While Beauty Slept
WHILE BEAUTY SLEPT is the retelling of the tale of Sleeping Beauty. But author Elizabeth Blackwell excises the magic and fantasy to imagine the reality that could be at the root of a myth about a sleeping, enchanted princess. The result is a story of a rigid and vaguely medieval society in which women must find strength, power and identity in unexpected and often dangerous places.
Our narrator and guide to the Castle of King Ranolf and Queen Lenore, the town of St. Elsip and the world beyond, is Elise Dalriss. Raised on a small farm by her loving but overworked mother and the cruel man who adopted her, and with her many younger siblings, Elise is expected to work hard and eventually marry a man of similar station. Elise is bright and both pragmatic and dreamy, and wonders about life in the castle where her mother once worked. Castle service is one way for women in the kingdom to create a certain type of security for themselves, but Elise’s mother is hesitant to allow her to go. While the castle holds the promise of good food, better clothing and a bit of security, she knows it is also a treacherous place where women are at the mercy of men physically.
"WHILE BEAUTY SLEPT is an incredibly entertaining book. Blackwell does great things with the familiar fairy tale, giving its characters depth, vitality and context."
When Elise’s family is all but wiped out by an outbreak of pox, Elise finally makes her way to the castle. Her mother’s old connections (and secrets) secure her a job as a chambermaid, and her intelligence, hard work and kindness bring her to the attention of the Queen.
Queen Lenore is a beautiful and sad foreign-born woman whose passionate marriage has chilled after years of infertility. With the help of the King’s aunt, the power-hungry and fierce Millicent, she finally conceives. Elise as the Queen’s closest servant and trusted companion witnesses the pregnancy and then the terrible revenge Millicent promises the royal family after she is cast out of the castle when the baby is born. Millicent’s timid sister Flora, an elderly herbalist, does her best to protect the family from Millicent’s evil intentions, but they all live in fear as the baby, Princess Rose, grows into a beautiful and headstrong young woman. When Millicent’s retribution takes place, it is devastating for the entire kingdom and changes the lives of Elise and Rose in heartbreakingly complex ways.
WHILE BEAUTY SLEPT is an incredibly entertaining book. Blackwell does great things with the familiar fairy tale, giving its characters depth, vitality and context. Gone are the sorcery and spells, and in their place readers find the brutal truths of life led in the face of social, political, medical and emotional turmoil and uncertainty. The issue of gender and power are particularly rich, although love and marriage are the ideal outcomes, and the desire on the part of a woman for political power is understood to be corrupting. It is a novel that will appeal to many readers because of its strong writing, fascinating characters and engagement with complicated themes.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on February 28, 2014