Following T. Kingfisher’s instructions in the author’s note of Bryony and Roses, I sought out Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter, which had inspired Kingfisher to write her novella. It was odd reading it so soon afterwards and I should, in retrospect, have left it much longer before going back to the same theme. While Kingfisher’s story didn’t spoil any of McKinley’s plot for me, it actually overshadowed it, being a more sophisticated and subversive take on Beauty and the Beast. McKinley certainly makes the story her own, but I didn’t find her heroine anywhere near as appealing as Kingfisher’s Bryony.
Where McKinley differs from most is that she doesn’t begin her story with the lost path in the woods and the discovery of the enchanted castle. On the contrary, her story follows Beauty, her father and her two sisters right from the beginning, as their vivacious mother dies, their father’s investments fail and they find themselves teetering on the brink of poverty. The names make it quite clear that this is a fantasy story: not only is Beauty called just that, but her sisters are respectively Lionheart (the brave, impulsive one) and Jeweltongue (the clever talker). Having said that, the three girls increasingly have to worry about penny-pinching and cutting their cloth to its new measure, which they manage admirably. When their father’s misfortunes drive him into a nervous collapse, they take advantage of an old deed that Beauty has found among his papers, which gives them ownership of a little house in the country called Rose Cottage.
Yet even now the story lingers for a while on the sisters’ efforts to pretty up the cottage, and on Lionheart’s and Jeweltongue’s creative ways of bringing in a living. When we finally get round to the father’s trip, and his promise to bring back a rose for Beauty, we’ve already had the chance to get to know the sisters in their own right. That has its pluses and its minuses. I actually found Lionheart far more interesting than Beauty and rather regretted leaving her behind. And then it’s off to the castle, where Beauty discovers that an ancient nightmare may have been prophetic: in this dream she finds herself walking down a long candlelit corridor, knowing that something monstrous is waiting for her at the end. But is she running from it or towards it?
As I said, it’s a shame I read Bryony and Roses so recently, because I loved the interaction between Bryony and the Beast and I missed that gentle humour here. McKinley’s Beast is a tortured soul, given to standing for long hours in his orchard gazing into the distance, while Beauty busily gets on with taming the roses in his remarkable greenhouse. I felt the relationship between Beauty and her sisters was more convincing than that between her and the Beast and, although I won’t go into details about the ending, I agree with Elaine’s comment on Bryony and Roses: that a decision is taken in which the person concerned has very little say, which is a little disturbing. It’s funny, but the part of the story taken from the fairy tale feels a bit underdeveloped, while McKinley spends a lot of time working up her subplots (some of which I found to be rather convoluted by the end, especially the reason for the cottage coming to Beauty and her sisters).
Essentially, I just found this Beauty to be sweet and yet, despite her much-vaunted practicality, a tiny bit dim. There is something of Disney about her: she is kind to animals; shows no great perturbation at being in a completely magical house; and doesn’t really notice things that are right under her nose. For reasons intrinsic to the book, she goes her entire childhood without seeing a rose, but I still find it a little hard to believe that this passionate gardener is unable to identity the thorny plants running riot in the garden of – wait for it – Rose Cottage. You want to grab her by the shoulders and give her a good shake. Good heavens, woman! If something like that can pass you by, how on earth are you going to be able to figure out how to break a spell?
Oh, I don’t want to be too critical. It is a perfectly engaging little novel and I think I would have been a little more generous if I didn’t have Kingfisher’s feisty Bryony and sarcastic Beast in the back of my mind. If you like retellings of fairy tales, you should still consider giving this a go. Just read it before you read Kingfisher. And don’t expect Beauty to be too quick on the uptake.