It’s been very hot this week and when it’s hot my brain tends to overheat and turn to sludge so I thought we’d have a look at something from my bookshelf.
I found The Naughty Princess by Anthony Armstrong at a book fair when I was a teenager and paid 75p for it, which was a bit of a steal because it’s one of the best books ever. First published in 1945, it’s a collection of almost Wodehousian humorous re-interpretations of fairytales, so it falls pretty squarely at the cross-section of two of my interests.
The illustrations are by A K Macdonald and they’re quite lovely:
But the real star here is the writing. The stories are funny both in terms of the beautifully cynical way Armstrong has looked at fairytales and in the style of his prose. In the first story, ‘The Pack of Pieces’, King Plimsoll of Waterline decides he has to marry off his daughter because she and her ladies-in-waiting keep hogging the bathroom in the mornings. He goes to discuss this with his Acting Vizier (the actual Vizier has been turned into a monkey puzzle tree and “even the Queen was forced to agree that in Affairs of State something more was required of a Vizier than a reputed ability to puzzle over-enterprising monkeys) and discovers him dictating to his “extremely pretty young stenographer”:
[He] was giving his mind to it so thoroughly that he had her sitting on his knee so as to miss nothing that fell from his lips.
He rose instantly in the presence of Royalty and the damsel a few seconds later gave a low curtsey – finding herself, indeed, in the best position for it in that she had been abruptly spilled on the floor.
“Really, Malan!” began the King mildly, for he was pretty easy-going as far as his very valuable Acting Vizier was concerned. “Must you start that sort of thing so early?”
“It is never too early for a loyal Vizier to start work,” countered Malan, swiftly, “and as Your Majesty observed, I was dictating a confidential letter which I did not want overheard.”
“Oh, I see… Well, let that business drop for a moment. I want to ask you something privately.”
The dropped business got up from the floor and retired with another but better-planned curtsey to her own office.
I laugh at “dropped business” every time.
Of course, I have to give a mention to Armstrong’s interpretation of Beauty and the Beast which appears here as ‘Presents for Princesses’. A king heads off on a journey and promises to get each of his three daughters a present. One asks for a husband, one for some underwear and the youngest (and most calculating) only for a rose and her father’s safe return , though she rather suspects he’ll pick her up some jewellery too. The king manages to get hold of a prince who’s been turned into a frog (he travels in a “Royal-Box-With-Holes-In-The-Lid”) and the underwear (though there’s some confusion over that and it transpires he’d asked for “braziers”) but the rose proves a bit tricky – until they happen to stumble on a beautiful garden full of them, of course.
The garden’s owner, naturally, turns out to be a strange and ugly creature, but unlike the Beasts of old he’s prepared to hand over the rose in return for being allowed to come with the king and watch him present it. On arrival, he proposes and, to everyone’s surprise is accepted:
For the previous evening [the princess] had found in an old history book the story of an ancestor of hers, a certain Great-great-aunt Beauty and her husband King Beast, and she guessed what no one else had, that Chunk was only a Prince in disguise who would resume his original handsome shape as soon as a Princess married him.
The frog turns into a prince, the sister who wanted the underwear is so keen to show it off that she attracts a prince (or several) of her own, and there’s a triple wedding.
Indeed, the only snag at the wedding was that nothing happened to Chunk. Fania had been too clever for once, for Chunk wasn’t suffering from a spell. He’d been like that from birth and nothing, it seemed, could be done. People continued to avoid him, and for once he couldn’t complain that even his best friends wouldn’t tell him why. A man’s best friend if his wife, and he was always hearing about it.
This book should be better-known! Although it’s not particularly rare, I don’t think, and there seem to be copies of it on Amazon UK and AbeBooks if anyone’s interested. I’m very glad that I stumbled across it and haven’t managed to lose it in any subsequent moves.
Well, that’s all from me for this week. I think I’ll go and melt quietly in a corner somewhere.