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“In English none probably rival either the popularity, or the inclusiveness, or the general merits of the twelve books of twelve colours which we owe to Andrew Lang and to his wife.” — J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’
The twenty-five collections of fairy and folk tales, edited by Scottish folklorist Andrew Lang, were produced in a great and sustained effort of industry 1889 and 1913. The best known of Lang’s collections of tales are the 12 ‘Rainbow Fairy Books’ which were highly successful in their own time and are still much read, gifted and collected today. They comprise an eclectic assortment of stories often translated from earlier texts, which were themselves interpretations of stories from the oral traditions of many countries and cultures.
J. R. R. Tolkien, in his 1947 essay for the Andrew Lang lecture series at the University of St Andrews, referred to Lang’s books, as being “like stalls in a rummage-sale. Someone with a duster and a fair eye for things that retain some value has been round the attics and box-rooms”. Reflecting the great vogue for collection and taxonomy that characterises the Victorian age, Lang’s project was to gather narratives from an immense range of sources under the collective heading of ‘fairy stories’ and publish them for young readers.
Tolkien’s characterisation of Lang as ‘duster-offer’ – that is, curator and steward rather than author or originator – of these stories is an accurate one. Though it is Lang’s name which most often appears in the ‘author’ field of any institutional or commercial record of the fairy books, they were the result largely of the work of others: the numerous original transcribers of the stories, and of the skill and industry of a collective of translators and adaptors – mostly the female friends and relatives of Lang – whose individual names, talents and contributions often go unacknowledged. Critic Anita Silvey has noted that “The irony of [Andrew] Lang’s life and work is that although he wrote for a profession — literary criticism; fiction; poems; books and articles on anthropology, mythology, history, and travel […] he is best recognized for the works he did not write.”
Many stories from around the world appeared in English for the first time in Lang’s coloured volumes, and thus the work of skilled translators was not only necessary, but vital in shaping the way the stories were told. It is, perhaps, telling that, while Lang himself used some of the introductions to the fairy books to credit his wife and other female collaborators for their work in the production of the books (though perhaps not as explicitly, emphatically, or as often as might have been appropriate), posterity still largely remembers his name alone in connection with the series. Any account of the working practices, strategies and methods of these women in translating and adapting the tales for the collection is unfortunately unrecorded and therefore lost to us, and we have only Lang’s prefaces from which to glean information about how the books were made.
Sometimes acknowledged for her role in the production of the fairy books is Lang’s wife Leonora Blanche Lang (née Alleyne). Leonora Lang was an author, editor and translator, publishing a history of Russia by Arthur Rimbaud, translated from French, as well as a novel, Dissolving Views, published in 1884. Though Andrew Lang was an accomplished translator in his own right, his contribution towards the translations of the stories which appear in the fairy books was minimal, his input being limited to general editorial oversight and writing of the introductory prefaces to each volume.
Lang’s various introductions to the fairy books mention in passing no fewer than 17 women translators (including Leonora). Notable among these is May Kendall, who is attributed with abridging some of the tales in the first six fairy books, but who also wrote and published her own poems. ‘The Lay of Trilobite’, for example, is a caustic and humorous satire of evolutionist theory and contains a nascent feminist message. Kendall also collaborated with Lang on a Novella, That Very Mab (1885), which sketched a critique of English society at that time. Another named collaborator, Margaret Hunt, had published her own translation of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in 1884, which were introduced by Lang, as well as several novels. Her daughters, it seems, were also involved in Lang’s project; Miss Violet Hunt was named as the abridger of ‘Aladdin’ in The Blue Fairy Book and her sister Sylvia as a translator of German. Violet and Margaret Hunt were both campaigners for women’s rights, Violet going on to found the Women Writers Suffrage League and to co-found PEN.
Lang’s conscience was clearly uneasy about the extent to which he was erroneously identified as the writer of the fairy books. He used the preface of his significantly titled My Own Fairy Book (1895) to refer to himself as an ‘imposter’ who merely collected the stories together and ‘had them translated’. The last book in the rainbow series, The Lilac Fairy Book, is the first place that Lang acknowledges the full debt to his wife, if not his other female colleagues:
The fairy books have been almost wholly the work of Mrs. Lang, who has translated and adapted them from the French, German, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, and other languages.
My part has been that of Adam, according to Mark Twain, in the Garden of Eden. Eve worked, Adam superintended. I also superintend. I find out where the stories are, and advise, and, in short, superintend. I do not write the stories out of my own head. The reputation of having written all the fairy books (an European reputation in nurseries and the United States of America) is ‘the burden of an honour unto which I was not born.’ It weighs upon and is killing me...
Fairy tales remain a popular choice with book collectors, making excellent presents for children or nostalgic gifts for adults. The original gilt-decorated cloth bindings and illustrations by H. J. Ford make Lang’s fairy books attractive additions to a bookshelf. A complete set of the original 12 ‘rainbow’ fairy books can fetch up to £10,000, while finely bound versions, such as those from the Chelsea Bindery, are also popular. Collecting a full set of original editions can be a lengthy but enjoyable pursuit, and avid collectors can also look for the Large Paper editions of the first four fairy books, some of which are signed.