Cinderella's “evil” stepmother gets her say in Teller's (Sacred Cows: The Truth About Divorce and Marriage, 2014) historically grounded first novel.
Agnes, who will become first the beautiful Ella's nurse and then her stepmother, grows up in a British peasant family. Because her widower father can't support three children, she's sent to work in the laundry of the nearby manor. After years of hard labor, she makes her way to the local abbey, where her duties are a little lighter and where she becomes pregnant out of wedlock. Thrown out of the abbey, she finds work as an alewife and soon begins brewing her own ale. When her common-law husband dies, she's no longer permitted to operate the alehouse because she's a woman, and so she makes her way back to the manor, where she's put to work minding young Ella, whose father, the perpetually drunken lord of the manor, becomes besotted with her. Teller's tale finds a realistic explanation for each of the elements of the Cinderella story: Ella's “fairy godmother,” for example, is the powerful but not supernatural Mother of the abbey, who looks down at Agnes because she's a peasant. As for the “ugly stepsisters,” one of the sweet-natured and hardworking girls is mocked because her skin, like her father's, is dark, while the other has scars left by a bout of smallpox. Ella is a decidedly minor figure in a story that only tangentially touches on hers. Teller anchors her novel in well-researched details of medieval life, and if her prose doesn't reach the level of poetry, it abounds in sensory details, from the “sticky swelter” of the busy manor kitchen to the “pink roses, yellowwort, purple foxglove, mauve centaury” in the abbey garden. The author's understanding of the severe challenges posed by gender and class in this society adds depth to the story.
A provocative revision of this familiar fairy tale.