Traditional fairy tales frequently depict grisly acts of violence and cruelty. But readers realize the bloodthirstiness is fantasy because the infusion of magic creates a comforting disconnect. Barbara Comyns denies her readers this narrative comfort in her retelling of the Brothers Grimm’s The Juniper Tree. Comyns inverts The Juniper Tree to reflect a macabre tale of personal loss and familial repair. Ultimately her characters lack magical elements but instead experience terror from the prosaic. Readers realize that horror is not a fantastical element but a marker of our everyday lives.
The tale opens with protagonist Bella Winters escaping a dour existence. She finds self worth in a new job at an antique store. Behind the storefront she creates a placid home for herself and her daughter, Tommy. She befriends a wealthy couple, Gertrude and Bernard Forbes, who seem to live a gilded existence. When Gertrude dies in childbirth, the intricacies of Bella’s life change. She enters into a destitute marriage with Bernard while becoming the caretaker for his child. In so doing, Bella loses her individuality and ultimately capitulates this loss by committing murder. At this point she embodies an absolute image of the wicked stepmother. Indeed, her actions toward her stepson are depraved. But unlike traditional fairy tales, readers do not recast Bella as the antagonist. We read her gruesome actions but we understand her standpoint: we don’t blame her, we don’t see her as wicked, she’s dealing with grief and loss. Comyns rejects the image of a monolithic wicked stepmother and endows Bella with nuanced characterization.
Comyns uses quotidian occurrences and interactions as the basis for horror. For Bella it’s the emotional violence caused by her family and intimate partners. Bella reminds readers that the “hurt was mental” (11) not physical. Her former lover Stephan is a manipulative and degrading man-child. He often supersedes Bella’s individuality for his own self interest. Bella’s mother, simply known as Mother (chilling!), revels in acerbic abuse. In one particularly disturbing flashback, Mother decides to steal then disfigure her daughter’s beloved doll. Bella’s estranged father gave her the toy, therefore reminding Mother of the failed marriage. When Bella finds the doll the next morning “it was a wooden box… with only her legs, arms, and head coming out” (9). To ensure the painful separation between father and daughter remained intact, the doll lived on a shelf as a visible and horrible reminder of parental neglect.
Domestic confinement and adherence to traditional gender norms are the true source of terror for Comyns. Bella’s newfound independence delivers a reprieve from the abuse. For once both Bella and Tommy are content and this is due to Bella’s ability to regain agency. As the novel progresses, Bella finds more reasons to move into Bernard’s home. First to provide childcare and then act as a stand-in for the dearly departed Gertrude. A friend advises Bella that “you will lose everything if you did, your freedom, the shop, and your individuality” (131). As Bella surrenders her individuality, she descends deeper into psychological depression and mania. Comyns’ critique of a women’s loss of individuality skillfully acknowledges writers before her such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper or Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour.
The Juniper Tree is startling progressive in its depictions of difficult pregnancies, birth control, and women’s sexual, professional and social desires. More so, Bella is a single mother to a biracial daughter. Throughout the novel, Comyns includes references to racialized microaggressions directed toward Tommy. Throughout the novel characters remark on Tommy’s dark skin or as Mother so pointedly exclaims “Gracious! Her hair feels as wooly as it looks!” (61). Here Bella’s mother continues the verbal abuse while also embodying the larger societal tendency to marginalize specific groups of people. Comyns’ incorporation of microaggressions demonstrates an astute social consciousness. Yet she also demonstrates the overt racism a mother of a biracial child regularly endures. Bernard, who has expressed compassion and love for Tommy, accuses Bella of neglecting to care properly for his child because Bella was used to “looking after piccaninnies and wasn’t to be trusted with fine-skinned white children” (146). Bernard’s use of overt racism reflects the beliefs and practices that enable racism to persist in society. As for Bella, his racist diatribe against Tommy mirrors another type of systematic oppression that further subjugates.
The Juniper Tree is labeled as a feminist fairy tale even though I can’t find evidence that Comyns ever self-identified as a feminist. The novel is more of a negotiated reading of a fairy tale, offering both subversive and dominant understandings of social norms. For me a major source of terror was Bernard’s patronizing need to see Bella as his Pygmalion-esque project. Even further, Bella is often blinded by his paternalization and resigns herself to believing “that’s how he wanted it and anything he wanted was perfect to me” (127). Comyns is aware this mentality is problematic and even has Bella express the tongue-in-cheek quip “Bernard, how Women’s Lib would hate me if they knew how I felt about you” (127). They wouldn’t hate you, Bella, they’d hate the dominant ideology that has a stronghold on your perception of self.
Initially published in 1985, New York Review Books reissued The Juniper Tree this year with a new introduction by Sadie Stein. Considered a classic, The Juniper Tree reflects the timeless struggle women face in trying to balance their individuality against friendship, motherhood, professionalism, and misery. Comyns is a wordsmith and a storyteller that imbues the commonplace with an inextinguishable albeit terrifying light.