Since 1697, when the French author Charles Perrault wrote the fairy tale Cinderella, the story has hung around Western culture. Little girls are its biggest fans, swooning at the beautiful gowns, the handsome prince, and a dream come true.
Now here comes Slipper, Hester Velmans’ first adult novel, starring Lucinda as the luckless heroine who chases happiness through seventeenth-century England and Europe. Born to a woman who had secretly wed an aristocrat and died in childbirth, Lucinda is an orphan who spends her childhood being batted back and forth between groups of cruel, wealthy relatives.
Sound like someone you know? The plot thickens. After Lucinda receives a pair of glass-beaded slippers, bequeathed to her by her mother but which had gone missing, she flees to France accompanied by an honest-to-goodness fairy godmother. Gullible yet determined, Lucinda falls hard for handsome men, endures the violence and squalor of the Franco-Dutch War, becomes a painter in Amsterdam (and has a stint at Versailles, too), and finally unites with the love of her life. Plus, all is revealed as to how Perrault conceived his tale.
Velmans, who previously authored two children’s books and has translated several Dutch and French novels into English, draws on her knowledge of European history and art to create an imaginative, compelling plot with fine attention to period details. Throughout the story, fairy tale themes come and go. But there’s no doubt that this is a very adult book, right down to the yearnings for sex, romance and autonomy. And while the story of Cinderella is centuries old, Slipper embraces a rather contemporary idea: create your own happiness. One can’t expect a happy ending without plenty of thought and action.
We had the chance to sit down with the author, who provided more insights into her book and her work:
BookTrib: Did you like fairy tales as a child?
Hester Velmans: I have been besotted with fairy tales my whole life. Not just fairy tales, but all myths and legends. I read Bullfinch’s Mythology (the Greek/Roman myths and Arthurian legends) from cover to cover when I was a teen. There is something about those tales that grabs me – something magical, something universal. But they’re also simply incredibly good stories. It’s exciting to think that they have been around for millennia, in various guises, and that they are available to storytellers like me to use, change and embroider on.
BookTrib: You included a quotation from Bruno Bettelheim’s seminal book about fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment. Did you explore much of the scholarship surrounding fairytales?
HV: Yes, I did read Bruno Bettelheim, C.S. Lewis, Marina Warner (she wrote a wonderful study, From the Beast to the Blonde) and others for insight into the psychological aspects of the fairy tale. But in the end I decided not to get bogged down in the scholarship, because to me, the charm of the tales lies in their primal, emotional appeal—their unstudied innocence. I didn’t want to spoil that feeling.
BookTrib: How did you come across Charles Perrault? Did you consider writing his biography? Why did he appeal to you?
HV: Funny thing: I thought everyone knew who Charles Perrault was. I must have come across his name as a kid, and I grew up assuming his was a household name, like the authors who came long after him, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. It wasn’t until I had finished writing Slipper, and made Perrault a character in my book, that my husband pointed out nobody knew who he was. I didn’t believe him at first, but then I started asking around… And what do you know, no one I asked seemed to have heard of him. Now that I have discovered that there are no popular biographies of the man either, I feel maybe it’s up to me to fill that gap. He certainly led a most interesting life, and, as the father of the fairy tale as we know it, deserves to be better known.
BookTrib: Did you think about using a fairy tale other than Cinderella to entwine with the story of Perrault?
HV: I chose the story of Cinderella because it is the most universal, archetypal and ultimately satisfying of all the fairy tales. It addresses the fundamental desire to be seen for your “true,” or better, self. You may think yourself misunderstood, despised, or exploited; little do “they” know that underneath you are really some kind of hero, or the most beautiful creature in the world, or simply a really cool kid. Won’t “they” regret the way they treated you when your real identity, or your true worth, is revealed! I love finding that Cinderella theme everywhere in literature and in film—Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Harry Potter, even Mean Girls and Grease.
BookTrib: Did you always know that the book would have a happy ending, or did the plot evolve as you wrote it?
HV: The distinguishing feature of Perrault’s fairy tales is the happy ending, and so I did set out wanting to end this story on an appropriately optimistic note. The goal I had was to write a story that had all the familiar elements of the fairy tale, but with a perfectly plausible explanation for each of the fairy tale aspects—removing the magic. So in my book, there is a happy ending, but not necessarily the one you were expecting.
BookTrib: You’ve translated several novels whose plots involve the difficult, even harrowing lives of children. I’m thinking particularly of Renate Dorrestein’s novels, such as A Heart of Stone. And of course, the story of your mother’s childhood years during the German occupation of the Netherlands (Edith’s Story by Edith Velmans) shares the elements of fear and hiding. Are you drawn to these types of stories? Do you think that your work on these books influenced the plot of Slipper?
HV: There are some harrowing aspects to this novel, and it’s possible that I was influenced by my mother’s story of hiding from the Nazis, having to pretend to be the maid in her rescuers’ home, the deaths of her parents, etc. But I am at heart an optimist (and so is my mother, by the way). I had a happy childhood, and I don’t share Dorrestein’s dark view of the world. Her stories are more like the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales—bad mothers and children in peril. Although I am a fan of her work, I prefer to follow the Perrault example, which is ultimately positive, light-hearted and whimsical.
BookTrib: In the course of the story, the heroine, Lucinda, is physically assaulted and humiliated by men and women. Yet she picks herself up and carries on despite moments of despair. Did you hope to impart a particular lesson?
HV: My parents’ World War II experiences taught me that if you are put in a terrible situation through no fault of your own, you really have no choice. You either carry on as best you can, or you give in to despair. There is no other alternative. The lesson Lucinda learns (with Charles Perrault’s help) is that no matter what happens to you, you are ultimately in charge of your own story. There comes a time when you’ll be able to turn the tables and create your own happy ending.
BookTrib: Largely due to commercialization, the Cinderella fairy tale continues to draw rapt attention from little girls. Do you think the way children absorb the story has changed over time, through the centuries?
HV: It interests me that part of the draw of the Cinderella tale has always been the dream of riches—the transformation of a poor, oppressed servant girl into a beautiful princess who can have anything her heart desires, the idea being that wealth brings happiness. There’s also love, of course. However, it’s telling that Cinderella doesn’t fall in love with a man of modest means, but with an heir to a kingdom. I do wonder about that message in our age of instant fame. In the past, aspiring to be a queen was obviously an impossible fantasy. Today’s Disney-princess craze can lead little girls to aspire to movie- or pop-stardom—they are pushed to dream of becoming one of those glamorous creatures who vapidly show off their outrageously expensive designer gowns on the red carpet at the Met Gala, the Oscars, and all our other undemocratic, wealth-flaunting balls.
BookTrib: The book opens with a mesmerizing description of a blood clot. Did that pop out of your imagination or did you know already know about blood clots?
HV: What I was trying to do was to give modern explanations for fairy tale tropes—in a very underhanded way. When Lucinda is born, her mother dies of what in our time would be diagnosed as a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in the lung, and I describe that process going on inside the mother’s body in some detail. (I know about the danger of that condition because it has happened to two people close to me, and I found out that it was a not-uncommon cause of maternal death.) In the seventeenth century, medical knowledge was not advanced enough to give such a diagnosis, so the passage ends with “They said she died of a broken heart” – a common explanation for the death of a “good” character in fairy tales.
BookTrib: At one point in the story, Lucinda uses a “stomacher” [a V-shaped decorative panel that is placed across the bodice of a gown]. Did you delve much into cultural history in order to evoke the mid-late seventeenth century?
HV: I did read lots of books on the period’s cultural, as well as military, history. But what I loved best was to wander around art museums, closely examining paintings from the seventeenth century —the Dutch in particular— jotting down details on what people wore, what they ate, what kind of houses they lived in, and how they entertained themselves.
BookTrib: The book is set in some of the important places of your life – Paris, London, Amsterdam. Was that a particular challenge or joy for you?
HV: As a writer, you use what you know, and having spent my formative years in Western Europe, it was natural for me to use that as the background for my story. Writing the novel while living in the U.S., however, I was conscious that what was familiar to me might not be so to the reader here; that may have affected the emphasis I gave to describing certain landscapes and customs. As a literary translator, I also amused myself finding ways to give the English-speaking reader a sense of the sounds and linguistic structures of the languages Lucinda encounters as she travels around Europe.
Slipper is now available for purchase.
ABOUT HESTER VELMANS
Hester Velmans is a novelist and translator of literary fiction. Born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, she had a nomadic childhood, moving from Holland to Paris, Geneva, London and New York. After a rewarding but stressful career in the international TV news business, she moved to the Berkshires to write and translate full time. She has been a recipient of the Vondel Prize for Translation and an NEA Literature Translation Fellowship.
Hester’s first book for middle readers, Isabel of the Whales, was a surprise national bestseller. At the urging of her young fans she wrote a follow-up, Jessaloup’s Song. Slipper is her first novel for adults. For more information, see her website hestervelmans.com.