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Review: While Beauty Slept, by Elizabeth Blackwell
Putnam, 2014. 416 pp. $16

When fourteen-year-old Elise Dalriss loses her mother and almost all her siblings to the plague that nearly kills her too, she must make a desperate choice. She sees that she has no future on her father’s farm, which has been failing for years, and he’s a cruel, bitter, hard man, whom she fears. He’s also not her real father—Elise was born out of wedlock—and she doesn’t know who is, so she has that shame to bear as well.

Given courage by her mother’s last words and finding a few precious coins sewn into the dead woman’s skirt hem, Elise seizes her chance. She flees home and throws herself on the mercy of her mother’s sister. Receiving more kindness there than expected, Elise prepares to ask for employment as a chambermaid at the castle, where her mother once worked, and where King Ranolf and Queen Lenore hold court. It’s a terrifying proposition, especially for a girl of humble birth who knows nothing of court etiquette and little of the work for which she claims to be qualified. Symbolic of Elise’s anxieties, the castle itself threatens her:

I expected it to be large and well fortified. But . . . I was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of the fortress that sprawled defiantly atop the hill before me. Thick walls of rugged stone seemed to have burst forth from the earth to encircle the towers within. Behind the battlements, turrets stabbed the sky, with a few narrow windows giving the only indication that people lived within. For a moment, the weight of it chilled my spirits, and I was seized by a sudden reluctance to enter. Raised in the open air, with land extending in every direction, I had never considered what it would mean to live enclosed within walls.

This is the premise for an ingenious retelling of Sleeping Beauty, stripped of its romance and all the more captivating for it. Gone are the homage to chivalry, the rarefied sensibility, the obsession with instant physical attraction (though it does occur), or a royal perspective. Elise’s narration, though emphasizing the king, queen, and, later, their daughter—those fixtures of the legend remain—delves deeply into unpleasant realities no fairy tale ever concerned itself with. And I don’t mean the evil witch, though here she is.

Henry Meynell Rheam’s 1899 pencil-and-watercolor rendition of Sleeping Beauty (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Rather, Blackwell tells her story through the power imbalance between men and women, the snobbery of social rank (reveled in by those who have none), and the harshness of everyday life in an era that approximates the Middle Ages without too-specific detail. Typical of that time and any seat of power, the politics of court and realm take center stage, which believably grounds the narrative and offers credible, deeper motivations than the original. When Ranolf and Lenore bemoan the lack of a child, they’re not just parents but rulers seeking an heir; foreign enemies menace the kingdom. Consequently, though Blackwell derives suspense from changing what we think we know, providing that contrast to expectations that draws us in, she’s also showing us a more plausible, harder-edged version than the original.

While Beauty Slept delivers a strong feminist message, but the novel revolves around the power of love—again, not courtly love or the powdered, happily-ever-after variety (in which you just add water and stir). She means abiding love, one that weathers years and trials without recompense asked or offered, that between parents and children, or between clear-eyed adults who’ve had enough time in life to rack up regrets.

Elise rises within the servant pecking order with perhaps too much ease—the story requires her to—though the author does her best to portray the fallout from her rivals, witness social snubs, jealousy, and backbiting. I don’t mind that so much, though I do question how a girl battered by life and a violent father could bloom so, once given the chance. That’s the downside to psychological realism versus fairy tale—once you throw down that gauntlet, you have to fulfill the challenge—and I’d have expected Elise’s losses to deduct a higher toll from her emotional resources.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t bother me as much as the moments when she announces that trouble’s a-coming, and, in retrospect (she’s retelling the story to her great-granddaughter), she wishes she’d done things differently. Such heavy-handed portents accomplish nothing except to pull the reader out of the story.

But I highly recommend While Beauty Slept, which adds realistic flesh to legendary bones in a thought-provoking way that speaks to the modern reader without compromising the time and place.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.