I notice that there are two competing versions of the classic fairytale Snow White coming to the big screen this year: Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. I can only imagine the frustration of the opposing movie studios when each realised the other was creating a major motion picture based on the same story…
What I recall most about fairytales such as this that I was told as a child is the wicked stepmother figure, who always brought chills down my spine. In both of these films major Hollywood actresses have been cast as the stepmother – Charlize Theron and Julia Roberts. Theron isn’t a stranger to gritty roles, but Julia Roberts is better known as the lovely, attractive heroine of romantic comedy films like Notting Hill and My Best Friend’s Wedding. Interestingly, Roberts has already explored what it means to be a stepmother in the Susan Sarandon film Stepmom, in which she played a woman stepping into the shoes of a dying mother.
In these two remakings of the classic fairytale, I don’t expect any careful exploration of the motives of a stepmother. The stepmother’s role in Snow White is simply to be the evil antagonist, out to ruin the beautiful heroine. But when I was writing my book Burning Embers, it did give me cause to consider the other side of the wicked stepmother character.
In Burning Embers, Coral is returning to the place of her birth, her father’s plantation, and leaving her mother behind her in England. She is bereaved following the recent death of her father, and the discovery that he had remarried and that she has a stepmother about whom she knows nothing is a rude shock. Worse, Cybil turns out to be beautiful, controlling and a rather youthful woman. Even worse, it appears she was having an affair. And worst of all, it appears that Cybil is involved with Rafe, the man with whom Coral is falling in love.
With so many angles to explore in Burning Embers, and wanting to keep the focus on the central story of the love between Coral and Rafe, I chose not to develop the character of Cybil in detail. She comes across in the book as unpleasant, jealous and possessive. But every author knows much more about a story and its characters in her mind than she writes on the page. And I have wondered about Cybil. What chance has she, in the mix, to be anything other than a ‘wicked’ stepmother? What drives her to desire Rafe so? Is she grieving? Is she lonely? Is she really wicked, or just sad and desperate? Will she ever find love herself?
I will leave you to make up your own mind about the stepmother in my tale, but one thing is sure: for Rafe, there can be only one fairest in the land. The question is, who will it be?