A couple of weeks ago I got a text in the middle of the day from my oldest son, currently a senior in high school. This occurred during his lunch break and it isn’t particularly unusual for me to get a text from either of my children, typically regarding after school plans, or asking me to refill a lunch account, or wash a uniform, or whatever. On the days I stay home to write, I am happy to do these things. But this particular text was a little unusual because it said “Blog topic: Cinderella’s fur slippers.”
It was a special moment for me for a couple of reasons. 1. My teenage son, who doesn’t particularly pay attention to my blog or anything about me really because he’s a teenager and I am his mom and I suppose that is developmentally appropriate, discovered something quirky and weird and thought of me. 2. He thought of me not only because I post about quirky and weird things (as a blogger buddy recently suggested), but also because he remembered how much I absolutely love the story of Cinderella.
Actually, it’s not so much that I love the story itself, which has been around in some form since Ancient Egypt. It’s also been expressed in almost more cultures than folklorists dare count. But I do love the cartoon Disney movie version.
I am by no means the kind of Disney-obsessed woman one would expect to have a favorite princess, but I do in fact have a favorite, and it’s Cinderella. The reason for this is simple. Originally released in 1950, quite a few years before I was born, the film was re-released to movie theaters in 1987, when I saw it on a special day out with my dad.
My parents were always good about that when I was young, setting aside times when each of their four children could occasionally be the center of attention. Times like that with my dad make for precious memories, and this one includes funny singing mice, a magical pumpkin carriage, and glass slippers.
But not fur slippers. My curiosity was piqued. I asked my son some follow-up questions. His time was limited and I didn’t get much back from him, so I did a little digging on my own. What I discovered was that in 1841, French writer Honoré de Balzac, whose funny name scandalized the ladies of River City in The Music Man 116 years later, suggested there’d been a silly mistake made when the French version of the story was originally published in 1697.
Charles Perrault had taken the story from oral tradition and his version went on to become the primary influence of the Disney movie that is so well known. When he wrote it, however, according to Balzac, Perrault mistook an old French word vair which refers to squirrel fur and wrote it as the word verre, which means glass. Cinderella, then, might not have ended up with quite as many blisters from her dance shoes.
Balzac’s suggestion became a favorite tidbit of folklore gossip because most of us would rather dance in fuzzy slippers than in glass heels. It makes a lot more sense, and it is just the kind of quirky and weird historical mix-up I like to blog about.
But it turns out Balzac not only had a funny name, but he was also probably wrong about Cinderella and her famous footwear. Over the many centuries the story has existed, Cinderella, who has had lots of different names, has also had lots of different kinds of shoes. Some are silk and jeweled, some are intricately embroidered, or made of gold or silver, but none seem to ever be made of fur.
And while not every version of the story contains a great deal of magic, Perrault’s does. I tend to think that an author who chooses to include a fairy godmother, pumpkin coach, and mice that turn into horses probably wouldn’t hesitate to place his heroine in uncomfortable shoes just to make the story a little more magical.
Magic really is the reason I love it so much in the first place. I love the singing bubbles and the sewing mice and the fairy godmother. I love the memory of a magical day spent with my dad. And if I can believe that a teenage boy would take time out of his busy day to text his mom about the cool little historical Cinderella rumor he just heard, then I can believe my favorite princess wore really uncomfortable shoes.