On Amabel Williams-Ellis, who told my favourite fairy stories

I’ve been reading ‘Mirror, Mirror on the Wall’, which I got as a Christmas present – it’s a collection of mostly essays by female writers on their favourite fairy tales. Quite a few of them are ones I wasn’t familiar with as a child, and that, together with the loving descriptions of the books these writers had first read them in, got me thinking. My two fairy tale collections as a child were both retellings by Amabel Williams-Ellis – not that I noticed till recently, when I realised she’d also edited a collection of sci-fi stories that my mother owns.

The two books of fairy tales Mum has of hers are ‘The Arabian Nights’, and ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’. Of course, these were not the only books of folklore my mother owns, but they were my favourites, the ones I read right through – including the notes at the back. Here in ‘The Arabian Nights’ it reads: “Warning to Children – Next come notes for grown-up people. They are horribly dull and written in long words and small print. No child could possibly enjoy reading them, and no sensible child would even try.”

I guess that tells you a lot about me. It’s no wonder I like my fairy tales with annotations, in as many different versions as possible. In fact, it’s not unusual for me to read the notes without bothering with the actual text of a book. Thinking about it, it’s quite impressive that these books have the notes they do – I’ve many more scholarly tomes that lack such delights. These are volumes intended for children, which is something Williams-Ellis discusses in ‘The Arabian Nights’ – her editorial choices, how it has affected her chosen voice, as well as the notes on the stories themselves.

Doing a quick google, I can’t find much on her – here, I find that her actual name was Lady Mary Annabel Nassau (‘Amabel’) Williams-Ellis (née Strachey), that she died when she was about 90, four years before I was born. The bibliography on that page is very incomplete – there’s a more extensive list on Library Thing.

Her father, husband and daughter all have entries on Wikipedia, but she does not. From her annotations in her fairy tale collections, it’s clear she was a scholar. She seems to have written several biographies, and looking at the contents page of ‘Out of This World’, it seems that she wrote sf as well as being an anthologist – there’s a short story here called ‘Changeling’. I haven’t read the anthology – I think I’ll have to, and actually, I’ve also just realised I own another sf collection she’s co-edited.

Funny, when you look, someone’s everywhere. Yet the internet is being rather unforthcoming about her. Which is most of why I am writing this now – I find it scary that someone could be forgotten like that.

3 Responses to “On Amabel Williams-Ellis, who told my favourite fairy stories”

  1. Rachel Garden Says:

    Hi there, Amabel was my beloved grandmother and it’s nice to think of you appreciating her. She wrote a memoir All Strachey’s are Cousins in her very old age. She was far more interesting however than even this suggests…

    • Keith Hall Says:

      It may be a long shot but was your maiden name Rachel Wallace, if so do you remember me from the 60’s ?


  2. Rachel Garden Says:

    Hi Keith, Yes you are correct, that is indeed me…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>