by Christine Chettle
University of Leeds
Read the chapter here. Listen to the chapter and investigate below:
Chapter Six bridges most of the Light Princess’s childhood and adolescence, taking her from babyhood to the age of seventeen. This chapter explores the social liminality of the princess’s condition in what Kate Flint terms a ‘diorama or panorama literature’ (Flint, 144-146), collecting scenes of her awkwardness rather than tracing a traditional plotline. These scenes form a sequence of moments in which the princess’s lack of gravity intersects in dissonant ways with her surrounding community, accumulating experiences of non-gravity as a socially immoderate identity. Since these scenes take place at a point when she is old enough to develop her own choices and opinions, these scenes also dramatize disjunctions of autonomy within this socially immoderate identity.
The dissonance in the princess’s perspective emerges in the first paragraph, through contrasting her reactions to war with those of others. These form a crescendo of intensity: first ‘General Clanrunfort was cut to pieces with all his troops’, then ‘the enemy was on his way to besiege her papa’s capital’ and finally that ‘the city would certainly be abandoned to the mercy of the enemy’s soldiery’. The war hovers strangely in the background and we never discover the outcome of the war; while presumably the kingdom was saved in some way, MacDonald’s text explores the Princess’s reaction to the war, which is that of’ immoderate laughter’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘immoderate’ as ‘exceeding proper limits; going beyond reasonable bounds’, encoding the princess’s anti-gravitational laughter with a sense of liberation. But MacDonald’s emphasis of the princess’s perspective over bulletins from the war front underlines the socio-political dissonance of her immoderate laughter: after all, the inability of its heir to grasp political realities in order to guide a country through the entanglements of war presents a great danger to a traditional monarchy.
Having established this idea of ‘immoderate laughter’ through contrast to a serious military incident, MacDonald explores its effect on the princess’s personal life. The text dramatizes the princess’s immoderate laughter as a symbol of liberation, since her laughter subverts those around her. She offers a renewed critical perspective through which the act of crying becomes ‘squeezing water out of your cheeks’. Her reaction to her father the king’s ‘storming’ as ‘such fun! Dear, funny papa!’ creates the political agent of the former paragraph as a hysterical child by evoking the loss of dignity which accompanies ungoverned rage. Her laughter also offers a physical autonomy since she can float wherever she pleases ‘like a great butterfly’, allowing her to observe anyone: no one can escape her and she can interrupt her parents’ private consultation about her.
While the text sympathizes with the liberalizing possibilities of her anti-gravity (noting its ability to counteract the weight of gold, for example), it also dramatizes the chilling lack of autonomy emerging through the artificial nature of this laughter, particularly emphasising disjunctions of gender discourse. Laurence Talairach-Vielmas, in Moulding the Female Body in Victorian Fairy Tales and Sensation Novels, argues that ‘because MacDonald’s weightless princess defies the laws of nature, she engages debate with the idea of woman as essentially governed by nature as well as the discourses this idea generates’. (Talairach-Vielmas, 9) Talairach-Vielmas sees the Light Princess as a challenge to the Victorian gender ideal of the Angel in the House, stemming from Coventry Patmore’s eponymous poem, which she describes as ‘a saint-like, passive, and ‘light’ woman’. (Talairach-Vielmas, 36) Yet, in addition to exploring the possibilities of social challenge which the princess provokes, the text also evokes an emotional dissonance around this challenge. Kissing the page certainly overturns Victorian etiquette regarding public affection: advice columns such as ‘Conduct and Carriage’ in the Ladies’ Treasury warned young women that kissing a young man, even a fiancée, would result in a loss of emotional and social autonomy: ‘Little familiar caresses and endearments [ . . .] often extinguish the man’s love while they increase the woman’s’. The narrative excuses the princess from a breach of etiquette by emphasising how her physical condition overrides her mental autonomy: though she had intended to kiss her father on the cheek, she realises that the wind will prevent this. She attempts to control the effects of her condition by using a toad to counteract her weightlessness, but this backfires: ‘The princess, trying to correct the unfortunate tendency of the kiss, put out her hands to keep her off the page; so that, along with the kiss, he received, on the other cheek, a slap with the huge black toad’. The princess reacts to her loss of mental autonomy through a conscious process of laughter: ‘She knew [ . . .] that she could not help it. So she laughed, like a musical box’. Her immoderate laughter becomes a social shield. The scene, sympathizing with the princess’s lack of shyness, also punishes the page for this breach of etiquette, since he receives an accidental slap on the face; this punishment reverses the social dynamic evoked by ‘Conduct and Carriage’ in which the woman is punished for affection shared by both man and woman. But the princess’s inability to use her mind to control her body poses an uncomfortable question: if her immoderate laughter symbolizes social liberation, does it do so at the cost of her mental autonomy?
The final words of the chapter, ‘she never smiled’, extend this dissonance: is it possible to laugh without smiling? If not, the princess’s laughter is merely an artifice – a mechanical music-box without emotional reality for support. Through the princess’s immoderate laughter, MacDonald both constructs and subverts a process of social challenge by emphasising that such challenge is hollow without emotional and mental autonomy.
Anonymous, ‘Conduct and Carriage, or Rules to Guide a Young Lady on Points of Etiquette and Good Breeding in Her Intercourse with the World’ The Ladies’ Treasury, September, 1857, p. 210.
Flint, Kate, The Victorians and the Visual Imagination (Cambridge: CUP, 2000). In The Victorians and the Visual Imagination (Cambridge: CUP, 2000), Kate Flint discusses Dickens’s ‘Rapid Diorama’ chapter in his 1846 Pictures from Italy, observing that ‘he presents his mind as an open screen which receives impressions’and categorizing it under Walter Benjamin’s definition of ‘Panorama Literature’: ‘individual sketches which, as it were, reproduce the plastic foreground of those panoramas with their individual form and the extensive background of the panoramas with their store of information’. See Flint, p.144-146.
MacDonald, George, ‘The Light Princess’ in The Complete Fairy Tales, ed. U.C. Knoepflmacher (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999), pp. 15-53.
Talairach-Vielmas, Laurence, Moulding the Female Body in Victorian Fairy Tales and Sensation Novels (Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, 2007)