A Cinderella story that says goodbye to pumpkins!
The 1998 romantic fairytale comedy seemed pleasant – I saw it twice at the cinema – but it is, I now believe, a vehicle for something much more profound. The centrality of Thomas More’s Utopia may be very significant. Like More’s treatise, Ever After bookends the main story with seemingly irrelevant stuffing, but this stuffing is key to the presentation that this is real. The old lady ends by telling the Grimm Brothers that “the important point is not that they lived happily ever after – but that they lived”. We wonder if Cinderella really was a 16th century noble turned servant who caught the eye of one of France’s many Prince Henrys. (That Cinderella has a real full name, and the mention of real contemporaries and lack of magic may make us waver – I’m afraid this is a pumpkin free presentation). We may quickly assume not – just as we realise that More’s Utopia is a made up word meaning ‘no land’, and that the progressive croissant shaped New World island is a society of his making.
Both are positing a world that could be, far enough ago and away to allow us to take on the ideas a little more easily than if they were just spouted to us about our own world.
And told in a story format, by a 3rd party linked to the tale, to give it weight.
The universal appeal of love overcoming all barriers is a myth that deep down we know to be true – or want to be. And Ever After is a tale of social levelling. Cinderella (or Danielle) is Prince Henry’s equal in every way but social standing. As Leonardo the fairy godmother substitute says, Cinderella is the Prince’s match – and that implies possibly his better – in strength, courage, morality, goodness and also education.
For the central theme of this story states that education – or more precisely, reading – is at the heart of equality. Henry’s education has come from privilege; Danielle’s from passion.
(Note the Step Sister’s comment: that books are for those who can’t think for themselves – we suspect we’re meant to think that the reverse is true). After meeting Danielle, Henry wants to make universities open to all.
Both Henry and Danielle resist the roles society expects of them, but Danielle’s unconventional father – who gave her Utopia – has allowed her to cross social and gender boundaries.
Those who want to enforce them are the wicked villains who get their comeuppance. The Step Mother and Step Sister so bent on titles and power end up as the very servants they despised, literally pushed to the bottom of the pile (or vat). Danielle sees her fellow servants as equals and friends, and we are encouraged to see them that way too. It is in defending one that the whole story begins.
In this, Danielle demonstrates not only is she well read, but thinks. She sees the injustices of the world and dares to speak out about them. Her intellectual bravery and evasiveness make her a kind of Anne Boleyn to a prince of the same name, who is captivated and determined to have her. Through Danielle, not only is her dear friend freed, but so are all those destined for America as a punishment. Her earliest words to Henry are a Utopia quote about poverty being a condition created by society, which those who created then punish.
The Prince, his family, and the nation accepts Danielle the former servant as part of the Royals – and the whole court knows as her status is exposed publicly at the ball. A group often excluded and discarded with a negative label – the Gypsies – is invited to the ball, like in the parable.
Ever After has further a biblical echo of the Magnificat – for the humble are lifted high whilst the proud are sent away empty. Religion is mentioned little – apart from the aborted arranged wedding, there is only a Sunday where our protagonists don’t go to church. Our villains do, to ingratiate themselves and flirt with royalty, rather than out of any wish for devotion. Danielle says her faith is best served out of church.
Couched as a rom com, Ever After is really a tale that invites us to make its tenets our Utopia. Its real ending is not “that they lived” but that they could and should, in our time.
NB This is not to suggest that I support Thomas More or his Utopia but a critique of that here spoils the overall piece