My Fairy Godmother, Myself

In Cinderella Was a Liar, a snappy self-help manual, Brenda Della Casa argues that the lying promise of Cinderella is the arrival of the prince: "Prince Wonderful does not pay you a visit by climbing up your balcony. Hell, he doesn't even call." In short, take another look at the toads in your back garden and stop waiting for perfection.

But for me, Cinderella was never about the prince. It was about the wonders of a magical transformation. I would have loved a fairy godmother when it came to the prom -- all I needed was a pumpkin-colored convertible, a dress, and a weight-reducing wand. The addictive side of this fairy tale wasn't the happy ending but the happier middle: the moment when Cinderella finds herself in gorgeous shoes, with makeup, hair, and a designer gown to match.

I've spent the last month reading romances shaped around this fairy tale: every one of them focuses on the transformative middle. And given the general lack of magic wands in both Regency England and modern America, these transformations actually come from Cinderella's plucky nature. Even the one novel I chose that features magic, Mercedes Lackey's The Fairy Godmother, skips the wand when it comes to Elena's transformation. Lackey writes in a kingdom where fairy tales are played out over and over. Elena is supposed to be her kingdom's Cinderella, but when the prince in question is ineligible, she ends up a fairy godmother. The transformation here is not into pretty bride-to-be but powerful woman-with-wand. Nice. Not to mention that in the process of turning irritable young princes into donkeys she manages to end up with a gorgeous Knight Errant who's less of an ass than the general male populace. Hurrah!

But even in a world with magic, Lackey focuses on the transformation within Elena as the reason for her success as a fairy godmother and her eventual relationship with her Knight Errant. That turns out to be the key to rewritten Cinderellas: the heroine learns to honor and appreciate her pre-transformation self, forcing the prince to do so as well.

We're trained to believe that princes fall in love as soon as a woman shows up in the right dress. But what if he doesn't? What if one night of dancing isn't enough? The way, frankly, one night at a club isn't enough in real life?

Teresa Medeiros's Charming the Prince takes this idea and runs with it. Cinderella is actually spurned precisely because she looks so good in a dress. Lord Bannor has a dozen wild children, so he sends his steward to find him a bride who won't tempt him into bed (thus giving him more children). The steward finds Willow, who's been turned into a servant by her stepmother. Willow may look dirty, plump, and drab, but she cleans up well; by then it's too late for Lord Bannor to back out. Like all the romances I talk about here, Willow's leap out of menial labor is just the beginning. She has to tame the wild beasts (Bannor's neglected children) but more important, she has to understand her own beauty and strength. Before taming the biggest beast (Bannor), she learns to honor herself as a lady, not a chimney sweep. Her prince is horrified when she appears in a bewitching gown, but he falls in love after she asserts herself as a strong, confident person.

Christina Dodd's Rules of Engagement plays on a similar premise: a woman whose apparent unattractiveness brings her into the hero's life. Faced with a client who demands a hideous governess, Miss Pamela Lockhart transforms herself into a battleaxe of a nanny. The real tale is not her secret beauty but the way the prince falls in love with her wit, determination, and intelligence, giving up his foolish misconceptions about women. Similarly, in Dodd's The Runaway Princess, Prince Charming is adamant about his wife being of noble birth -- until he falls in love with an orphan. Miss Evangeline Scoffield has disguised herself as an heiress and is enjoying a sumptuous wardrobe, at least until a prince shows up and insists that she's his fianc?e. Evangeline's gorgeous dresses are only the opening gambit in the novel; she wins the prince's heart by exhibiting arcane knowledge of plants, shooting rapids, and rappelling down stone walls. But most crucially, she learns that nobility is something inherent, not inherited -- and teaches that lesson to Prince Charming.

On the theme of one-night-is-not-enough, the prince in Julia Quinn's An Offer from a Gentleman doesn't even recognize Cinderella after the ball. Sophie Beckett is the illegitimate daughter of an earl, reduced to serving as a housemaid by her horrid stepmother -- except for one night when she escapes to a ball in a silver dress. Yet years later, when she's rescued from a near rape by her Prince Charming, Benedict Bridgerton, he doesn't recognize her from Adam. Finally, Benedict realizes that his charmed life is nothing without Sophie's fortitude, sense of humor, and ethical clarity -- but only after Sophie asserts her own worth and decides to remain a housemaid rather than become his mistress.

You might think from the novels above that Cinderellas are only found in flowing dresses, hanging out in historical romances. Not so! Jennifer Crusie's The Cinderella Deal is the story of Daisy Flattery, hired by her neighbor to play his charming and proper fianc?e. There's a real question whether Daisy can do it: she's a failed painter who dresses from the ragbag and cherishes her tarnished, tumbledown apartment as a symbol of artistic freedom. Can she fake being a member of the establishment that she eschews? The answer is yes. But once the transformation happens and Daisy actually ends up married to her rather staid professor of a prince, can she bring together the Perfect Housewife with the Perfect Bohemian?

One final example: Sarah Strohmeyer's The Cinderella Pact. Nola Devlin wants to write an advice column for a women's magazine but gets turned down for being too fat -- so she makes up a thin, red-haired version of herself named Belinda Apple. In no time, Belinda is a huge hit, especially with the prince-like heir to a publishing fortune, Chip. There's a bit of a magic wand here: Nola slims down with the help of Weight Watchers; a friend colors her hair red; she puts on a fabulous dress. But like all of the stories above, the perfect Belinda isn't enough. Nola's funny, exuberant personality, not her toned shoulders, wins her the charming Chip.

In other words, these novels do a wonderful job of giving us the narrative pleasure of reading Cinderella's story -- and the deeper pleasure of realizing that Cinderella's dress probably never cut it, even if it did come along with that magic Weight Watchers wand.

What these romances say is that love is defined by the moment when Cinderella reminds her prince that she's illegitimate, an orphan, or a hippie -- and he doesn't care, because he loves her for her strengths. For the woman she is, not the woman she dressed to be. We're not talking about overnight transformations here. It takes years for Sophie to win her Bridgerton, months for Nola, Willow, and Sophie to win their princes -- because it takes them that long to learn to love themselves. As Jennifer Crusie writes, "It really was better being Cinderella than the stepsisters. You just had to hang on until the happy ending."

About the Columnist
Eloisa James is a New York Times–bestselling author of historical romances, as well as a memoirist (Paris in Love) and professor of English literature teaching Shakespeare at Fordham University. Her latest novel is Three Weeks with Lady X.

July 22: On this day in 1941, on his twelfth wedding anniversary, Eugene O'Neill presented the just-finished manuscript of Long Day's Journey into Night to his wife, Carlotta.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).

Watching Them Be

What makes a film actor into a larger-than-life movie star? James Harvey's passionate, freewheeling essays explain why there are some faces (from Greta Garbo's to Samuel L. Jackson's) from which we cannot look away.

Landline

What if you called up the spouse on the verge of leaving you -- and instead found yourself magically talking to his younger self, the one you first fell for?  Rainbow Rowell, author of the YA smash Eleanor & Park, delivers a sly, enchanting take on 21st-century love.