Hello, everyone! I’ve spent the last week speed-reading through Danielle Teller’s All The Ever Afters, the classic Cinderella tale retold with all of the somber realities of 15th century Europe. Like all adaptations of Cinderella, Teller’s novel aims to re-invent the age-old story for new eyes, but unlike all the other versions, Teller doesn’t care much for Cinderella herself. She focuses instead on the much maligned “evil” stepmother and Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters, demonstrating how classism and the black and white morality of Catholicism could have conspired to give Cinderella’s step family a bad rap.
In order for her to embody beauty and goodness, we have to be darkness and perversity. This is the way of mankind, and it has always been so, since God cast us out of the Garden of Eden. We can only know virtue by understanding vice.
Thus speaks Agnes, the protagonist of All The Ever Afters, also known as Cinderella’s Evil Stepmother. We all know the fairytale: Cinderella’s father marries a wicked widow who moves in her with her two horrid daughters and manipulates her new husband into spending all of his money on her daughters and forcing Cinderella to work as a servant. Through her kindness and serenity, Cinderella labors hard and accepts her fate, until one day, with the help of her generous fairy godmother, she meets a handsome prince and is whisked away from her life of poverty to live out her dreams as a princess.
It’s a beautiful tale, but Danielle Teller isn’t interested in fairy stories. Her “evil” stepmother is Agnes, a serf who gains her own freedom, opens her own business, raises two daughters single-handedly, and helps the master of her manor run his affairs. Agnes is clever, educated, tough, and resourceful, all qualities which would would be admired in modern times, but were seen as unusual and unnatural in the 15th century. Although Teller’s novel is written as a fictional tale, it often reads more like a descriptive history book. She goes in-depth on topics such as ale brewing, the laundering process, and the daily life of a convent servant, demonstrating an amazing variety of knowledge about life as a peasant in the Middle Ages. As such, Teller sometimes loses her grasp of the narrative aspect of her novel and it comes across as more of a biography. Some chapters left me feeling quite distant from the characters, as if I really was reading a work of history, but I also think this works in her favor because it creates a unique blend of history, fairytale, and fiction that I’ve rarely seen in a novel.
Cinderella has always been about how virtue and perseverance will result in reward, but Teller shows the folly of such a statement by writing Ella, or Elfida, as the complete opposite to Agnes. Born a gentlewoman to a lazy and indulgent father, Ella grows up to be vain and spoiled. She’s not a mean person, but she’s dreamy, idle, and a bit bizarre, obsessed with patterns and routine, opposed to loud noises and crowds, and fond of rats. Teller brilliantly takes all the characteristics of Cinderella that we’re supposed to love and turns them on their head by contrasting them with her stepmother Agnes. She shows how time after time, Agnes’s hard work and perseverance are disdained and negated because she’s a serf, while Ella is praised and adored merely for being a noblewoman. Agnes begins as Ella’s nurse, caring for her after her mentally-ill mother commits suicide. She tries her best to discipline Ella and to encourage her to work, but Emont finds it unnatural for Ella to labor as a servant. While Agnes’s own daughters love to work and to make themselves useful, Ella prefers to day-dream. Even though Agnes loves Ella, she sees past her astounding beauty and doesn’t mistake it for virtue.
Teller uses the historical framework of the time to re-organize the fairytale of Cinderella into its historical basis. Her main goal in writing the novel is to show how society in the late Middle Ages conflated beauty and goodness, as well as ugliness and evil, and how those sentiments could have infected classic fairytales. Her two ugly stepsisters take the form of Charlotte and Matilda, and although they are considered to be ugly by their peers (Charlotte is dark skinned and Matilda has small-pox scars), they are both intelligent and kind women. Yet because of their imperfect looks, they are considered to be inferior human beings by their community. Agnes is constantly comparing her own daughters to the beautiful Ella and often tries to make things better for them in any way she can, even if that means slighting Ella.
What I most appreciated in this novel was how Teller took the concept of “evil stepmother” and broadened into a discussion of motherhood itself. She asks us what it means to be a mother, or a stepmother, and if its possible to always be good and generous to our children that we can’t relate to. For instance, many of the elements of the Cinderella tale, like the fact that she was locked in an attic or made to be a servant, stem from quarrels between Agnes, her two natural daughters, and Ella. Because of their differences in upbringing, class, and personality, the three girls often fight and get on each other’s nerves, with Agnes interceding to find the best resolution. And while she tries to be fair, Agnes often chooses her daughter’s side over Ella’s. Teller uses Agnes’s parenting to show how the decisions made by a mother worn by deprivations might seem harsh to a upperclass girl like Ella. Thus, Agnes making Ella wash the manor’s laundry for a day becomes the rumor that she forced her to live like a servant, and Ella refusing to share her bedroom with Agnes’s daughters, and then moving to the attic, becomes imprisonment. The clash of classes is a nuanced take on the story. No one ever asked why the evil stepmother did what she did, or who she was before she became that stepmother. Teller dares us to ask that question and to re-examine our notions of class, motherhood, and virtue.
All The Ever Afters changes the adaptation game by bringing a new perspective to the table. Agnes is a true hero, and although she can seem harsh or cold-hearted, she’s a realistic depiction of an independent woman in a thoroughly patriarchal world. Fairy tales often show women in two ways: the virtuous and the damned. Cinderella has always been the virtuous one, while Agnes and her daughters have been relegated to the hellish shadows. By telling their side of the story, Teller gives a voice to all those damned women who were not beautiful nor virtuous enough to become Cinderellas.
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