This week, I’ve decided to theme my posts on fairy tales, because they have played an integral part in shaping the writer I am today.
I was very fortune to grow up with a governess who loved to both read stories and tell them orally, and she had a fantastic repertoire of fairy tales from all different cultures – plus a vivid imagination that meant she invented her own. When I was seven, she proposed a new deal: she would continue to tell me her fairy tales, but only in exchange for my telling her ones of my own invention. Eagerly, I agreed.
Very quickly, dreaming up stories became a habit for me, and it followed naturally that I would progress from telling the tales to writing them down. By my mid-teens I was writing romance stories and circulating them in class; by my early twenties I was putting pen to paper for my very first romance novel. All of the stories I wrote then and since have their foundations in fairy tales, for in those age-old tales one finds the basis for romance in the modern era, from mood and tone to plot and symbolism.
Cinderella is the perfect example. This rags-to-riches story has been told over and over again from all different angles – just look at the success of Kiera Cass’s The Selection series, in which girls compete to win the affection of the prince and secure themselves a life of glamour and wealth. It is not the accession to fame and fortune that most resonates, though, I think. It is the symbol of Cinderella’s shoe.
Did you know that the Cinderella story dates back a long way, and exists in folklore in many different countries? In plenty of versions, the heroine loses her slipper, and it is through searching for the rightful owner of the slipper that the prince finds his match. The ninth-century Chinese story of Ye Xian, for example, has all the elements of the core plot, including Ye Xian losing her golden slipper while fleeing a party, and the king discovering it and searching for the alluring girl to whom it belongs. By the seventeenth century, the slipper had gained prominence: when French author Charles Perrault wrote his version of the story, he imagined an impossibly beautiful and fragile pair of slippers for his heroine, and entitled his story ‘Cendrillon, ou La petite Pantoufle de Verre’ – ‘Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slippers’.
What is so enduring about the shoe?
The slipper makes Cinderella look – and feel – beautiful
The feel part is what’s really important. She needs to dress up to have the confidence to go to the ball.
Women’s passion for beautiful footwear is notorious: a fabulous shoe can make a woman feel powerful and sexy. When a shoe is Cinderella-esque, it makes you feel like Cinderella – a girl on the cusp of living the dream and dancing with the prince.
No more has the Cinderella’s slipper symbol been more evident than in the hit television show Sex and the City, in which the heroine’s passion for shoes is centre-stage. That show made shoe designers like Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo household names, and perpetuated the fantasy not just of meeting Mr Right, but doing so in a pair of gorgeous heels.
The vulnerability of losing a shoe
Cinderella’s moment of being strong and confident vanishes as she flees the prince’s party at midnight, her enchanted finery melting away. The shoe she loses is the symbol of all she’s left behind, and without that shoe she is horribly vulnerable once more.
This is a scene that inspired me when I wrote my latest novel, Legacy. My heroine, Luna, goes exploring in the hills in search of a garden belonging to the hero, Ruy. But she gets lost in a storm, and loses a shoe.
Luna moved forward, tears and rain blurring her vision, thrashing her way through the maze of trees, arms striking out as if fighting invisible dragons, branches whipping and scratching her face and ripping her clothes. It wasn’t easy clambering, one foot shoeless, over roots and stumps in the dark, her toes sinking into wet leaf mould. The gusts of wind through the trees numbed her limbs, and the sole of her foot felt raw, making it increasingly painful to walk. She was exhausted. Violent shudders raked through her and panic took hold.
When Ruy finds her, she is in a state. Her vulnerability sparks in him concern, and a strong desire to care for her. In a move straight out of a fairy tale, he sweeps her up and carries her to safety.
The sensuality of the naked foot
Now we come to the real crux of the shoe symbolism. That moment when Prince Charming slides the shoe onto Cinderella’s foot is surely the most sensual of any fairy tale: the prince kneeling at her feet, gently holding her foot, sliding on the beautiful slipper that will make her feel strong once more and put her quite literally on his level when they stand… perfection!
In Legacy, I could not resist weaving in a similar moment when, back at Luna’s house, Ruy examines her injured foot:
The twigs and sharp rocks had cut into her delicate skin like so many viciously sharp knives.
‘I lost my shoe,’ she explained as she saw the dark brows gather in concern.
‘I know.’ He shook his head and replaced her foot gently in the water.
The soap in his hand was now rolling over her waist and flat stomach, arousing new and unexpected twinges of pleasure. She inhaled sharply.
Ruy’s hands stopped moving. ‘Am I hurting you?’ he asked, his voice low and husky.
Luna passed her tongue over her lips, her eyes full of misty sensuality as she silently met his molten gaze. She said nothing, and her lashes lowered once more.
So there you have it, the symbolism of the slipper. It’s enough to drive any woman to shoe shopping! If, like me, you are an ardent romantic and a faithful follower of fairy tales, here is your ultimate pair of shoes:
Designed in celebration of Cinderella, these magical Jimmy Choo shoes are custom made to order with several thousand Swarovski crystals. Stunning, don’t you think? With a £3,000 price tag, however, they are outside the reach of most of us. Still a girl can – and should – dream, don’t you think?