Archive for Amabel Williams-Ellis

Fairy tale men don’t marry up?

Posted in Fantasy, Movies with tags , on August 8, 2011 by Cara Marie

I never fail to be surprised by the things people say about fairy tales. The following is from an article on the princess-ification of girlhood, in this week’s Listener. It’s quoting Marek Tesar, who’s part of the Critical Studies in Education faculty at Auckland University.

“A girl becomes a princess by marrying a prince; a boy needs to be a prince. He will not become a prince through marriage or partnership.”

But he says the appeal of the perception that a princess is exclusive – there can only be one princess in “your” kingdom – can be a valuable tool in children’s play.

The second point is at least countered by saying “perception”. But really, I didn’t think The Twelve Dancing Princesses was that unknown a fairy tale. Here is the ending of Amabel William-Ellis’s retelling:

Then the King, true to the bargain, asked the soldier:

“Which of them will you choose for a wife?” and he answered:

“I’m not very young myself, so I will choose the eldest.” And they were married that very day, and the soldier was made heir to the Kingdom.

Which very much sounds to me like he became a prince. And as it stands, Tesar’s statement is simply untrue. It is not an uncommon fairy tale motif, for a commoner to become a prince. We can’t even say it’s not present in the Disney movies: is Aladdin not engaged to a Sultan’s daughter at the end of his story?

Maybe (I hope) Tesar was actually saying that children think that boys cannot become princes in fairy tales. In which case, why so? I would’ve liked the article to ask why we retell the princess-POV fairy tales so often, as opposed to those where poor soldiers or clever third brothers marry princesses?

And actually, if I think of the Disney movies as representative of the tales we can expect children to know, then we have Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and The Princess and the Frog where the girl doesn’t start off as a princess (the lattermost being a change from the fairy tale). To which we can counter Aladdin and Tangled, with Tangled swapping the class positions so that we have the boy marrying up. I guess because princes aren’t as cool as rogues.

Tesar goes on to say, “from my experience, a lot of boys prefer playing the dragon rather than playing a prince.” Which, when I consider fairy tales featuring princes-who-have-always-been-princes, is not really a surprise. Those princes are often kind of boring – they’re the reward, not the protagonist.

Now I’m making sweeping statements. I’m sure I’ll think of exceptions later. Because fairy tales are always more complicated than we’d like to think.

Proper researchers make pages on Amabel Williams-Ellis. I can’t get in.

Posted in Books with tags on September 28, 2009 by Cara Marie

So, I decided that I would make a set of proper pages about Amabel Williams-Ellis. I google her name again, because I want to be able to link to the page that gave me most of the biographical information I have about her, only to discover there is an apparently quite thorough site on her on Orlando, which is a site on British women’s writing run by Cambridge University. And it’s subscription only, and I don’t know that my uni has access to it. It’s so taunting!

Actually the Orlando Project as a whole looks amazing.

The original website I found her on isn’t up anymore. The internet is so changable. I shall go ahead with my project, fancy Orlando website I can’t get into or not…

From a 1960 review I found of her series of kids’ science books:

Mrs Williams-Ellis is able to convey the excitement and importance of her subject matter with accurate simplicity and enjoyment. Few enough are the scientist-journalists who can popularise science successfully; to succeed in doing this for children without distortion or whimsy is even rarer.

Amabel Williams-Ellis: may have approved of labour camps

Posted in Books with tags , on March 20, 2009 by Cara Marie

This is from a 2008 paper called “In Search of the Collective Author: Fact and Fiction from the Soviet 1930s”, by Mary Nichols and Cynthia Ruder. In the section I’m quoting from, they’re discussing a book called The History of the Construction of the Stalin White Sea–Baltic Canal – coauthored by 36 people!

The editor of the English version and the author of its introduction, however, was the notable Lady Mary Annabel Nassau Strachey Williams-Ellis, or Amabel Williams-Ellis, the sister of British socialist John Strachey and the wife of architect Clough Williams-Ellis. According to G. S. Smith, Amabel visited Russia with her brother early in 1928 and served as the only British delegate to the First Congress of Soviet Writers, held in August 1934. While Williams Ellis alludes to her interactions with the translators, perhaps the most telling evidence of her role in the project stems from her statements in the introduction enthusiastically endorsing the volume as a work of originality and innovation. She describes the construction of the Belomor Canal as “a ticklish engineering job” performed by enemies of the state, making for “one of the most exciting stories that has ever appeared in print.” She claims “for the first time we are here told the story of what goes on in a Russian labour camp.” Williams-Ellis neither criticizes the use of punitive work regimes nor questions the Soviet government’s motives in building the canal with slave labor.

I don’t think I’m surprised by that. I know Amabel was a socialist, and from reading Women in War Factories it’s obvious she thinks engineering’s pretty neat… who doesn’t? Depending how pragmatic she was she may have approved of the project anyway… and being as the whole point of the book was to glorify it.

So, the building of the Belomor Canal was performed by prisoners, including political prisoners… God forbid Act should hear about this. No, but that would be taking away work from law-abiding citizens, so I guess not. I don’t think they actually want criminals to learn practical skills anyway. Just lock ’em up and throw away the key. Anyway…

The authors of The History of Construction got sent to Belomor Camp, to be inspired and such like. Nichols and Ruder write:

As sources attest, such meetings were well-orchestrated Potemkin-village affairs, designed to impress visitors while ignoring the deprivation, loss of life, and terror that inmates endured. Reportedly, many writers were duped by the artificiality of the trip, while others understood perfectly what the authorities were hiding and why.

This is interesting, because it’s not something I knew anything about. What does it say about me that the above description puts me in mind of Anne McCaffery’s Acorna series, where one of Acorna’s great deeds is to expose the horror that the child slaves on Kezdet go through – because of course the factory owners paint a very pretty picture. Probably just that I know more from reading science fiction than from reading about the real world.

Looking at the citations for this paper, I think I’ll have to look up GS Smith’s D. S. Mirsky: A Russian-English Life, 1890–1939, where he apparently also talks about Amabel Williams-Ellis… Mirsky was one of the writer’s brigade who got sent to visit places like Belomor.

Amabel Williams-Ellis: “readable but undistinguished”

Posted in Books with tags on March 20, 2009 by Cara Marie

Instead of working on my geology assignment, I am looking up Amabel Williams-Ellis on the university databases.

Here is the abstract of an article by Henry Ladd, written in 1929 so I can’t actually find the whole thing…

This article focuses on the book “The Exquisite Tragedy: An Intimate Life of John Ruskin,” by Amabel Williams-Ellis. The curious thing about the book is that Ruskin’s story is made convincing by no great verbal magic. Mrs. Williams-Ellis is not, in the ordinary sense, a literary artist; her style is readable but undistinguished. But her genius lies in keeping the reader’s mind focused on the subject: the descriptive splendors, the aphorisms seem to be all Ruskin’s; even the intrepid shriveling irony seems to arise from the movement of the facts rather than from the idiom of the author’s phrase. In achieving a wide appeal, however, the author has had to slight any full exposition of Ruskin’s aesthetic and social theories.

That’s probably why I like her right there – “readable but undistinguished”. I don’t really care much about your prose style, as long as it’s not awkward – in fact, if I don’t notice your prose, it’s probably good! I don’t need styllistically compelling prose. It just has to do its job.

‘The Art of Being a Woman’ – Amabel Williams-Ellis

Posted in Books with tags , on January 3, 2009 by Cara Marie

You might think that a book from 1951 called The Art of Being a Woman would be some frippery on ladylike behavior, on catching and keeping a man. That’s the sort of stuff that seems hip for reprints, for amusement and ‘irony’ value. The Art of Being a Woman is long out of print, and its subject matter is perhaps better summed up as the art of staying human when you happen to have been born a woman.

The blurb on the inside flap states that Amabel Williams-Ellis ‘has certainly not written a solemn feminist tract’, and this is true – there is nothing solemn about her, whose prose has a light touch, despite the seriousness of content. But whilst the book itself never uses the word feminist, that is undeniably what it is. Not radical, but subtle. It talks of changing Public Opinion, yes, complete with capitals, but it is more concerned with the changes a woman can make in her own life that will allow her more happiness – and with figuring out what might make her happy in the first place!

It does this while valuing motherhood and the next generation, but without disparaging those who choose a career over a family – which I gather was rather more an either/or choice then. Williams-Ellis does discuss work in conjunction with keeping a house and raising children, when she argues against those who would say it cannot be done. Because, she says, it was done. Williams-Ellis lived through two world wars, when of course women did do both.

It’s from a historical perspective that The Art of Being a Woman is particularly interesting. Williams-Ellis talks of the then fairly recent introduction of a 48 hour working week – which cut down on the work for men, certainly, but did nothing for women, who still had to get dinner on the table. And remembering that this was a time before everyone had a washing machine.

And yet it is all still valid. The difficulty of finding a happy medium – certainly nothing’s changed with regards to the chapter on commercials. An oppressed class may have negative characteristics, but that is because they are an oppressed class, not because those characteristics are inherent in them as human beings. Because it’s not the art of being a woman, it’s the art of being one particular woman, and all are different.

It is a book written by a white upper-middle class woman, and the discussion on creating a happier domestic life excludes any mention of domestic abuse or sexual violence. It depends on your partner being a decent human being. It does discuss the ways in which ‘Public Opinion’ limits men’s options as well as women – with regards to childcare, for example- and that being a ‘human sacrifice’ is not the way to ensure a happy domestic life in the first place, should that be your chosen path.

So, of course, it has its limitations. It’s also very grounded in its time – but that’s what would make it useful then. It is, as much as anything else, a self-help book. Only the self-help was not just seen to benefit the individual, but their family, their community.

In her first chapter, Amabel Williams Ellis says:

Today, I find myself puzzling such questions because a daughter’s two little girls are here in the house, trotting about, full of energy and interest. They are learning and growing fast.

How should babies who are going to be women be brought up? What are we to tell them about ambition, courage, and wanting to know the why and wherefore of everything? We still feel the force of Victorian opinions, and we are also inheritors of older tradtions, about ‘woman’s place’, so that we find in the laws, in public opinion and – most important of all – in our own heads, a whole pattern of ‘dos and don’ts’ that we have not thought out, and we find ourselves trying to make the best of old-established ideas in a changed world.

In 1951, one of those little girls was my mother. In 2009, it is my young niece. And for all the time that has passed, the questions remain. I’m still pondering them for myself. Regardless of how things have and haven’t changed, it is a comfort that I am not the first, that these questions have been asked before – and that the conversation continues.

‘Changeling’ – a short story by Amabel Williams-Ellis

Posted in Books with tags on December 27, 2008 by Cara Marie

When I decided to make a page on the Feminist SF wiki, I didn’t realise just how prolific Amabel was. I’ve listed the majority of her published work there, but I’m pretty sure that’s not even everything. And none of it is still in print.

I read her ‘Changeling’ today. It’s one of those stories where maybe the pseudoscience was plausible when written, but as a 21st century geology student you just have to stick your fingers in your ears and go “la la la”.

Here is the premise: a young woman, a scientist, gets caught up in a war. These are the days of nuclear stockpiling, though this is a small war – “somewhere in Algeria in the nineteen-sixties, but it might as well have been in the Congo, in Angola, the Indian frontier, or in half a dozen other places, for it was only small-scale, conventional warfare.” Enid is pregnant, and has just been told “casually – as they dug me out of the crumpled lab – that a tank had got my husband.” It’s a story of its era, and Enid wants to know – is there hope? Or is this war, the little and the big, the end of it all?

Here comes the pseudoscience – use of a certain radioactive isotope transports Enid’s consciousness far into the future, where she shall live out the six years of the isotope’s half life.

It is a rash decision. Enid is born a baby in the future, her adult consciousness for the most part repressed. Her turmoil now has less to do with nuclear devastation than with her own cruelty – she has a mother in this future, and strange a child as she may be, that mother loves her.

William-Ellis’s prose is somewhat old-fashioned, but easy to read. She has quite a reassuring voice for me. I’m not really sure what I think of the story itself. Amabel’s interest seems to be with the consequences of Enid’s decision, as they affect Enid more than as they affect those in the future. She says in the introduction that it seemed to Enid that “the risk would be a private one, involving only herself and one other being.” But it is not a private decision, and Enid does indeed hurt others.

It seems a very female story to me, in its concerns, in the importance on mothers and children. Our protagonist is a scientist, but the morality of her science is of lesser concern than that of making decisions with far-rippling effects. I suppose it is a moot point whether the decision is personal or scientific.

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

Posted in Books with tags , on December 26, 2008 by Cara Marie

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.