper for the time. Arlene Fish Wilner points out that Fielding is considered by many scholars as a “proto-feminist,” a revolutionary writer who questioned the status quo (307). According to Wilner, Fielding’s texts often functioned as social critique, so it is not surprising that The Governess is more than simple instructions for children on how to live well in society. However, Wilner also calls The Governess Fielding’s “least rebellious book,” since it promotes rather than criticizes the social norms of good girls behaving well and not having any power (309). But because she was writing fairy tales in a time when society was not yet embracing them, Fielding’s revolutionary spirit is still evident in The Governess. Fielding was not storming the proverbial castle and challenging gender norms; her subversive power came in the form of underhanded rebellion against the mainstream. She set the standard for writers that would follow her, particularly in the use of fairy tales, which by their very nature are primed to respond however the author who uses them wants them to. As Maria Tatar points out, “[fairy tales] are constantly altered, adapted, transformed, and tailored to fit new cultural contexts” (Secrets, 11). In Fielding’s case, she used fairy tales to demonstrate didacticism. In other words, Fielding’s work was subversive because it used an unconventional form to transmit conventional values.

Indeed, Fielding does not tentatively indulge fairy tales so much as she fully embraces them, and their use hints at Fielding’s insubordinate leanings. She uses fairy tales to communicate moral lessons, but their existence in the story signals both Fielding’s subversiveness and a lesson for young girls that obedience is not always mandatory. Even after Mrs. Teachum’s first admonition about fairy tales, the girls continue to tell stories with fanciful aspects. Jenny and Mrs. Teachum remind them that the magical parts of the tale are for amusement only, but those reminders are few and far between among pages and pages of stories. The young girls are ostensibly disobeying Mrs. Teachum by delighting in fantastic stories of giants, ogres, and trolls. But despite this disobedience, the fantasy elements still work toward instilling ideal behavior in the young women and not against it. Therefore we can see two things: that Fielding saw the usefulness of fantasy as a teaching tool, and that she was clever enough to hide it in her work by allowing it to ultimately reinforce the importance of obedience and being a good girl like Jenny Peace.

Additionally, the structure of The Governess, with its multiple stories-within-a-story, makes it an entertaining and in-depth read, and its strong structure disguises its fairy tale components all the better. The emphasis on goodness and kindness may be a repeated theme, but the girls still get to share stories of fantasy. The tales are not preachy in the religious sense, either, as Christianity is more a background player in The Governess than one might expect for a book coming on the heels of Puritanism. Almost all of the girls come to the school with a history of folly – some are too proud, some are bullies, some are vain – but their shortcomings are not treated as original sin. The girls are not saved by proverbs from the Bible, but by examples from storytelling and by Jenny Peace’s model, fairy tale behavior.

As early signposts on the path to popular fairy tales, the stories in The Governess combine several contrasting tale types: cautionary, exemplary, conventional, and utopian. The novel employs both cautionary and exemplary tales without overtly doing so. Explaining the difference between the aforementioned tropes, Maria Tatar writes, “if the basic narrative unit of the cautionary tale consists of a prohibition and its violation, the fundamental move of the exemplary story involves a command and its fulfillment” (Off, 42). Most of the tales I will examine in The Governess fall into the exemplary category, but the story of Princess Hebe exhibits both cautionary and exemplary. In her story, Hebe is essentially prohibited from disobeying her mother. When she does, she ends up lost in the wood and ultimately trapped in an evil fairy’s castle. By learning her lesson not to disobey, she fulfills her command to be obedient and ends up content. The Governess uses its fairy tale villains as the victims of cautionary tales – the cruel giants and scheming power-seekers get their just desserts, and the good girls are rewarded for their virtuous behavior.

Similarly, this same structure is at work in the tales in Lang’s Blue Fairy Book, which offer exemplary tales of good heroines doing the right thing. By the time Lang’s work was published in 1889, fairy tales were standard fare for children in Victorian England, and Zipes points out that tales like Lang’s “conceived plots conventionally to reconcile themselves and their readers to the status quo of Victorian society” (157). Like the stories in the eighteenth century, Victorian fairy tales existed to reaffirm traditional values. The stories in The Governess also bear the mark of conventionality by their insistence on obedience. There is no room for rebellion in these stories – the characters within the fairy tales showcase their goodness and live happily ever after, and the troublesome girls at Mrs. Teachum’s school learn to acknowledge and let go of their shortcomings. When Zipes describes conventionalism in his book When Dreams Came True, he is talking about the tight-laced Victorian society that existed when literary fairy tales came to prevalence in England, but his assertions are applicable to the eighteenth-century Governess as well: “Magic and nonsense are not liberating forces. After a brief period of disturbance, the fairies, brownies, elves, or other extraordinary creatures generally enable the protagonists to integrate themselves into a prescribed social order” (158). The magical creatures in the stories in The Governess do just this, as the kind giant Benefico rules gently after the cruel giant Barbarico dies, and the fairy Sybella in Princess Hebe’s tale makes herself scarce after Hebe learns her lesson.

But on the other hand, these tales also show elements of what Zipes describes as utopianism, wherein the author uses the magical elements to represent the baser instincts of humanity and to raise a dialogue about social change. Ironically, Mrs. Teachum herself explains the symbolism of the monster: “for a giant is called so only to express a man of great power” (Fielding, emphasis mine). The fact that two small, powerless men, whom scholar Sara Gadeken calls “meek and feminized” (66), in the giant’s tale best the oversized beast shows that the tales the girls are telling offer examples for overcoming patriarchal power and thus eschewing the status quo. Additionally, the fact that the girls continue to tell stories about fantasy when Mrs. Teachum warned them not to allows a hint of rebellion to slip in, illustrating an inversion of expectations – girls learning how to be good are not necessarily obedient. The fairy tales Fielding included in her novel were prescient for the fairy tales of the future, which would exist both as moral lessons and as vehicles for re-examining societal expectations.

A few of those future tales appear in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book, and while they are simple tales with magical elements, they also have morals that Mrs. Teachum would probably approve of. While many of the tales in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book focus on male characters, the ones that feature female leads are evocative of the stories and the students in The Governess. Mrs. Teachum and her pupils would definitely find much to admire in the title character in Lang’s (actually Perrault’s) version of Cinderella. A young woman “of unparalleled goodness and sweetness of temper” (66), Cinderella tolerates her stepmother’s tyranny with calm resignation and essentially turns the other cheek before turning the other again. When her godmother appears to help Cinderella get ready for the ball, the older woman tells Cinderella to “be but a good girl, and I will contrive that thou shalt go” (68). Because she obeys the commands and fetches the items her godmother needs to work her spell, Cinderella gets the reward of going to ball dressed in finery, with her bewitched footmen completing her illusion. Though she does discard her godmother’s warning to leave the ball by midnight, it is not willfully so – Cinderella flees the moment she hears the clock strike twelve. Lang’s version of Cinderella is gentle on the wicked stepsisters, too, and Cinderella’s behavior toward her cruel siblings again exemplifies the kindness Mrs. Teachum’s girls are striving for: Cinderella forgives the stepsisters for their cruelty and invites them to live at the palace with her.

Cinderella exhibits a number of hallmarks that Jenny Peace herself emphasizes to the girls. She “bore all patiently” (Lang 67), which Jenny enumerates as a virtue after she tells the tale of the giant Barbarico and his long-suffering slave Mignon. She tells the girls that Mignon’s experience in the story shows “that by patience you will overcome all difficulties” (Fielding). Similarly, in the story of Princess Hebe, the good little fairy Sybella explains that when her sister treated her cruelly, she “bore with patience whatever happened” (Fielding). Additionally, Sybella’s cruel sister underscores their differences, crying in frustration “must I with all my beauty, power, and wisdom…be suffering perpetual uneasiness? and shall you, who have neither beauty, power, nor wisdom, pretend to be happy and cheerful?” (Fielding). For Sybella and Cinderella, their cheerfulness and willingness to endure torment ultimately works in their favor, and their stories work as examples of the benefits of being good.

Princess Hebe’s exemplary goodness is reflected in another story in Lang’s volume, “The Goose Girl.” Like the princess in “The Goose Girl,” Princess Hebe is forced into hiding due to someone’s treacherous plans. The nameless princess-turned-goose-girl bites her tongue and does not fight back against the waiting maid who displaces her, and in the end her taciturn behavior is rewarded. Likewise, Hebe and her mother, the rightful Queen, are exiled and live in hiding without trying to reclaim the throne.

Princess Hebe’s tale, however, is much more complex, with a significant lesson on obedience and not being deceived by false friends. Hebe makes mistakes, and by erring, she is made stronger. Though her mother cautions her to “be very careful to guard yourself extremely well against those temptations which wear the face of virtue,” Hebe is innocent enough to be manipulated by the deceitful shepherdess Rozella, whom Hebe initially trusted as a friend (Fielding). The magical aspect of this tale is less blatant than in “The Goose Girl,” with its disembodied talking horse head. The fairy who helps Hebe blesses her with goodness, but the fact that Hebe can still be led astray shows that magic does not trump all, nor does it fix everything. Only through understanding her own folly can Hebe fully embrace her inherent goodness. In the tales of The Governess, goodness is made stronger when chosen against the less favorable alternative.

Goodness again takes center stage in both Lang’s version of “Snow White and Rose Red” and The Governess’s tale of Chloe and Caelia. “Snow White and Rose Red” is a simple tale with a happy ending, as two sisters who love each other dearly live harmoniously and without strife help free a prince from a curse. When their beloved bear turns into said prince, the matter of love is easily settled in a few words: “Snow White married the prince, and Rose Red his brother” (Lang 276). Rose Red doesn’t ask Snow White, “Why should you get to marry the prince we already know and love?” The bear-prince doesn’t wonder if he chose the right sister. They all just match up and move on to their happily-ever-afters. The simplicity of Lang’s tale reflects the ease with which fairy tales were integrated as acceptable stories for children in the nineteenth century.

Chloe and Caelia’s story is not so easy, though, which mirrors the difficulty of publishing fairy tales for children in the eighteenth century. Though they begin their tale in happy harmony, human nature works its way into their lives in the form of jealousy. Despite her love for Caelia, Chloe seizes an opportunity to have the male suitor, Sempronius, to herself. She lies about Caelia’s personality, claiming that her cousin has an “artfulness of temper, and some few sparks of envy” (Fielding). When the prince questions Caelia and the two uncover the extent of Chloe’s lies, they are grieved and disappointed. So is Chloe, who spends the rest of the tale feeling awful about herself and trying to make up for her hurtful behavior. What’s her reward for reforming herself? She gets to live happily ever after with Sempronius and his wife, Caelia.

Here we see evidence of the cautionary tale at work: if you’re dishonest and manipulative, you will not marry the prince. However, Chloe gets her own happy ending in living with her treasured cousin. Though the moral remains the same, the intricacies of human relationships are addressed as well. The girls listening to the story even admit to sympathizing with Chloe and to “what [she] must feel after her wickedness (by which indeed she lost the very happiness she intended treacherously to gain)” (Fielding). The story is more profound to the governess’s pupils because they can understand the angst that comes with making a mistake and wanting to rectify it. Likewise, the pupils’ empathy and determination not to make similar mistakes might have had an earnest effect on whichever eighteenth-century girl was reading The Governess.

In an article exploring how The Governess represents a utopian community of female friendship, Sara Gadeken also asserts that the fairy tales serve as a way for the girls to cultivate imagination and thus empathize with others. She writes, “The girls must develop their imaginations so that each can understand what her companions are feeling and respond appropriately” (65). Fielding’s use of fairy tales moves beyond simply being instructional and promoting patience; she uses them to cultivate communion through storytelling, which has been a function of oral folklore since its inception. Zipes asserts that “the nature and meaning of folk tales have depended on the stage of development of a tribe, community, or society…the sense of wonder in the tale and the intended emotion sought by the narrator are ideological” (6). While Fielding’s tales were in keeping with the ideological intentions of her time period – literature for children should instruct – they were also offering a new ideology: that fantasy is useful for socialization and for understanding what is actually truth.

Though Zipes, Tatar, and other fairy tale scholars have pointed out that it is impossible to note precisely when fairy tales became didactic tools for children, we can view The Governess as an historical document that defines a turning point. Fielding not only paved the way for fairy tales, but she also paved the way for using fairy tales as subversive texts. She used fantasy to do the very thing the time period dictated it couldn’t: to teach moral lessons. Additionally, because her tales offered greater moral complexity than their successors, we can also view Fielding as a founder for the more complex fairy tale retellings that are so prevalent in our contemporary media. Contemporary fairy tales turn the stories we know on their heads, offering social critiques and using tropes we understand to show us new definitions of those tropes. Fielding did this by using tropes people at the time understood – good girls, moral behavior, storytelling to impart moral behavior – and sneakily offering a route to rebellion.


[1] Primarily France and Germany, the birthplaces of many of the fairy tales we know and love.

Works Cited

Fielding, Sarah. The Governess, or The Little Female Academy. Project Gutenberg EBook. Web. 11 March 2012.

Gadeken, Sara. “Sarah Fielding’s Childhood Utopia.” Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults. Eds. Carrie Hintz and Elaine Ostry. New York: Routledge, 2003. 57-71. Print.

Granahan, Shirley. John Newbery: Father of Children’s Literature. Edina, MN: ABDO Publishing Company, 2010. Print.

Lang, Andrew. Blue Fairy Book. 1889. Introd. Brian Alderson. New York: Viking Press, 1978; New York: Penguin Books Ltd, 1975. Print.

Lerer, Seth. Children’s Literature: A History from Aesop’s Fables to Harry Potter. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008. Print.

Summerfield, Geoffrey. Fantasy and Reason: Children’s Literature in the Eighteenth Century. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1984. Print.

Tatar, Maria. Off With Their Heads: Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992. Print.

—. Secrets Beyond the Door. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004. Print.

Wilner, Arlene Fish. “Education and Ideology in Sarah Fielding’s The Governess.” Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture. 24 (1995): 307-327. Project Muse. PDF File. 28 May 2013.

Zipes, Jack. When Dreams Came True: Classical Fairy Tales and their Tradition. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Back to top

2 thoughts on ““Subverting Standards and Formulating Fairy Tales: Sarah Fielding’s Conventionally Unconventional Use of Fantasy in The Governess,” by Jill Coste

  1. Pingback: The Unjournal of Children’s Literature | educating alice

  2. Pingback: Know Your History – 9th April – Sarah Fielding | new2writing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s