Magnetism of fairy tales
I grew up on a steady diet of fairy tales. My parents read them aloud to us, and then sprinkled Andrew Lang’s Blue, Green, Brown Fairy Books around the house. But much more importantly, fairy tales truly interested my father, Robert Bly. Years later, when I was in graduate school, he wrote a long analysis of one such story, called Iron John. When I was a child, he was just breaking in the fairy tale analysis, as it were. I have a distinct memory of being challenged to give a psychological explanation of the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk.
I haven’t the faintest idea what I said. What I do remember is my father saying with real surprise in his voice: “That was brilliant. You’re a natural!” My father is a poet, and a deeply loving father—but at times he was so enchanted by words that he didn’t truly notice the children milling about him. I rejoiced in having caught his attention, and I don’t suppose it will surprise anyone to learn that I’m now a professor of English literature, teaching Shakespeare. While I am not interested in the kind of cultural analysis my father did, I inherited his fascination with the complexity of literary texts.
Throughout my years as an English literature professor, I have carried on something of a double life—moonlighting as an author of popular romance fiction. I love to bring together my two wildly disparate careers, spinning romances from plots that were first created in the 1600s, or weaving lines from Romeo and Juliet into a mass-market novel.
The Duke is Mine, which published in January, is the third in my series of fairy tales; this one rewrites The Princess and the Pea, the story of a princess who arrives in the middle of the rainy night and is put through a series of tests to see whether she is a “real” princess—the most famous of which involved a pile of mattresses on top of a pea. That pea gave me so much trouble! I had a lot of fun writing Duke because I enjoy working within strict parameters. It forces me to be more creative to know that I am not only required to write a happy ending, but I also need to trace the plot of a fairy tale.
In The Princess and the Pea, the girl who arrives in the middle of a rainstorm turns out to be a “perfect” princess. Olivia, my heroine from The Duke is Mine, by contrast, is no perfect heroine; she’s impudent, bawdy, and plump. Her sister Georgiana, by contrast, is “perfect.” In a deep sense, The Duke is Mine is about perfection, and what that means. Olivia is torn between a duke with an Aspergers-like inability to express emotion, who relies on logic, and her fiancé Rupert, who is all emotion with almost no logic. This is the first book of mine that actually has two heroes, and interestingly, it’s my biggest seller to date.
I think that readers are hungry for fairy tales—for stories that offer the utter satisfaction of reading a familiar narrative thread, and yet have philosophical questions woven throughout.
Eloisa James is a Shakespeare professor at Fordham University in New York City and New York Times bestselling author of historical romance novels.