Thursday, March 21, 2019

Mary de Morgan: Subversion through Fairy Tales

By Marilyn Pemberton

Mary De Morgan was the youngest of seven children, born in 1850 into a family of intellectuals, non-conformists and dissenters. Her father, Augustus, was a brilliant mathematician who described himself and his family as “Christians – unattached” and who once resigned his professorship at University College London because he considered it unfair that a candidate was not appointed a Chair just because he was a Unitarian. Mathematicians today still discuss the De Morgan law and compete for the triennial De Morgan Medal. Mary’s mother, Sophia Elizabeth (née Frend), was a spiritualist who supported social reform, in particular the prison system and the provision of children’s playgrounds, and was a fervent campaigner against vivisection and slavery.

Mary’s eldest brother, William, designed and produced still very collectible tiles used by William Morris’s company and eventually became a best-selling novelist; his wife, Evelyn (née Pickering) was a well-known and well-respected painter. Another brother, George, co-founded the London Mathematical Society and would have been a mathematical genius had he not died at an early age of tuberculosis - brother William called it the “De Morgan curse.”

Mary de Morgan - possibly

Mary moved in William Morris’s artistic and political circle, so it is perhaps not surprising that her own literary and social achievements have been overshadowed by those of her family and friends. Mary is best known today, if she is known at all, as a writer of fairy-tales but she also wrote short stories, some of which were published in English and American magazines such as The Ludgate Illustrated, Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Sylvia’s Home Journal and The Home-Maker. Other unpublished short stories are gathering dust in Senate House Library, University of London, being a very small part of the De Morgan Archives, created primarily to house her father’s documents.

Mary also tried her hand at a two-volume novel called A Choice of Chance written under the pseudonym of William Dodson, but the disappointment of poor reviews caused her to abandon attempting another. She also edited her mother’s reminiscences, Threescore Years and Ten: Reminiscences of the Late Sophia Elizabeth De Morgan and wrote serious articles on such diverse subjects as “Co-operation in England in 1889,” “The New Trades-Unionism and Socialism in England,” “The Jewish Immigrant in East London,” and “The Education of Englishmen,” published in such journals as The Westminster Review and The Chautauquan.

According to A. Stirling, Evelyn’s sister, who wrote the biography of her brother-in-law William, as a child Mary was extremely lively and full of fun – and also rather precocious. At 13 she asserted to Henry Holiday, who was a painter, stained-glass designer, sculptor and illustrator, that “all artists are fools.” She did not mellow with age. In a letter in 1885, for instance, when Mary was 35, William Morris describes how she came into a tea room where he was drinking with a friend and straightway fell to tackling them on socialism with, as Morris says, “rather less than her usual noise; but with rather more than her usual ignorance.” Despite this rather derogatory description, Mary was a regular visitor at the Morris household and she often told her stories to the Morris and Burne-Jones children and to the young Rudyard Kipling. The multi-talented Mary also apparently cured William Morris of his fear of snakes; she was also one of those who nursed him during his final illness and was at his bedside when he died in 1896.

Mary never married, and although Shaw suspected that she was flirting with him when she squeezed his hand one evening, there is no evidence of any romantic relationships. Whatever the reason then, whether from choice or otherwise, Mary, like many other women at the tail end of the nineteenth century, remained unmarried, and because there were no male members of the family with sufficient funds to keep her, she had to earn her own keep.

It does not seem likely that she made sufficient money from her writing alone. In 1876, for instance, she received £14 18s 6d (less than £2,000 in today’s money), being a third of the year’s profit from the sale of her first volume of fairy tales, On a Pincushion  – another third going to the illustrator, her brother William, and the other third to the publishers, Seeley, Jackson and Halliday. She may not have earned enough to live on from her writing alone but she also received dividend payments from stocks she owned. She once told her sister-in-law, Evelyn, that “I am so thankful I have only a small income – it is so delightful planning things and deciding what one can afford. It would bore me to death to be rich!”

No one woman can epitomise the “New Woman,” of course, but Mary De Morgan certainly had many of her attributes. One definition, which seems to suit Mary, is one in which the “New Woman” is considered to be someone who is lacking in many, if not all, of the attributes usually associated with ideal Victorian womanhood such as having a penchant for self-sacrifice, a talent for home-making, and a willingness to defer to men. There is nothing about Mary to make anyone think that she was ever such an “Angel in the House.” She did follow in her mother’s footsteps and do her social duty by visiting the poor families in the East End and running a mothers’ club, but she was also a member of the Women’s Franchise League and she signed the Declaration in Favour of Women’s Suffrage in 1889. She was an independent woman who had very strong views on the society in which she lived and the place of the woman within it. She could have written political articles, spoken at rallies and waved flags, but she chose instead to make her voice heard and her opinions known through the genre of the fairy tale.

Mary published three volumes of fairy tales, On a Pincushion in 1877 (illustrated by William De Morgan), The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde in 1880 (published by MacMillan & Co and illustrated by Walter Crane) and The Wind Fairies in 1900 (published Seeley and Co. and illustrated by Olive Cockerell). In each anthology there are fairy tales that challenge the prevalent ideologies by subverting the traditional fairy-tale conventions and therefore also societal ones. After all, many of the things that were concerning people at the time, such as the institution of marriage, the role of women in society and the effects of materialism on the individual and on society as a whole, are actually inherent components of many a fairy tale.

It is perhaps ironic to use the fairy tale to challenge the benefits of material gain, or the conventions of marriage. Fairy tales by Charles Perrault, the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen, for instance, were often used to maintain the patriarchal status quo and to endorse the values and social codes of the time, including the premise that wealth and/or marriage equates to happiness and that the woman’s role is to be patient and wait for the active man to save her. Without a doubt, many of the traditional fairy tales are typically very materialistic, with the “happy ever after” being assured due to the gain of a kingdom through marriage or enormous wealth. Patient Griselda, along with Snow White and Cinderella, became exemplars of Victorian womanhood, veritable “Angels in the House.”
Whilst sticking to the accepted fairy-tale conventions and intrinsic structure of the fairy tale, however, Mary met the readers’ expectations of plot, character and ending, yet challenged core attitudes.
Princess Fiorimonde

There is no room here to give more than a few examples but most of her fairy tales are on the internet and are well worth a read. In “Dumb Othmar,” for instance, it is a female who is the active, questing protagonist whilst the male is the passive victim who waits patiently for her to return having rescued his stolen voice. In “The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde,” the beautiful princess is not the personification of goodness, as expected, but is instead evil and turns her suitors into beads she collects on a necklace - it is now the men who are the adornment. 

In “The Hair Tree,” the flora of an island is in fact various parts of a female body that as a whole would form a beautiful woman but as individual parts have teeth and are deadly. In “Siegfrid and Handa,” a village is almost destroyed when the villagers start to buy cheap, shoddy shoes rather than the more expensive and better made ones produced by the local cobbler, thereby illustrating the damaging effects of mass-production on the individual and on society and doubtless pleasing William Morris immensely.

Again, in “The Hair Tree,” Mary writes of how a young girl is turned into a vegetarian tiger by the mother of a spurned suitor thus describing how women who choose not to marry are ostracised and de-humanised. In “The Toy Princess,” Mary shows how ludicrous it is when a royal court prefers an automaton that merely nods and says “Yes” to the real human, crying, screaming, independent Princess.  In the traditional fairy tales female readers had had only passive, victimised role models to empathise with; now they were being introduced to females who were active, strong-willed, and sometimes downright rebellious, rather like Mary, perhaps.

However, it is only now that Mary’s voice is being heard. Contemporary reviews failed to read between the lines or to scratch the surface and considered the stories to be delicate, naive and simple, such as children will delight in. “Even adults, if they retain the least spark of the childlike in their nature, will be attracted by the freshness, the simplicity, and the pathos of the little stories.”  They were not little stories but it is only over the previous couple of decades, when fairy tales have been put under the academic microscope, that Mary De Morgan has been recognised as being one of the forbears of such twentieth-century feminist writers as Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood, to name but two, and her fairy tales being more than just simple stories for children.

De Morgan's last resting place

By the turn of the nineteenth century Mary was a relatively well-known and respected published writer, albeit not a very well paid one, who lived very much in the world of artists and intellectuals. She does not seem to have written anything after 1900 and at the beginning of the new century she went to live in Egypt, for health reasons, where she somehow became a directress of a girls’ reformatory in Helouan. She died of tuberculosis - the “De Morgan curse” again - in 1907 at the age of 57 and is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Cairo. Her plot has no stone to mark her last resting place, there having been subsidence many years previously.

There is no photograph that can be 100% authenticated as being Mary, so all we have are her words to know her. 


Marilyn Pemberton is a member of the Society of Women Writers & Journalists, the Historical Novel Society and The Society of Authors. Her PhD research on the utopian & dystopian aspects of Victorian fairy tales and the ensuing obsession led her to Mary De Morgan and to the book, Out of the Shadows: The Life and Works of Mary De Morgan, followed by a fictional novel based on Mary’s life, The Jewel Garden, published February 2018.
Marilyn has just completed her second novel, Song of the Nightingale, about two young boys in eighteenth-century Italy, who are bought from their families, castrated and then trained to be singers. It tells not only of singing, but also deceit, murderous revenge, passion and reconciliation.  Marilyn is hoping a literary agent will be willing to represent her.
Marilyn is just starting a third novel called Grandmothers’ Footsteps that will tell of the battle of three generations of women to get their voices heard through story-telling. 

Out of the Shadows can be purchased at

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting life she led for those times, given how limiting the Victorian Era was for women. Her fairy tales sound really different! I'm surprised in that era she was able to get them published.


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