Looking back on the fairy tales and children’s stories I loved when I was little, I’m starting to realise that what I thought were sweet stories of happiness and destiny were really rather morbid.
How was I not disturbed by Belle’s imprisonment in a fortress by an aggressive, talking beast? Why did I find Alice’s adventures quirky and whimsical when she was actually threatened, misled, tormented and abandoned by an array of cold-hearted creatures, not to mention subjected to terrifying bodily distortions? For goodness sake, how is being physically cut from the belly of a hyper-intelligent and manipulative wolf a happy ending? And have you ever read Hans Christian Anderson’s original Little Mermaid? It is truly the stuff of nightmares.
So what is it that draws children to classic tales? Clearly their good person-bad person portrayal of humankind is deeply problematic. Not to mention the depiction of marriage as the be-all-and-end-all for any respectable young lady. Of course, with many recent children’s films (from Shrek to Brave to Frozen) we are starting to see some truly admirable heroines. But the fact remains that thinly veiled horror stories like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Hansel and Gretel are still successfully packaged as tantalising fantasy for children.
For me, I think it has a lot to do with aesthetics. I’m still a sucker for the contrast of a red velvet cape on white snow. I’m all about the shadows of a Gothic hall illuminated by flickering candlelight. I still feel the awesome pull of an ancient and beautiful concealed object, made terrible by some unspeakable magic power. This is how tales like Beauty and the Beast cast their spell over me.
I immediately thought of this when stepping into the entrance to the Musée Baccarat, one dark, cold winter’s afternoon. Almost deserted, the museum reminded me of a castle from a fairy tale. At the time, the entrance hall was still lined with lush, pungent Christmas trees, crowded against the mirrored walls and twinkling with simple golden lights. At the end of the ground-floor passageway, a decadent crystal chandelier lay submerged in a glass tank of clear water.
The red carpet, studded with tiny lights, led up a swirling staircase, lit by more chandeliers, to a quiet upstairs chamber draped in velvet curtains. Stepping through the curtains, I found myself alone in a shadowy room positively brimming with crystals of all shapes and sizes. Jewellery and delicate decorations, dinnerware and trinkets, vases and tiny bottles, paperweights and vials. The museum includes only Baccarat crystal, naturally. But I wasn’t struck by any commercial or promotional leaning in the museum’s design (though I did avoid the gift shop).
Fairy tales, especially the way they are packaged to children, are certainly problematic. As is any commercial venture posing as a purely cultural one. Yet none of that entered my mind as I sat in that room of velvet, crystal and shadow. All I was thinking about was Belle, standing in front of that fateful rose, all awe and quietude in the face of beauty.