While Beauty Slept: A Novel
- By Elizabeth Blackwell
- 432 pp.
- Reviewed by Lyudmyla Mayorska
- March 13, 2014
“Sleeping Beauty” retold from the perspective of the queen’s maid and companion.
Written in the true voice of a fairy tale, While Beauty Slept recounts a familiar story. Once upon a time, a princess slept under a curse. Now, Elizabeth Blackwell presents us with a rather straightforward retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” from the point of view of the queen’s maid and companion, Elise.
Her journey leads Elise from a farm into the servant’s quarters of the royal castle, and soon enough into the queen’s chambers. She earns the trust of the queen, and rises in rank, while trying to find love and solve the mystery of her own birth.
The traditional part of the fable unfolds much as expected: Millicent, the king’s aunt, possesses a dark heart and darker powers. When not invited to the baby’s celebration and dismissed from the castle by the king, she curses Princess Rose. As a result, Millicent is banished from the kingdom, and the king and the queen are left with a fear of losing their daughter.
Meanwhile, Elise becomes queen’s rock and confidant and begins to consider her own happiness secondary to the happiness and safety of the royal family. Throughout the story, she is forced to make choices between settling down with a family of her own, or staying by the queen’s side and protecting Princess Rose from the infamous curse. Court intrigue and politics mix with human wants and desires, and become the background to the life of this young woman.
Elise is a lonely figure with no true friends, and the relationships she does develop seem a bit superficial, leaving the reader unsatisfied. She bonds with one of the servant girls, but their friendship is not a reliable one, and is overshadowed by jealousy and the difference in position that develops between them. As the time goes on, Elise also finds comfort in a closer relationship with Flora, Millicent’s sister. But their bond lacks depth. In spite of those unfulfilling friendships, Blackwell does resolve Elise’s love interest with grace. It seemed painfully real and human, and not the kind you would expect to find in a fairy tale.
Surprisingly, Princess Rose doesn’t quite take the center stage until the very end of the book. The reader’s attention and concern stays mostly with Elise, even while Rose remains the focus of the maid’s life.
The villain here, Millicent, possesses no redeeming qualities. She is as nasty and horrid as one would expect an evil witch to be. She becomes the undoing of her own sister Flora, takes hold of the queen, and even when banished, finds a way to cause mischief and sorrow.
Overall, I have to admit, I found the characters too predictable, with little to no surprises. Elise is hardworking and loyal, the king is proud and commanding, the queen is motherly and weak-minded, and Millicent is wicked and unforgivably evil. A lack of depth in the characters’ personalities might prevent readers from making strong connections, but the value of this story lies in the dark and magnificent setting and the magical voice.
As for that voice: while some might find the language inflated or even pompous, I embrace Blackwell’s rich, old-fashioned tone. Everything about it makes you feel like a child listening to the most beloved tale in front of a fireplace. You lose yourself in the story — the swords, the curses, and the spells — and can’t wait to find out what happens next.
Happily, Blackwell does not settle for any easy resolutions for her characters. From the get-go, the reader is aware that their lives are filled with hardship and struggle, and happy endings are not given out easily. Rest assured, the pages are filled with plagues, deaths, and broken hearts galore.
In spite of the predictable characters, the book holds a welcome, unexpected twist at the end. In fact, the last three pages of the book turned out to be my favorite, with a satisfying, unexpected conclusion to the story.
This novel is a much more straightforward retelling than recent fairytale spin-offs, and it lacks the originality in Cinder’s cyborg version of a Cinderella, or Splintered’s take on Alice in Wonderland. Despite its flaws, While Beauty Slept is an enjoyable book well worth reading.
Lyudmyla Mayorska writes fairy tales, teaches fifth grade, and hugs Rottweilers.